After Koppel, Opposite Carson, Phil Donahue Is the Last Word in Late-Night TV Talkers

updated 11/29/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/29/1982 01:00AM

Here he is, Donahue at his buttoned-down prickliest, jabbing random needles in America's consciousness. He cuddles a 2-month-old baby, the gurgling issue of a sperm bank for geniuses. He asks whether mass murderers should be paroled. He talks to Californians who scavenge garbage for food. "This," he tells his Chicago studio audience, sprinting among them with his wireless mike, "is your chance to let America know how you feel." Feverishly, cameramen strain to keep up. "He's like following a streak of light," marvels one.

But this isn't the familiar daytime Donahue. This is Donahue after dark, the latest recruit in the struggle to unhorse Johnny Carson. Since October he has been co-host of The Last Word, ABC's attempt to hold Ted Koppel's Nightline audience with something a little more provocative than reruns of The Love Boat. It is also Phil's first foray into late-night TV after 15 years on his own show—which is continuing—and three years as a bit-part performer on NBC's Today show.

The Last Word, Donahue argues—and he loves to argue—is a welcome relief from standard celebrity gabfests. "We are exhausted," he says, "by the number of people who are on television talking about their last movie or their next movie." Instead, Donahue and host Greg Jackson talk with the likes of Paul Newman and Charlton Heston on the pros and cons of a nuclear freeze. Donahue usually fills 15 minutes from Chicago and Jackson handles the rest live in New York. Because Phil's segments are taped, he doesn't take calls, as Jackson does, and his guests aren't always in the studio; sometimes they visit by satellite. For that, Donahue says, he has had to acquire Koppel's "ability to interview television sets. This is a whole new experience for me, and very difficult." ABC, of course, doesn't anticipate failure. "When a man has Phil's stature and charisma," says network news executive Av Westin, "our resources can project him in a totally different way. I can see Phil Donahue emerging as a kind of national ombudsman."

Often Phil spends Thursday through Sunday in New York with wife Marlo Thomas. Because his hectic schedule is constantly changing, he generally packs all his work—five morning shows and five nighttime segments—into just three or four days. He arrives in Chicago late Sunday night and gets a wakeup call at 6:45 the next morning from his secretary, Lorraine Landelius. "My baby," says his motherly aide. "We don't dress him, but that's about all we don't do." After jogging around his suburban Chicago neighborhood, Donahue gets to work by 7:30. He reads the papers in his windowless office, then does a quick-study cram job, preparing to meet his first guests. He does one show at 9 a.m. live in Chicago, though it's seen in the rest of the country on tape. Mondays and Wednesdays he crams for another one as soon as he gets off the air, and tapes it at around 10:30. Between shows he changes suits to foster the home audience's illusion that the shows are done a day at a time.

On Tuesdays Donahue heads to his ABC studio after his live show to tape most of the week's evening segments back-to-back, changing again after each one. By day's end he often ends up with mismatched socks—he used to number his clothes to keep them straight—but rarely with a case of the blahs. After the last show of the week is in the can, he slips into a baseball jacket, jeans and a Cubs cap, his disguise for the flight home to Marlo. Donahue, 46, made his name in the Midwest, first in Dayton, then in Chicago, and remains loyal to the heartland in principle. "Los Angeles and New York have exported their cultures to us," he says, "and there's a certain arrogance in that. It presumes the people in Kansas care." Yet he is planning to move to New York himself to take the strain of commuting out of his two-and-a-half-year marriage. "We have four days and four nights together now," says Marlo, 45, "but I still believe in the old-fashioned way of seven days and seven nights." Adds Phil: "We spend too much time at O'Hare and LaGuardia."

Obviously the couple's marriage has agreed with both of them. "I'm more at peace than I have ever been in my life," says Donahue. "Marlo is the most important person in my life, and she is crazy about what I do. She would watch the Donahue show even if she had never met me." Marlo agrees, and admits she was surprised that marriage proved to be more rewarding than other kinds of relationships. "I always thought that was a hype from people who wanted everyone married," she remarks. "But something does happen to make a relationship different and, I think, better. Marriage has made us more trusting of each other, calmer. And everything Phil does is more personal to me—his pain, his happiness, his joy and his anguish." And just as he consults her about his shows, she has sought his opinion of hers—most recently Love, Sex...and Marriage?, an ABC special scheduled for early 1983.

For the moment Phil and Marlo are subletting a three-bedroom apartment on Central Park West while they ready a spacious Fifth Avenue co-op. The new place, they say, will be big enough both for them and for visits by Phil's five kids, ages 17 through 23, from his previous marriage. Meanwhile Donahue is carving out an equally roomy professional niche, and hoping eventually to do prime-time TV, which he sees now as "a laugh track interrupted occasionally by car crashes and bang-bang." He is certain his career hasn't peaked, and he is making no apologies for having got where he has. "I think," he says firmly, "I've earned it."

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