An Interview with a Quintessential New York Interviewer

TV veteran Bill Boggs on a risky question he once asked Martha Stewart, the disclaimer on his new novel and what ensued when John Belushi came to his set

| 28 Nov 2021 | 05:30

Bill Boggs’ storied career is replete with moments that most could only dream of having in their professional lives. The Emmy Award winner has done everything from conducting the longest interview with Frank Sinatra to reporting ringside on the Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield ear-bite fight.

The Philadelphia native moved to New York in 1975 when he was asked to take over hosting duties on “Midday Live,” a 90-minute TV program that aired on Fox and covered diverse topics with a wide range of guests, such as Ed Koch discussing water shortages or Michael Douglas promoting a new film.

When Boggs’s last show (of the staggering 15 he hosted or contributed to) went off the air, he was in his early 70s, and that’s when he decided to redefine himself as a writer. The TV-star-turned-author published his third book, “The Adventures of Spike the Wonder Dog: As told to Bill Boggs,” last year, which he describes as “absurdist humor” in an “observational comedy voice.” The satirical novel reimagines the life of his beloved dog and work sidekick, who sadly passed away before he came to New York, and what would have happened if he was with him in the city and socializing in celebrity circles.

With his girlfriend of 11 years, Jane Rothchild, Boggs now splits his time among residences in Manhattan, East Hampton and Palm Beach. Besides performing in multimedia stage shows which focus on different aspects of his career, he is currently working on a “Spike” sequel.

My father was on your show in the ‘80s. He was a chef at Georges Rey, a French restaurant in Midtown and did a cooking demo. We have the VHS tape somewhere.

One of the shows that I did was called “Saturday Morning Live.” I did that on Channel 5 while I was doing “Midday.” And we had a chef on every weekend, so it could have been that show or it might have been the “Midday” show. That’s great. Tell him I said hello.

Since “Midday” was live, what is a memorable moment or mishap that happened?

Well, I’ll give you one example. John Belushi was on the show. We did a show on comedy and we had David Brenner, Michael O’Donoghue and Steve Allen. The night before the show, I’m dancing around at Studio 54 and who suddenly is in front of me, but Belushi. And he recognizes me from TV and I obviously recognize him, and he says, “Who’s on the show tomorrow?” I go, “Steve Allen,” and he stops. “Steve Allen is on the show? I love Steve Allen.” So I said, “John, why don’t you come?” I told him to get there at 11 o’clock. 11, no Belushi, 11:10, no Belushi. And I keep calling him, there’s no answer. Then I call and he picks up and I go, “John, it’s Bill Boggs,” and he says, “F**k you,” and hangs up. Finally, I call and he answers and I said, “John, Steve Allen. Steve Allen.” And he goes, “Uhh all right, I’ll be there.”

So a half hour into the show, Belushi comes in the back door, crawls across the floor like a lizard, crawls up onto the set into a chair. We put a mic on him. There’s a clip of this, which you can see on the YouTube channel. I ask him to sing, because I knew he liked to sing. So I actually get him to sing an Elvis Presley song and he repays me for forcing him to sing by kicking over the table and knocking water on everybody. I walked him out after the show and he looks at me and says, “Bill, you’re going to remember this one for a long time.” And here we are all these years later, talking about it. Wonderful fellow, great talent, and big life.

You also did a famous interview with Sinatra. Was it really the longest interview he ever did? How did that one come about?

As far as I know, it was the longest nonstop interview. I think it was longer than “The Larry King Show.” I mean we got into almost 90 minutes with Frank. The interesting note about that is it was the first time he was ever on a talk show. This is how it happened. I explain this in one of my stage shows. We went to Las Vegas Easter weekend. Friends of mine were celebrating a friend’s birthday. They persuaded me to come. I had to go directly to the airport from doing “Midday” to fly out. And they said, “Elvis and Sinatra are both performing at different hotels. We’ll go see them both on the same night.” So the first show, we went to see Elvis. And then, I don’t know what we did, we were partying all day. Then the second show, we go see Sinatra ... At about 2:30 in the morning, I’m walking around and I ran into Jilly Rizzo and he knew me because of something I did with Sammy Davis Jr.. He stopped me and said, “Bill, would you like to meet Frank?” I said, “Of course.” He said, “Come back to the Galleria at about 4 o’clock and I’ll introduce you.”

I’m a huge Sinatra fan ... My mother was a bobby-soxer. I had already seen him perform several times. I walk over at 4 o’clock. Jilly introduces me. And Frank and I have this terrific conversation. It’s Easter Sunday morning. At the end of the say 10 minutes, he says to me, “Jilly told me you have a show on 5 in New York.” He said, “I don’t want to promise you anything, but I’m going to be in New York in September. Maybe I’ll swing by and do your show.” And you know what I said? Instinct. I put both my hands up, like palms up, “Frank, I’m not asking for anything.” And he takes my hand down and pulls me in close and he says, “Billy, I know you’re not asking. Maybe I’ll come.” And he did.

What’s a risky question you once asked one of your guests?

I was on my Food Network show, “Bill Boggs’ Corner Table,” where I’d sit down with celebrities, interview them in their favorite restaurants, have lunch and meet the chef. It was the first non-straight cooking show that they did. I was at Jean-Georges restaurant, right there on Columbus Circle with Martha Stewart. Martha Stewart had been on “Midday” a couple of times and I always had a little bit of a crush.

I saw that interview!

Well, you’ve done your research. That’s the example. I said, “Do you think you’d ever get married again?” She said, “The gardener.” I said, “He could just be a guy with a really good show on cable.” She said, “Bill, are you proposing to me at lunch?” Well, of course I wasn’t really proposing. The woman who was the producer, her mouth is hanging open, her eyes are rolling like, “What has he done?” I think that’s a good example.

You also interviewed Evander Holyfield shortly after the ear bite.

There was a period of time where I was working for both Showtime doing a show called “Championship Boxing Report Update” and working on the Food Network ... Holyfield had been booked prior to the ear bite. I also covered the ear bite fight, I was right there, ringside. His people call and say, “Bill, Evander loves you.” You know, that typical crap. “But don’t ask him about the ear bite. He’s sick and tired of talking about it.” Then I’ve got the Food Network saying, “Make sure you get him to talk about the ear bite.” So flying out to Atlanta to do the show at his restaurant, I was thinking, “How can I ask him a question about the ear bite so he won’t get pissed off?” And if you look at the video, the question I asked him was, “When you woke up the next morning and looked in the mirror, what did you think?” And at first, you can see he doesn’t like it. Then he smiles and gives me an answer.

Your dog Spike was the inspiration for the book you released last year.

On the show “Southern Exposure,” [which he hosted in North Carolina before coming to New York] I had my own dog, who was a white English Bull Terrier like Spuds MacKenzie with a little spot on his eye. And the dog was on the show one day and started yawning, looking at the guests, and people loved it, and it was in the paper. And I called him “Spike, the Wonder Dog.” I did all kinds of stuff on the show with him. I filmed bits with him. He was on a couple times a week. And he was very popular — he got more mail than I did. Now, shortly before coming to New York, he gets killed by a drunk driver. It was horrible, right in front of my eyes.

The idea that struck me, and I can’t remember when it came into my feeble mind, was this. What if Spike hadn’t gotten killed and came with a guy like me, a talk show host, in today’s world, starting in North Carolina and then the host comes to New York, following the arc of my career, but not a memoir. So I sat down to write it, and within the first two minutes of sitting at the computer, the voice of the dog came through me, meaning the dog narrates the book. It’s called “The Adventures of Spike the Wonder Dog: As told to Bill Boggs,” not “by Bill Boggs.”

Tell us about the disclaimer you put on the cover and why you chose to do that.

First off, thank you. You’re one of the few people who even bothered to ask me that question. Well, I started my career in comedy. And then in the early ‘80s, my production company, Boggs Baker Productions, produced the first show in the history of television that featured all these standup comedians. We had 452 standup comedians booked in two seasons. It was called “Comedy Tonight.” Some really terrific talent came; Whoopi was on a few times.

So comedy has been very important to me and several of my friends who are comedians are having great difficulty just being a comedian. Comedy, in and of itself, is transgressive. Our culture today is an extraordinarily sensitive culture with people being easily offended and then vilified [on social media] ... I said, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to put a warning on the cover so if they come after me, I can say, “Wait a minute, I warned you. Why did you read it?””

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