David Letterman Could Succeed Johnny Carson, but He Frets That the Last Laugh Would Be on Him

UPDATED 02/04/1980 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/04/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

In 1975 David Letterman was a $16,000-a-year talk jockey for a hometown Indianapolis radio station and, hubba-hubba, was he cute. He announced Communist invasions of the city. He reported that Guam had purchased a prized town monument because it resembled its national vegetable, the asparagus. He said that the Indianapolis 500 would be held on Interstate 70 to allow for more seats on the straightaway. And he mercilessly razzed a TV newscaster across town named Jane Pauley.

Yet today, at 32, the six-foot-tall, slightly buck-toothed comedian has a two-year NBC contract "in the low to middle six figures," a full slate of club dates and—most astonishingly—is an early favorite to replace Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. "David is up there at the top of the list," admits network chief Fred Silverman of the novice who in a year has risen from obscurity to become Carson's most frequent substitute. "He's a good listener and has a brilliant reaction too. One of Johnny Carson's great abilities is his reactive sense, and David has that," adds Silverman. But, pressed, Fred discreetly refuses to name the other five contenders on his short list, and escapes, noting "I think David has a very promising future with NBC."

"I happen to know Fred Silverman doesn't even speak English, so what the hell does he know?" cracks Letterman. "I don't even think Carson is leaving. If he does, I think he'll take the show with him to another network. I wouldn't want to go up against him—or compete with his 17-year legend. I'm just not eager to do it. I'll worry about the future when it comes."

That he has a future to worry about Letterman credits to ex-wife Michelle Cook, the college sweetheart he married in 1969 and who convinced him to head west from Indiana in 1975. "She started running around and packing the dishes and telling me this time we were really gonna do it," David remembers. "She was very supportive. I knew I was going to fail." They arrived in L.A. in their red pickup and "I panicked," says David. "It was the first time in my adult life I didn't have a real job." But in six months he was writing for comedian Jimmie Walker, who had caught his improv act at the Comedy Store. "He wanted me to write jokes with a black point of view," deadpans Letterman. "Which was interesting because he was the first black person I had ever seen."

The Walker gig led to TV writing jobs and a regular slot on Mary Tyler Moore's short-lived 1978 variety show. Just 14 months ago David made his first Tonight Show appearance. "It was the most fun I ever had," David says now. "There I was holding my own with Johnny Carson. I knew then I could hit big league pitching." He and Michelle (now an L.A. real estate agent) were divorced more than two years ago, though Letterman doesn't blame Hollywood. "It could have happened in Indianapolis or Tucson. The marriage just ran out of steam."

Like Carson and Dick Cavett before him, Letterman is a true child of the Midwest. His late father, Joe, owned a flower shop, and his mother is a secretary at the Second Presbyterian Church. "Mom thinks I'm a notch or two above a carnival worker," jokes David. A radio-TV major and Sigma Chi at Ball State University in Muncie, Letter-man worked for an Indianapolis TV station after his 1970 graduation. He made a lasting impression as an irreverent weekend weatherman, moderator of a 4-H program, Clover Power ("We made fun of little kids"), and host of a late-night movie series which he signed off by blowing up a cardboard replica of the station. But, frustrated by understandably hostile bosses, he quit TV for radio a year before splitting for L.A.

Success has brought David a new oceanfront home at Point Dume, north of Malibu. He shares it with his girlfriend of two years, Merrill Markoe, 31, an MTM writer who contributes some of his gags ("I pay top dollar"). His goal is directing and producing films. "I don't want to spend my whole life working nightclubs before a bunch of drunks," he says. "I just do it for the money. It's so lucrative it's silly." Letterman predicts network execs won't like the comedy special he and Merrill are writing because "It won't have women with big breasts, a black kid, a Chicano kid and a next-door neighbor." Significantly, Letterman's red pickup is still his only vehicle. "I don't feel like a success," says David. "I keep waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, 'Okay, buddy, give us the money back, NBC wants your new house, and you have to go home to Indianapolis."

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