THE LATE SHIFT, which was made for HBO in 1996, could hardly be more timely as it is now. With Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien hogging news headlines in their struggle over NBC's THE TONIGHT SHOW, you may want to take a look back at the first time Leno found himself in competition for the TONIGHT SHOW throne. Then, it was against Johnny Carson's heir apparent David Letterman.
New York Times journalist Bill Carter and NIGHT CALL NURSES screenwriter George Armitage penned HBO's adaptation of Carter’s non-fiction book. The film was nominated for seven Emmys, including the screenplay, director Betty Thomas (THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE), and supporting actress Kathy Bates (MISERY) for her balls-out depiction of Helen Kushnick, the bulldoggish manager of comedian Jay Leno. THE LATE SHIFT is entertaining, well-paced, sometimes funny, always fascinating, and slightly cartoony, though hardly more so than the real-life story it dramatizes.
THE LATE SHIFT examines NBC’s passing of its TONIGHT SHOW torch from Carson to Leno, which forced its LATE NIGHT star Letterman to move to CBS and start a competing comedy show. John Michael Higgins (ALLY MCBEAL) nails Letterman’s self-loathing and acerbic wit pretty well, while Daniel Roebuck (LOST), buried under plastic makeup that makes him look more like the Burger King than anything human, plays Jay like an obedient puppy dog trapped under the heel of forceful Kushnick (who was livid with the way Carter portrayed her in his best seller).
Roebuck and Higgins are pretty good, considering how familiar we are with the stars they’re portraying, but acting honors go to Bates’ profane portrayal of the pushy Kushnick and to Treat Williams’ super-slick super-agent Michael Ovitz. Bob Balaban was the natural choice to play befuddled NBC executive Warren Littlefield, following his funny turn as a disguised Littlefield on SEINFELD.
The breezy supporting cast also includes Reni Santoni (DIRTY HARRY) as an unsympathetic John Agoglia, John Kapelos (THE BREAKFAST CLUB) as Letterman producer Robert Morton, Peter Jurasik, Ed Begley Jr., John Getz, Steven Gilborn, Lawrence Pressman, Penny Peyser, Sandra Bernhard, Nicholas Guest, Marta Kristen (LOST IN SPACE), and Rich Little as a caricature of Johnny Carson.