Late Night Becomes Electric with the Hip Help of Arsenio Hall's Bandleader, Shaggy-Dog Playboy Michael Wolff
updated 10/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 10/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST
Wolff, 38, is in good shape. Now in his second season as panjandrum of the Posse, the name given to Arsenio's house band, he's helping Hall mount a successful challenge to the hegemony of The Tonight Show. And when he's not trading quips or touching fingertips with Hall—a nightly ritual—he's taking his band on the road, guest conducting symphony orchestras and making beautiful music with Polly (thirtysomething) Draper, whom he met in July of last year when she was a guest on the show.
Such swell rewards come with a price, of course. Take the time Hall decided to put Wolff up for grabs to bachelorettes in the audience in a mock version of The Dating Game. "It was a terrible date," Wolff says of his brief encounter with a lucky hairdresser. "The car broke down. But she was a nice girl." A pause, a shrug. "It was my job."
On another night, Arsenio suggested Wolff break a date he had to see Lethal Weapon in order to take out a 60-year-old mother of five sitting in the audience. "She was the sweetest thing, so I jumped off the stage and gave her a hug, and she came over and sat at the piano," says Wolff. "That was embarrassing, but it was fun. Of course we did not go to the movies together."
And while fans may debate which talk show bandleader helps his program the most, Wolff can make at least one claim that neither Severinsen nor Shaffer can match. And that claim is: "My father was the doctor for Elvis's aunt."
The eldest of three children born to Marvin Wolff, a doctor, and Elise. a social worker, Michael spent his early years in Memphis, where his father did indeed treat Presley's aunt. Apparently this did not change Michael's life, nor does he have Presley's aunt's appendix in a jar. But "My father once met Elvis, who paid the bills in person," says Wolff. "And I remember him saying, 'Elvis was a nice young man.' "
Wolff began taking piano lessons at age 8 and continued his training after his family moved to Berkeley, Calif. After a year at UCLA and another at U.C. Berkeley, he dropped out to play piano with jazz vibist Cal Tjader, and, later, with saxophone great Cannonball Adderley. In 1979, while working as musical director for Nancy Wilson, Wolff met her opening act, one Arsenio Hall. "He said to me, 'You are one of the best musicians I ever heard, but you're kind of lax as a conductor,' " Wolff remembers. "He told me, 'You kind of let things slide. You need to be a little tougher.' I took that to heart. I thought it was pretty cool."
Arsenio also said he was going to have a talk show someday, "and that I was going to be his musical director. I said, 'Sure, man.' " Nearly 10 years later Hall made good on his promise. "It's the greatest thing that has ever happened to me," says Wolff. "Well, the second greatest thing." More thinking. "Actually, this is better than the first time I got laid."
While Hall would have audiences believe that his cohort is the slickest of single guys, Wolffs bachelor lair doesn't jibe with that vision. His one-bedroom West Hollywood apartment is decorated in Frank Lloyd Wrong: inexpensive, mismatched furniture accented with scattered menus from local Mexican and Chinese restaurants. Further damaging his image, Wolff tools around in a white, scratched-up 1976 Buick LeSabre. "I'm not a materialist," he says. "I love a good piano, though."
The beat-up Buick proved to be wheels of good fortune when it came to wooing Draper, 34. "When I first went out with him I expected him to drive up in a Porsche," she says. "When he drove up in his old car I thought. 'Well, this is a more interesting person than I thought.' I was right. He's a complete original. Michael's the first guy I've met who doesn't remind me of anyone."
Whether the relationship is an exclusive one is unclear, but now they're working together as well as playing together. When he recently made his acting debut on the new Fox drama, Beverly Hills 90210, Draper also appeared on the show. And the two have a standing Monday date—doing improvisational skits at MacLarcn Children's Center, for abused and neglected children.
"Brooke Adams and I did it for two years, and then she went off to do a Broadway show," says Draper. "I was hung up as to who to get to do it with me. Michael said he was curious and would fill in until I found someone else. The kids liked him so much he stayed."
"It's gratifying," says Wolff. "Polly got me into that. She's really sweet."
In his time, of course, Wolff—who has a rep for playing the field as enthusiastically as he plays his keyboards—has called a lot of women sweet. "If they get what I'm talking about, that's the important thing," he says. "If we are in tune with each other, that excites me. I haven't had that with a lot of women. Maybe 40 or 50." He is, or course, joking.
—Joanne Kaufman, Vicki Sheff in Los Angeles