Nightmare of 100 Stars

updated 03/04/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/04/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

It was the show that had taken a year and $5.5 million to produce. The show that offered Joan Collins, Laurence Olivier, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosa Parks and Robert De Niro on the same stage. The show that had the rabble lined up three deep outside Radio City Music Hall, shivering and aiming Instamatics at the famous faces who had convened to raise $1 million for the Actor's Fund of America. Billed as the Night of 100 Stars II, it featured in fact 308 of pop culture's finest. By the 7 p.m. curtain time on Sunday, February 17, it had drawn a packed house of movers in society, politics and show business and just plain folk, all of them engulfed in a hush of anticipation.

But by 7:45, the sellout crowd of 5,700 discovered that they were in for a night of extravaganza interruptus. By that time, the first production number—a tribute to sports stars that featured Wilma Rudolph, Y.A. Tittle, Stan Musial and Evelyn Brisco Hooks—had been started, stopped, restaged, started and stopped again. Carl Lewis, who was wearing a rhinestone-encrusted jacket that made him look like a carhop, had muffed his four lines. Narrator Howard Cosell had cracked, "Goddamn it, they blew it again." Impresario Alexander Cohen (the Tony Awards producer who in 1982 orchestrated the original Night of 100 Stars) reminded everyone that the show was being taped for a March 10 three-hour telecast on ABC. A bit of patience, he said, would be in order, even if the tickets had cost from $50 to $1,000 a piece.

Six hours and forty-five minutes later, patience was in short supply. The paying guests who hadn't escaped to the dinner dance at the New York Hilton had given a standing ovation to a frail Olivier. They had cheered a smashing dance number with Ginger Rogers, Alexander Godunov and Gregory Hines and cheered it again when the producers insisted on another take. They had applauded crusaders like Dr. Helen Caldicott and Cesar Chavez, and they had gasped at a high-voltage fashion show with models such as Angie Dickinson, AN MacGraw, Linda Evans, Brooke Shields and Linda Gray. But they also had sat through countless retakes and long stretches of dead air enlivened only by the sound of hammering from backstage. During one late night lull, a bored technician used spotlights to fashion a likeness on the curtain of Mr. Bill (the oft-tortured puppet on Saturday Night Live), and a few of the captives shouted—like Bill—"Help me, help me." By midnight Cohen was fielding catcalls.

While some stars admitted that they too found the taping a trial (backstage, Esther Williams wondered, "Are we trapped in a miniseries?") most pronounced the marathon a delight. "We were all watching the show on monitors in the green room, and we cheered when they asked for a repeat of the dance number," said Jill St. John. Any backstage snits or ego clashes went unreported. As Cohen observed, "Everyone is on his best behavior here...Nobody wants to be the first to cause trouble."

Three days of coddling undoubtedly helped. Although the luminaries worked without pay, they did not work without perks. That meant, among other things, complimentary limo service and room and board at the New York Hilton (where an executive tower was transformed into a celebrity dorm). Hotel rooms were stocked with Taittinger champagne, Perugina chocolates and Haagen-Dazs cream liqueur—gifts from some of the corporate sponsors who had underwritten close to $3 million of the production costs. A well-guarded hospitality suite in a Hilton penthouse offered caviar, croissants and a staff of troubleshooters. On Sunday the company was given a pre-performance party at the Rainbow Room, and "21" was converted into a private canteen. It might have easily been billed as the Night of a Zillion Canapés.

Three hundred security guards kept stargazers at bay during three long days of rehearsals at Radio City, where Saturday afternoon found Michael Caine and Burgess Meredith making entrances through the Pan Am jet mock-up installed in the gilded lobby. The script (written by producer Hildy Parks, Cohen's wife) called for a pretaped opening in which each performer would emerge from the door of a special "star flight." While the cameras rolled, Cohen instructed the celebrities to "act like you're glad to get off the plane," which prompted Richard Dreyfuss to stage a mock breakdown. "Can I make this work?" he asked. "I have to call my acting teacher."

While a cadre of reporters milled about in search of telling snippets (Richard Thomas to Mark Hamill: "I have a 50 percent hearing loss, but I didn't realize how bad it was until I got a hearing aid and realized how loud it was when I zipped my fly,") a wildly disparate assortment of males joined the Rockettes to rehearse the show's finale. On the cavernous stage that had been framed by illuminated stars, Matt Dillon (who wore a thrift-shop raincoat over gray work pants) practiced stiff-legged high kicks. Mayor Koch squinted out from under a too big top hat. Bob Fosse paced quietly and Charles Bronson stood stock still, looking shell-shocked. Over and over, the 36 men filed onstage and to the strains of One from A Chorus Line each turned to face the spot where the cameras would be. "It makes me kind of teary-eyed," declared Mrs. Lloyd Bridges, who in the tradition of Hollywood wives loyally watched from the second row.

Sunday evening's postperformance festivities at the Hilton were marked by a chorus of such sentimentality. Said Robert Wagner, "Being with all these people was the height of my career." Added Lisa Hartman, "This show had so many moments." It was all a bit thick for some of those who had sat through the lumbering production, but they assuaged the pain with cold champagne and pointed gossip. And when the party ended at 5 a.m., they walked out into the morning knowing that Irving Berlin had gotten it slightly wrong: The truth is, there's no slow business like show business.

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