Rabble-Rouser Wally George Is the New Pitchman and Great Right Hope of TV Squawk Shows
updated 02/27/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 02/27/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST
You see, Wally George is mad as hell, and he's not gonna take it anymore. He's fed up with Edward Asner ("a subversive disgrace"), Tom Hayden ("a dangerous person"), Jesse Jackson ("an opportunist" and "the Reverend Hallelujah") and liberals ("loud jerks") in general. He's riled by supporters of abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment and teed off at bleeding-heart opponents of the death penalty and the invasion of Grenada. If pressed he'd probably also insist that fluoridated water and the eruption of Mount St. Helens were Kremlin plots. He longs for the good old 1950s, when red-blooded guys like Sen. Joseph McCarthy were treated with respect. What's more, he's not afraid to go public with his opinions.
"I'm the only guy on television who dares to take a stand," proclaims Wally. Forget those TV "Milquetoasts" Merv and Mike—human Muzak—force-feeding "pabulum" to their viewers. As far as George is concerned, the airwaves just haven't been the same since red-baiter Joe Pyne passed on in 1970. Wally's mission is to rekindle the memory. "If a guy's a jerk, I'll call him a jerk," he sneers. "If somebody gets really obnoxious, I'll toss him off the air. I just say exactly how I feel."
Just ask Los Angeles gay-rights activist Morris Kight, 64, a recent guest on Hot Seat. Wally subjected him to a torrent of homophobic abuse (ranging from "a disgrace to his gender" to "a diseased human") that would make Anita Bryant or the Rev. Jerry Falwell seem limp-wristed. Ask Carol Soble, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Southern California chapter, removed from the show after refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance on the air (she declined when Wally refused her challenge to recite the First Amendment). Ask the parade of liberal visitors whom Wally commonly calls "slime" or "scum," encouraged by his frenzied audience (one victim recently compared the crowd to "a gathering of storm troopers"). "George is part of the 1984 George Orwell nightmare," says former LSD guru Timothy Leary, who was ejected from the studio after Wally accused him of driving many of his disciples to drug-induced suicides. "George is swinishly tasteless, just revolting," adds Morris Kight. Like many liberal guests, Kight viewed jousting with George on the air as a challenge but came away disillusioned. "The show is no kind of forum. It's an awful, awful place," Kight says.
Of course, Wally thrives on such high emotions. It's what makes the show so unpredictable. Death threats ("from left-wing liberals," he theorizes) arrive at the Hot Seat studio almost as often as fan mail. On-the-air violence is rare, but one incident last November made the network TV news. Blase Bonpane, a former Jesuit priest and leader of a group opposed to Reagan's intervention in Lebanon, became so incensed after George jostled him on the air that he knocked over the host's desk and nearly assaulted Wally before being thrown off the show. During an appearance by a leader of the American Nazi Party (George called them "despicable and disgusting"), swastika-adorned henchmen toting semiautomatic weapons cruised outside in pickups. Another one stood by the phone inside the studio and warned that the men outside would storm the building if the connection were broken. Don't think Wally's behavior is all an act either. According to Producer Arnie Evans, the TV persona and the off-the-set Wally are pretty much the same. Confesses George: "I'm a nice guy until someone presses the wrong button. Then I just blow up. I've had arguments in restaurants—violent shouting matches. It's been my handicap in life."
The audience eats it up. With viewers increasing and 65 percent of George's mail running in his favor, Metromedia has begun efforts to syndicate Hot Seat in cities like Dallas, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., thereby making Wally a household scourge. Last month he taped the first of 13 guest shots on Alan Thicke's late-night talk show, beginning by attacking the studio band as a bunch of "druggies, societal menaces and burnouts." Thicke loved every minute of it. "He's theatrical, outrageous, unpredictable," raves Thicke. "And that's what makes good TV."
But, apparently, also poor family relationships. Wally's political tirades have deepened his estrangement from his daughter, now living with co-star Cruise, 22, at a New York address she has purposefully hidden from her father. De Mornay refuses to return his phone calls (Wally leaves messages with her agent) or even to acknowledge his existence. "She can't cope with the fact that I'm so strongly conservative," Wally admits. "It's one of the most painful things in my life."
The rift between the actress and the raving right-winger did not always exist. For the first seven years of Rebecca's life in California (where George was working as a radio disc jockey), father and daughter "were very close," insists George. Wally and his wife separated when Rebecca was 3. Several years later mother and daughter moved to Europe for a decade, during which time George saw Rebecca only once. "She feels hostility over that," says Wally, who since the split has remarried, divorced again and now lives alone in Sherman Oaks, a self-described workaholic with no interests beyond his career. Wally watched from a distance while his daughter rose from Zoetrope Studios apprentice to full-fledged movie stardom, then last Christmas he desperately attempted a reconciliation in L.A. It was a disaster. "She said, 'I don't think we should have any contact whatsoever for a while. Give me a call in three or four years and we'll see,' " Wally stammers. "I'd love her to be able to say, 'Daddy, I don't agree with you. I can't stand to watch your show because it makes me sick. But I love you anyway.' " (As for her Risky Business role as a warm-hearted prostitute, George says, "I think she did a great job as an actress, but the film was a little bit risqué.")
Wally's rise to such questionable prominence began, appropriately, in Hollywood, where he was born the son of a onetime child actress and a British sea captain who wanted Wally to pursue a naval career. But young George—a childhood stutterer who found his handicap and low self-esteem disappeared while performing—had other ideas. At 14, he enrolled in the Hollywood Professional School. His father opposed George's decision to go into show business, and it "destroyed our relationship," says Wally. "Afterward I didn't have a father." He found acceptance in the world of broadcasting. Also at 14, he claims he became the nation's youngest disc jockey. At 16, he played the grocery boy on radio's The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Then—drum roll, please—he discovered politics. Fired from one deejay job in San Francisco for interjecting right-wing commentary between records, he worked his way up to executive producer and co-host of ex-L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty's flag-waving TV talk show, which ran from 1973 to 1979. Next came The Wally George Show, a sort of grade-Z Firing Line, which had conservative guests and opened with caustic commentary from the host. The station manager had a brainstorm: Why not have Wally interview liberals so he could keep on ranting throughout the show? The format changed immediately and—another drum roll, please—Hot Seat was born about seven months ago.
Despite the show's exacerbation of his problems with his daughter, Wally George obviously loves the way he earns his paycheck. At ten minutes to airtime, the rowdy audience of about 100—mostly teenagers—begins filing into the studio. Many carry American flags. One foursome holds up a banner that reads "Let Freedom Ring." High school student Brent Hegle, 16, grabs a seat in the front row, reserved for the most boisterous flag wavers. "I love to see him cut down everyone and raise hell," says Hegle, speaking for many in the crowd. All eyes move toward the shabby set, patriotically decorated with a cheap print of John Wayne, an American flag and a space shuttle poster tacked to the wall behind the host's wooden desk. "Now don't tell Wally he's No. 1 with the wrong finger!" jokes Producer Evans. The fans explode in laughter.
Almost anticlimactically the star arrives. The crowd goes berserk, stomping, cheering, madly waving their flags and banners. "You ain't got Timothy Leary back, do ya?" bellows a muscular loudmouth in the front row. "I want to beat on him!" George launches into a tirade against the ERA, Communists and homosexuality. The audience roars in approval. Then he's all set to introduce his first guest: Cooper Zale, an official with the West Coast chapter of the National Organization of Women—up there with the Soviet Politburo, among Wally's favorite organizations. "We have a male feminist tonight," announces Wally. "A disgrace to his gender. He loves Jane Fonda!" The crowd boos wildly. Someone yells, "Let him exercise, Wally!" Everyone picks up the chant. "Exercise! Exercise! Exercise!" "He'll probably last four minutes," jeers George. Zale makes his entrance warily, as Wally's eyes narrow in disgust. "I expected you to come in a dress, sweetheart," he says. "It's at the cleaners," Zale jokingly counters, but the audience is already drowning him out. "Sweetheart! Sweetheart! Sweetheart!" they hoot. Wally knows the crowd is with him. "You stupid jerk," he exclaims, before ejecting the bewildered Zale from the stage, to the wild cheers and whistles of supporters. It's not exactly the MacNeil/ Lehrer Newshour, but for Wally George, it's all in a night's work.