The Letterman Papers

updated 09/06/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/06/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

OH, MY GOD:" GARY OWENS EXCLAIMED SOFTLY, STARING AT the name on a yellowing envelope stamped July 18, 1975. "This can't be the same David Letterman!" It sure ain't the one-armed man. Last fall, Owens, 57—fondly remembered as the announcer for NBC's Laugh-In—was going through old files in his office in Hollywood. Amid a mass of paperwork, he found an unopened letter. Inside was a quick note and sample material from Letterman. Back then, Dave was a struggling, 28-year-old comedian and writer in Los Angeles, still many stupid pet tricks away from being the $14-million-a-year host of CBS's new Late Show, which premieres Aug. 30. "I felt terrible," says Owens, who realized he had missed a golden chance to connect with the gap-toothed comedy giant.

Or had he? On an impulse, Owens riffled back further in his files and, sure enough, came across an even earlier letter from David M. (for Michael) Letterman, then a senior in broadcasting at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. That time—Jan. 26, 1969—Dave was asking the Laugh-In star how to break into comedy. And that time, Owens (who kept a copy of his response) replied: "You really have to get an agent who believes in you."

Owens, who these days does voice-overs, says he had immediate faith in Letterman, based on that first missive. "I could see the creative spark," he says. And Owens allows himself a flicker of his own: On Dave's new show, "I could play a wacky next-door neighbor!" Of course, Letterman has already filled that role with odd dumpling Calvert DeForest, who at NBC's insistence has had to abandon his nom de Late Night, Larry "Bud" Melman. Notes Dave: "According to NBC lawyers, they own everything, including my peacock pelting zoo."

Luckily the network has no control over the letter, which is printed here, unabridged and annotated by Dave himself (prompted by PEOPLE'S queries). "This shows a human side to him," says Owens. "It shows that everybody has to start somewhere."

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