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Why and How Kevin Spacey Channeled Jimmy Stewart for Carol Burnett on Colbert's 'Late Show'
October 19, 2015  | By David Bianculli  | 3 comments
 

One of the best bits to date from CBS’s Late Show with Stephen Colbert will be repeated Tuesday night at 11:35 ET: Kevin Spacey’s literally poetic salute to Carol Burnett. And I recently got the whole behind-the-scenes story, from both Burnett and Spacey themselves…

On Wednesday, Sept. 16, on his seventh outing as the new Late Show host, Stephen Colbert brought out Carol Burnett as his opening guest – then surprised her by bringing out Kevin Spacey, who surprised her even more by dropping into an impression of Jimmy Stewart, and reading her a poem, just as Stewart used to do to Johnny Carson decades ago when he appeared on NBC’s The Tonight Show. It was a beautiful bit, and a remarkably effective way to market the new Carol Burnett Show: The Lost Episodes DVD set from Time-Life, available as both a six-DVD set and a giant 22-disc collector’s set.

Here’s the segment:


Now, here’s how it happened.

By coincidence, I already had scheduled unrelated interviews with both Burnett and Spacey, for a book I’m writing on the history of quality television. But I couldn’t help asking about that Late Show spot, and they both had a lot to say about it.

Spacey, on his part, had been trying to schedule a Late Show appearance earlier, but Sept. 16 was the first workable date. And when he learned that the other guest on that same show would be Carol Burnett, Spacey went into high fanboy and creative gear.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my God!’” Spacey recalled. “I grew up watching Carol Burnett and adoring her, and adoring the whole nature of the variety program and some of the characters that she played…

“Then on top of that, of course, on her very last taping of The Carol Burnett Show, Jimmy Stewart was the surprise guest. And if you’ve not seen that, it’s hysterical – because Tim Conway comes out at one moment when she thinks she’s about to do something else and he makes this whole little speech about, 'Look, Carol, it’s your last show, and there’s been a guy who’s been here every single day…that we’ve been doing the show, we’ve never let him on the show, and – you know, he’s got his piano, and I think it’s time we just let him on the show because it’s the last one. If you don’t mind, here he goes.'

“And so, when the curtain rose up and she turned around, and Jimmy Stewart was sitting at the piano she screeeamed like a teenager. And then wept, after he sang a hilarious song…written to the tune of ‘Ragtime Cowboy Joe.’

“Over the years, she had talked publicly about Jimmy Stewart having been her idol, about how she grew up loving his movies, and loving him – and then, of course, she got to know him a little bit.

“So,” Spacey continued, “when I heard she was on the show… I thought, what if they actually let me come out during Carol Burnett’s time and I did Jimmy Stewart for her? So then I was trying to think about, ‘Well, what could I do if I did Jimmy Stewart to her?’ And then I remembered these sort of remarkable couple of times that Jimmy Stewart was on The Tonight Show and he’d read these poems that he wrote.

“And one in particular was the one he wrote about his dog named Beau. Which is a really quite remarkable thing when you consider that the idea today, of an actor going on to a talk show and reading a poem, is so foreign to what’s happened to our talk shows, right?

“Then I thought, ‘Wow! That particular poem was so revelatory and moving. It started out as sort of comedic and by the end of it Johnny Carson was crying and Jimmy Stewart was crying. And it’s a sort of remarkable moment.”

Here it is, from NBC's The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, July 28, 1981:

Spacey pitched his idea to the Late Show folks: He’d like to imitate Jimmy Stewart, and appear with Carol Burnett to read her a poem written in the style of Jimmy Stewart.

“It might have sounded like I was sort of an insane person,” Spacey said, laughing. But after the Late Show staffers did their homework, they loved the idea. But they couldn’t judge the poem, because Spacey hadn’t written it yet. He assured them, though, it would “be very much in the flavor of what Jimmy Stewart would have done.”

So they set it up, with Carol Burnett being the first guest – because she had a Lost Episodes event to attend after the taping – and Kevin Spacey scheduled for later. Colbert introduced her – then, as Conway had done to her all those years ago on The Carol Burnett Show, said there was a fan in the wings waiting to meet her. It was Spacey, who sat next to her, pulled out a pair of eyeglasses and some paper, and began stammering and talking, Jimmy Stewart style.

“She had no idea of any of this,” Spacey swore. “And it was so genuine and her reaction to it was exactly what I hoped…

“I was so pleased to be able to make her smile and make her laugh,” he added, “and it meant the world.”

From her side of the surprise Carol Burnett’s reaction was equally emotional and genuine. Here she was, on the stage of The Sullivan Theater – which, under its earlier name of the Hammerstein Theater, was where she first starred on television, as one of the variety-show regulars of CBS’s The Garry Moore Show – when her scheduled discussion of The Carol Burnett Show: The Lost Episodes was interrupted by an unexpected walk-on appearance.

“I just about died!” she told me. “Oh, I was overwhelmed. I was so thrilled. Because…I’m in love with Kevin Spacey!”

The first time she saw him was in Lost in Yonkers, but she’s followed him lovingly for years: his comic impressions on Inside the Actors Studio, his brilliant dramatic acting on Netflix’s House of Cards, and everything in between (“Plus, he sings up a storm,” she added approvingly). When he stepped out on the Late Show stage early, during her segment, she had no idea what to think – at first.

“I was so – as my friend Julie Andrews would say, she uses a terrific British saying – I was ‘gobsmacked!’

 “I’ve been a huge fan, so when he came out and started to do Jimmy Stewart, I was just – I was in heaven.”

When, I asked her, did she realize what he was up to?

“I think,” she replied, “when he pulled out the sheet of paper and put his glasses on. I thought, ‘Is he really going to do –’  Then all he had to do was go, ‘Aww Aww,’ you know, like Jimmy, and I knew right away, of course! I lapped it up! …I just loved it!...

“There he was, Kevin Spacey, my favorite now, and Jimmy Stewart, my favorite my whole life. And all in one whole ball of wax!”

The two-person mutual admiration society then exchanged gifts – one on-camera, one afterward.

“I gave her the poem right after I did it, right on the air,” Spacey said. “I handed it to her. She had it. And then we went backstage and we spent a little bit of time together, and she just talked about how moving that was for her, and what Jimmy Stewart meant to her, and she couldn’t believe that I did it, and I wrote it myself, and no comedy writer wrote it. I said, ‘No, I wrote it myself.’”

“Yes,” Burnett confirmed, laughing appreciatively, “I have the poem.” And when Spacey told her he’d really like to have some of those Lost Episodes DVDs, she made sure he got some before he left New York.

According to Spacey, she wrote him a message on the box set: “ ‘Who’s my hero now!,’ with a big exclamation point.

“Yeah,” he said, sighing loudly. “It’s really lovely.”

 
 
 
 
 
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3 Comments
 
 
steve sauthoff
when Spacey put on the glasses I saw Jack Benny
Oct 22, 2015   |  Reply
 
 
Mac
A good time to mention that Antenna TV,one of those broadcast retro channels(and,yes,there is a Retro Channel,but I digress) will be spooling full one hour episodes of Carson early 2016(90 minute versions on weekends). Material comes from Carson's vault. When Johnny came out to Burbank in 1972,he had ownership of the hour and preserved every episode. Soon,in between ads for catheters that don't hurt as much and sleezy diet pills that don't work,you can bask in the light of a thousand points of Reagan jokes and golf swings backed by drummer Ed Shaughnessy,knowing just how hot or cold it was that day. Hiyo!
Oct 20, 2015   |  Reply
 
 
John
It really was a lovely moment!
Oct 19, 2015   |  Reply
 
 
 
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