The Late Shift (film)

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The Late Shift
The Late Shift.jpg
DVD cover
Talk show
Written by George Armitage
Bill Carter
Directed by Betty Thomas
Starring John Michael Higgins
Daniel Roebuck
Kathy Bates
Rich Little
Treat Williams
Theme music composer Ira Newborn
Country of originUnited States
Original languageEnglish
Executive producers Ivan Reitman
Joe Medjuck (co-executive producer)
Daniel Goldberg (co-executive producer)
Producer Don Carmody
Cinematography Mac Ahlberg
Editor Peter Teschner
Running time95 minutes
Production companies HBO Pictures
Northern Lights Entertainment
Original network HBO
Original release
  • February 24, 1996 (1996-02-24)

The Late Shift is a 1996 American television film produced by HBO. It was directed by Betty Thomas and based on the book of the same name by The New York Times media reporter Bill Carter.



In 1991, behind-the-scenes network politics embroil television executives responsible for NBC's late-night programming. Johnny Carson has hosted The Tonight Show for decades, but he and his audience are both growing older, leaving NBC to anticipate the day when a new host will be needed. Carson's permanent guest host, Jay Leno, and the host of the show that follows Carson's each night, David Letterman, both vie for Carson's job. It is widely assumed that Letterman is the hand-picked heir apparent whom Carson favors, but NBC executives privately speculate that Leno could be more popular with 11:30 p.m. audiences, as well as easier for the network to control. They also would not have to deal with Letterman's stipulation for ownership rights to the show.

Leno's manager, Helen Kushnick, secures the spot for Leno with negotiating tactics that could be construed as either shrewd or unethical. Leno is concerned that her methods might alienate Carson, but does not wish to be disloyal, as he believes that she has been responsible for his success; in addition, he had promised to take care of her after her husband's death. Kushnick harshly instructs Leno to just keep telling jokes and leave the business end to her. Surely enough, Kushnick secures the producer's position for herself at The Tonight Show, on the condition that no public announcement will be made. Letterman continues to believe he is still in contention for the position.

In the spring of 1991, Carson unexpectedly announces his retirement, effective in one year. NBC executives inform an angry Letterman they have selected Leno to replace Carson. Leno takes over in May 1992, but Kushnick's bullying manner angers Leno's colleagues, potential guests, and others to the point of interfering with network airtime and relationships. NBC executives warn the mild-mannered Leno that they are going to fire Kushnick and, if he sides with her, he would be let go as well. Kushnick is dismissed by NBC and barred from the studio lot. Despite Kushnick's pleas to keep his promise to take care of her and her daughter, Leno is angry because she nearly cost him a dream job. After a heated argument, Leno fires Kushnick and ends their friendship. Later, Leno eavesdrops on an executive meeting in which they discuss the possibility of replacing him with Letterman.

Letterman, devastated at being passed over, hires Hollywood superagent Michael Ovitz to negotiate on his behalf; Ovitz promises that not only will Letterman be offered an 11:30 p.m. show, he will be offered it by every network. True to Ovitz's word, Letterman is courted by all the major networks and syndicates. He provisionally accepts an offer from CBS that gives him an 11:30 p.m show, but continues to hold on to his lifelong dream of hosting The Tonight Show. Per Letterman and NBC's contract, NBC still has several months to either match CBS's offer or present an acceptable counteroffer to keep Letterman. Producer Peter Lassally, close to both Carson and Letterman, finally convinces NBC to offer Letterman the Tonight Show position. However, NBC's offer is substantially weaker than CBS's and would force Letterman to wait until May 1994 to take over the show. Lassally, disappointed at NBC's offer, makes it clear to Letterman that the Tonight Show job is now "damaged goods" and Dave would be working with the very people who passed him by, who may also double-cross him. In addition, Lassally warns Letterman that he will be vilified in the press for forcing Leno out.

Taking Lassally's suggestion, Letterman calls Carson to ask for advice; Carson says he would probably leave NBC if he were in Letterman's position. Letterman rejects NBC's counteroffer and accepts CBS's offer to host his own 11:30 show beginning in the fall of 1993. Letterman and Leno ultimately go head to head at 11:30, with Letterman winning in the TV ratings in the beginning, then Leno firmly re-establishing The Tonight Show's lead in the ratings.


Kathy Bates Helen Kushnick
John Michael Higgins David Letterman
Daniel Roebuck Jay Leno
Bob Balaban Warren Littlefield
Ed Begley, Jr. Rod Perth
Peter Jurasik Howard Stringer
Reni Santoni John Agoglia
John Kapelos Robert Morton
Steven Gilborn Peter Lassally
John Getz Brandon Tartikoff
Lawrence Pressman Bob Wright
Sandra Bernhard Herself
Treat Williams Michael Ovitz
Paul Elder Rupert Murdoch
Michael Fairman Michael Gartner
Ken Kragen Himself
Aaron Lustig Paul Shaffer
Kevin Scannell Dick Ebersol
Edmund L. Shaff Jack Welch
Kerry Noonan Letterman's girlfriend
Rich Little Johnny Carson
Little Richard Himself
Nicholas Guest Bob Iger
Penny Peyser Susan Binford
Lucinda Jenney Debbie Vickers
Arthur Taxier Lee Gabler

Real-life CBS executive Rod Perth (played by Ed Begley Jr. in the film) appears briefly in a cameo role. (He is the person Howard Stringer mistakes for Perth in the CAA lobby). Actor Ed Begley Jr. and Rod Perth share an extraordinary physical resemblance, something the film makers milk for humor in the scene.


The film received seven Emmy Award nominations in categories including "Outstanding Made for Television Movie," [1] makeup, [2] casting, [2] writing, [3] directing, [1] and acting. [1] For her role in the film as Helen Kushnick, actress Kathy Bates won awards from the American Comedy Awards, [4] the Golden Globe Awards, [5] the Satellite Awards, [6] and the Screen Actors Guild Awards. [7] The film was also recognized with an award for "Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Specials" from the Directors Guild of America Awards. [8] However, David Letterman, who saw clips of the film, called the movie "the biggest waste of film since my wedding photos." He also likened John Michael Higgins' portrayal to that of a "psychotic chimp." Letterman invited Higgins onto his program, but Higgins declined. [9]

Awards and nominations

1996 Artios Award Best Casting for TV Movie of the WeekNancy FoyNominated [10]
Emmy Award Outstanding Individual Achievement in Casting for a Miniseries or a SpecialNancy Foy, Phyllis HuffmanNominated [2] [10]
Outstanding Individual Achievement in Directing for a Miniseries or a SpecialBetty ThomasNominated [1] [10]
Outstanding Individual Achievement in Makeup for a Miniseries or a SpecialJune Westmore, Monty Westmore, Sharin Helgestad, Del Acevedo, Matthew W. MungleNominated [2] [10]
Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing for a Miniseries or a SpecialBill Carter, George ArmitageNominated [3] [10]
Outstanding Made for Television MovieIvan Reitman, Joe Medjuck, Daniel Goldberg, Don CarmodyNominated [1] [10]
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a SpecialTreat WilliamsNominated [1] [10]
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a SpecialKathy BatesNominated [1] [10]
1997 American Comedy Award Funniest Female Performer in a TV Special (Leading or Supporting) Network, Cable or SyndicationKathy BatesWon [4] [10]
DGA Award Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Dramatic SpecialsBetty Thomas, Jake Jacobson, Richard Graves, Robert LorenzWon [8] [10]
Golden Globe Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TVKathy BatesWon [5] [10]
Satellite Award Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TelevisionKathy BatesWon [6] [10] [11]
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TelevisionTreat WilliamsNominated [10] [11]
Screen Actors Guild Award Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a TV Movie or MiniseriesKathy BatesWon [7] [10]


Kushnick filed a $30 million lawsuit against Bill Carter, author of the eponymous book upon which the HBO film was based, claiming libel. Specifically, her case related to a claim that she planted a story about Carson's retirement in the New York Post . [12] The then-pending lawsuit was noted in the film's epilogue, as the Broadway tune "There's No Business Like Show Business" plays. The lawsuit settled out of court for an undisclosed sum; Kushnick died of cancer in August 1996. [13]


On January 19, 2010, during Conan O'Brien's final week as host of "The Tonight Show," guest Quentin Tarantino jokingly suggested he direct a sequel to The Late Shift, cast O'Brien as himself and make it a revenge movie in the style of his film Kill Bill with the title Late Shift 2: The Rolling Thunder of Revenge. [14] [15] [16] The Toronto Star reported in February 2010 that a sequel to The Late Shift film was in planning stages. [17] In the final episode of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien , O'Brien said that he wished actress Tilda Swinton could portray him in a film version of The Tonight Show conflict, [18] referring to a running gag about their similar appearance. Swinton subsequently expressed interest in being cast as Conan O'Brien in a sequel to The Late Shift. [19]

When asked in a June 2010 Movieline interview if there was going to be a film adaptation of The War for Late Night , Carter responded that plans were not serious at that point, stating, "Not really. Nothing serious. Let’s put it this way: There have always been people kicking it around because they think it’s funny. ... Letterman made a ... joke saying that Max von Sydow should play him. So, you know, people are just kicking it around like that." [20] Actor Bob Balaban, who portrayed NBC executive Warren Littlefield in the film The Late Shift, said he wanted to portray Jeff Zucker, saying that actor Jason Alexander would also be a good choice for the part. [21]

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Further reading