When Troubled People Talk, TV Psychologist Tom Cottle Knows How to Listen

updated 07/27/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/27/1981 01:00AM

Henry Fonda wept as he confessed to Tom Cottle that his only son, Peter, was 42 years old before Fonda ever told him he loved him. Robert (Benson) Guillaume recalled being spat upon by whites as a shoeshine boy in St. Louis, and Olivia Newton-John spoke of the trauma of her parents' divorce. After Stockard Channing relived the childhood beatings her mother had given her, she turned to Cottle and announced: "I feel like I've just seen my shrink."

In fact, Cottle, 42, is a clinical psychologist, not a psychiatrist, and the stars' confessions were delivered not from his couch, but on NBC's program for teenagers, Hot Hero Sandwich. Now Cottle is back, on PBS's startlingly candid Tom Cottle Show, persuading a new set of guests—most of them not famous at all—to bare their souls about problems from incest to terminal cancer.

How does he get them to do it? "Tom's strongest suit," says Kate Taylor, who produces his new show for WGBH in Boston, "is his vulnerability. He can relate to another person quickly and sensitively." Cottle does not regard himself as a kind of Dr. Joyce Brothers, who often plays the role of a learned Miss Lonelyhearts. "I'm sure she does a good job," he says, "but I find human behavior far more fuzzy, ambiguous and elusive than she does. She gives advice; I don't. There's a danger of arrogance in all the sciences. You have to remain humble because you can't know anyone's life as well as he knows it. Television, unfortunately, is too much a 'we-just-want-the-facts-ma'am' medium."

Preferring simply to inquire into other people's lives rather than instruct viewers how to react to them, Cottle, a veteran of four years of analysis, considers himself an expert only in the matter of his own insecurities. The privileged son of Gitta Gradova, the concert pianist, and a father who was a prominent Chicago doctor, he remembers vividly his celeb-studded childhood. "My house was always filled with stars," he says. "Marian Anderson, Isaac Stern, Arturo Toscanini. God, I can still smell the smoke from Oscar Levant's cigarettes." On the negative side, though, is the realization that "the celebrity aspect of my parents' lives kept them from me." Now that he has become a star in his own right, he's redoubled his determination to spend as much time as possible with his wife, Kay, 41, and their three children, 4 through 13. "I like to tell my kids to follow their own hearts and let their neurotic father deal with his analyst about what they become," he says. "I'm not going to become Phil Donahue, but it's scary to think my destiny may cut into theirs."

To decompress from his gut-wrenching interviews, Cottle invariably rushes home to watch TV in the family's converted barn in neighboring Brookline. "The crappier the program the better," he says. "I don't want anything poignant. My guests have lived through a helluva lot and they make me feel guilty." Still anxious about the threat of success ("Sometimes I feel that everything will fall away and I'm going to be unemployed"), he likens his predicament to that of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who leaped into a torrent to escape their pursuers. "I see myself on that ledge, and for the first time in my life I think I'm ready to jump into that river," says Cottle. "It's dangerous as hell, but there may be something there."

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