David Letterman presided over nearly 20,000 guest appearances during his 33 years in late-night television, a mind-boggling tenure that comes to an end Wednesday with his final “Late Show” on CBS.
One of those appearances transcends all others for me, mostly because it encapsulates what Letterman does better than anyone else: the celebrity interview.
Actor Joaquin Phoenix’s visit to the Ed Sullivan Theater in 2009 is legendary — and for good reason.
An aloof, sunglasses-wearing Phoenix appeared to be stoned out of his gourd as he sat on the “Late Show” couch, lobbing terse, awkward answers at Letterman’s increasingly bemused questions. (Phoenix later revealed that his persona was a ruse cooked up by him and Casey Affleck to promote their mockumentary, “I’m Still Here.” Whatever.)
Phoenix must have thought he was going to be in the driver’s seat with this stunt, but he underestimated Letterman’s ability to roll with it and instead got rolled over by the sardonic late-night host.
“Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight,” Letterman quipped at the end of their head-scratching exchange, spun into comedy gold by the Midwest native whose disdain for Hollywood B.S. ranks as one of his many strong suits. Letterman has never been one to suffer fools gladly, especially show-business fools.
The guest list for Letterman’s final three days on the air includes Tom Hanks, who made his first appearance April 4, 1984, when Letterman helmed NBC’s “Late Night.” It’s Hanks’ 60th time as a Letterman guest. Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder will be in the house for a performance backed by Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra.
Tuesday marks Bill Murray’s final appearance on the show. Bringing things full circle, the Wilmette native was Letterman’s first invitee when “Late Night” premiered Feb. 1, 1982. The interview-averse comic also was at the front of a long line of “Late Show” visitors when the CBS program debuted Aug. 30, 1993.
Bob Dylan will perform on the show Tuesday for the first time in almost 22 years.
CBS has been tight-lipped about what’s in store for Wednesday’s big farewell, vaguely promising “an hour filled with surprises, memorable highlights, the show’s final Top Ten List and more.” Even the network’s head honcho, Les Moonves, said he has no idea what Letterman has cooked up for the finale.
As we prepare to say goodbye Wednesday to the biggest game changer in late-night history, take a gander at some of the memorable guests who’ve graced the Ed Sullivan Theater over the years: