Ten years ago today, the then-52-year-old host shocked America when he underwent emergency quintuple bypass surgery. To commemorate the anniversary, Thursday he'll be interviewing the man who handled the operation, cardiothoracic surgeon O. Wayne Isom.
For viewers – and, one supposes, for Letterman himself – his health crisis marked a turning point. In the decade since, TV's most consistently contrarian comedian has managed to – endear himself? No, he’s still too prickly for that. Would he want to be endearing? But he has impressed by embracing some major life changes and events with self-effacing dignity, humility and directness:
The Heart Surgery: When he returned to the show on Feb. 21, 2000, Letterman jokingly referred to a topic that remains, well, eternally fresh: "Bypass surgery is when doctors surgically create new blood flow to your heart. A bypass is what happened to me when I didn't get The Tonight Show." But this was a big deal for Letterman – his father had died of a heart attack at 57. He brought out his medical team and, choking up, said: "If you ever have to have this surgery, by God, I hope you're blessed enough to go through it with people like these."
9/11: After the destruction of the Twin Towers and the horrible loss and disruption of life in Manhattan, Letterman became a sort of unofficial ambassador for the city, Late Show's home. Returning to the air Sept. 17, he movingly praised then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, eulogized the fallen officers and firefighters and quietly rallied viewers to get on with their daily lives. "Pretending to be courageous,” he said, "is just as good as the real thing." It wasn't FDR, but it was pretty great.
Harry: Even now it's hard to imagine this legendarily antisocial man not only married, but happily raising a 6-year-old boy named Harry. Letterman doesn't make too big a fuss about fatherhood, but the topic has helped put down a new plank of conversation with guests, and forged a bonding point with viewers. One night Harry was in the studio, and blew a kiss down from the balcony. Dave waved and called out, "Thank you sweetheart, thanks for stopping by."
The Sex Scandal: It says something about Letterman's stature – and character – that what could have been a public-relations disaster turned out to be a triumph. This past Oct. 1, he confessed on camera that he had slept with women on his staff and, consequently, gotten tangled up in an extortion threat. Although to some this consigned Letterman to the Just Another Dirty Old Man pile, ratings actually improved – and have stayed high during all the gunslinging over at NBC. That's because it was, frankly, a remarkable ground-clearer of a speech that struck a note of (what sounded like) complete, pained sincerity. Only Letterman would refer to sexual indiscretions as "creepy stuff" with a mix of shame and uncomfortable humor – the underlying implication being that he's the creep.
Who knows? Maybe he is. In the past 10 years, he's also been the most fascinating – and fascinatingly human – personality on the late night scene.