Night Moves

updated 02/26/1996 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/26/1996 01:00AM

DANIEL ROEBUCK AND JOHN Michael Higgins want you to know they don't really look like Jay Leno and David Letterman. Roebuck's ski-slope chin and Higgins's gap-tooth smile are just falsies—technical assists for playing Jay and Dave in The Late Shift, HBO's new movie (premiering Feb. 24) based on Bill Carter's 1994 bestseller about the battle to succeed King Carson as ruler of late-night TV. To become Leno, Roebuck, 32, spent four hours each day putting on a latex prosthetic jaw, inserting Jay-blue contact lenses in his eyes and, to capture The Tonight Show host's distinctive voice, stuffing a tissue so far up his nostrils that his nose sometimes bled. Higgins, 33, had it easy by comparison: a new do, fake teeth, a stogie, and he was Letter-man's twin—though he once reportedly smoked so many cigars for a single scene that he had to run to the bathroom to vomit.

In spite of the suffering, neither actor is complaining. After all, in an impressive ensemble cast, which includes Rich Little as Johnny Carson and Kathy Bates as Leno's explosive then-manager Helen Kushnick (see box), Higgins and Roebuck are the two virtual unknowns with a shot at stardom.

For Roebuck, it's not the first taste of fame. After graduating high school in his hometown of Bethlehem, Pa., he went to Los Angeles in 1984 and immediately began landing solid roles. Unfortunately, in 1987, while his performance opposite Keanu Reeves as a stoned-out teenage killer in the film River's Edge won raves, he and his wife of four years, Leslie, were divorcing. Over the next few years, career anxieties caused the 6'1" actor's weight to soar, from 175 to 235 pounds. One morning in 1990, he says, "I looked in the mirror and said, 'I look like someone else.' "

Nine weeks later, with the help of a NutriSystem diet and a nutritionist, he had shed 45 pounds, eventually trimming back down to the svelte 175 he carries today. "It was," he says, "like starting all over again." Within two years he was playing legal assistant Clifford Lewis on Matlock, and in 1994 he married homemaker Kelly, 26, a friend from his youth. They live now in Mission Hills, Calif., with Grace, their 3-month-old daughter.

To research his subject, Roebuck, who has never met Leno and says he doesn't usually stay up late enough to watch Jay or Dave, did go to a taping of The Tonight Show—under his wife's name, so that the host, who might have read Roebuck's name in the Hollywood trade papers, wouldn't know he was there. Roebuck later phoned Leno to tell him how much he enjoyed portraying him, and Leno—who will not publicly discuss The Late Shift—later reportedly told a friend, "I talked to the kid who plays me. He seems like a nice guy."

Letterman is less gracious about his own doppelgänger. Speaking of Higgins's performance in The Late Shift, Letterman told ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY that from what he's seen, the actor plays the ex-Indiana weatherman "like he's insane, like he's a budding psychopath" or "a circus chimp."

Higgins, a native of Boston, was no doubt aiming a little higher. "I was always an actor," he says, "from my earliest consciousness. There was never any question." He studied English and did theater at Amherst College and in 1993 originated the title role in the Off-Broadway production of Paul Rudmck's Jeffrey. His Late Shift director Betty Thomas (who played Sgt. Lucille Bates on Hill Street Blues) thinks he did just fine as the man who didn't get The Tonight Show gig. "After a while," she says, "I started watching Letterman and thinking, 'He's not as Letterman as our Letterman is.' "

Despite the Late Show host's harsh words, Higgins, who just completed performing in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 18th-century comedy The Rivals at the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut and will soon be moving to L.A., calls Letterman "one of the very best. If I had to watch TV for two months straight, I'd watch Letterman." This is particularly high praise coming from Higgins, who prefers reading contemporary literature and listening to jazz—and who says he didn't even own a TV during his stay in Hartford.

Nor, Higgins insists, does he dream of being a television star—unless he could play characters as complex as Letterman. "The role," he says, seemingly unaware of the joke, "was something I could sink my teeth into."

DAN JEWEL
LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles and TOM DUFFY in Hartford

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