All Pumped Up

updated 03/06/2000 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/06/2000 AT 01:00 AM EST

Paul Shaffer didn't know what to expect on Feb. 18 when his boss, David Letterman, returned to the set of CBS's Late Show five weeks after quintuple-bypass heart surgery. "There was an exciting, showbizzy flavor in the air," says Letterman's bandleader. "There was a feeling it was going to be a special show." Still, it wasn't until Letter-man performed a particular pre-monologue ritual that Shaffer was absolutely certain all would be well. "I wondered, 'Will he touch his toes?' which he does just before the last note of the show's theme," says Shaffer. "When he did, I knew everything was going to be all right."

The preshow calisthenics would hardly foretell the herculean comic performance that Letterman pulled off before an estimated 12 million viewers on Feb. 21 (the night the show aired). With a little help from such friends as Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams and Regis Philbin, Letterman, 52, was instantly firing off the jokes. "Bypass surgery is when doctors surgically create new blood flow to your heart," he quipped before the audience at New York City's Ed Sullivan Theater. "A bypass is what happened to me when I didn't get The Tonight Show."

"Dave did the show of his life," says Shaffer, "motivated, I think, by the realization during his five weeks off that he might never have gotten to do the show again" if he had failed to have a clogged artery treated within a day of its detection by an angiogram. Now, says the star's surgeon, O. Wayne Isom, "Dave is feeling so good he's almost euphoric."

And, from time to time, farklemt. When he introduced eight members of the team that cared for him at the New York Weill Cornell Center of Manhattan's New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Letterman choked back tears. "If you ever have to have this surgery," he said, "by God, I hope you're blessed enough to go through it with people like these." Although the host is not known for displays of mushiness, that moment showed "Dave has a big heart," says Philbin, "and is not afraid to express his emotions."

Doctors Louis Aronne and Isom concur that their patient is recovering rapidly. Even now, says Dr. Aronne, "he could probably out-exercise the average person." Four days after leaving the hospital for his home in New Canaan, Conn., says Isom, "he told me he'd walked three miles and felt like breaking into a jog. I talked him into slowing down. I could tell he was chomping at the bit." Letterman decided to return to work a week sooner than initially recommended, although for now only part-time. (Of the first five shows, two nights were being handled by guest hosts Bill Cosby and Kathie Lee Gifford.) In the next few weeks the most decisive indicator of a clean bill of health will come when Letterman takes a treadmill stress test to determine whether blood flow has returned to normal. "The grafts could last 30 years or more," says Dr. Isom, "as long as he takes care of himself."

Upbeat as the prognosis sounds, it remains too soon to say when Dave will once again be up for going mano a mono with Jay Leno's Tonight Show five times a week. His doctors, at least, aren't discouraging him. Says Isom: "I told him right from the start, 'You know your job better than anyone else.' " And the overnight ratings for his return appearance were almost twice Leno's. Jokes Late Show executive producer Rob Burnett: "We're planning another quintuple bypass for May sweeps."

Tom Gliatto
Fannie Weinstein in New York City

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