For all the talk of top 10 lists and stupid tricks perpetrated by both beast and man, the element that kept David Letterman going over all these years is his people touch. Whether he’s fully engaged or couldn’t seem to care less, the “Late Show” host’s interviews have often been a highlight of the show.
In his 33 years in late night, Letterman has had approximately 5,850 guests on “Late Night” and 14,082 on “Late Show.” There have been a lot of great interviews, a few mediocre interviews and even some bad ones. But there have been a few stand-outs.
There are a few reliables -- guests who are always entertaining no matter what they’re talking about -- Steve Martin, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, for instance. But these guests brought a little something special to the proceedings, whether Letterman wanted it or not.
Everyone has their own favorite Letterman interview moment, so the list is constantly open for debate. And who knows? A top 10 greatest moment could still occur in the show’s final couple of weeks. But until then, here are 10 stand-outs that are still just as watchable today as they were the night they first aired.
Bill Murray (1982): Letterman’s very first guest on his very first episode of “Late Night” set the tone for what was to come. Murray was already a big comedy star when he appeared on the show, but the extra oomph he gave to his guest appearance became a running theme for all of his appearances. One he’s had to top for each of his 42 (soon to be 43) subsequent appearances.
Andy Kaufman (1982): The “Taxi” star’s wrestling infatuation spilled over into this appearance on “Late Night” with his foil, Jerry Lawler. Though the segment in which Lawler decked Kaufman, prompting a profanity-laced tirade from the comedian, grabbed headlines, Lawler has revealed in recent years that the whole thing was orchestrated by Kaufman himself. The full version of Kaufman and Lawler’s appearance (with uncensored profanity) can be viewed here.
Jay Leno (1985): Their feud may have been the dominating theme of the past few decades, but before Leno took over “The Tonight Show” from Johnny Carson, he was a frequent guest on “Late Night.” Will Leno make one more appearance with Letterman before they’re both out of the game? Time will tell.
Cher (1986): The actress and singer was resistant to appear on Letterman’s program for years before finally consenting to be a guest in 1986. Why didn’t she want to appear? She didn’t have the highest opinion of Letterman as a person -- and didn’t hesitate to call him a disparaging name on the air. Cher has since become a good friend of the show, and even appeared on one of Letterman’s final broadcasts to lovingly call him that name one more time.
Crispin Glover (1987): The “Back to the Future” star has long been known as a bit of an eccentric, but he really put it all on display during this infamously erratic appearance. The nervous-seeming Glover attempted to demonstrate his kicking skills to Letterman and nearly whacked him in the face. Displeased with how the interview was going, Letterman walked off his own show. Glover actually returned years later to explain his behavior.
Oliver Reed (1987): British actor Oliver Reed had a long history of contentious talk show appearances, sometimes appearing while he was quite intoxicated. But Reed apparently wanted to leave that part of his life behind him when he appeared with Letterman in the late ‘80s. Letterman, however, couldn’t help but needle him, making for one of the few times when it seemed as if the host was a few moments away from being punched out.
Harvey Pekar (1987): The idiosyncratic comic book writer never gave up his job as a file clerk in Cleveland even as he became a regular guest on “Late Night.” However, as cantankerous as he could be, he finally ran afoul of Letterman during an appearance in 1987 in which he picked a fight with Letterman’s network, NBC and its parent company, GE.
Madonna (1994): The musical icon was at the height of her fame in the early ‘90s when she made her first “Late Show” appearance. She did her best to shock and ruffle Dave, but the result was a particularly memorable appearance. And, improbably, the start of a great TV friendship.
Warren Zevon (2002): The singer’s terminal cancer diagnosis in 2002 prompted Letterman, a longtime fan of his music, to devote an entire program to Zevon. As the only guest that night, Zevon told stories, sang songs and said goodbye in a way too few friends are able to do.
Teri Garr (2008): Garr was a frequent guest on “Late Night,” and Letterman’s affection for the actress was always apparent. But after Garr’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis in 2002 and a brain aneurysm in 2006, she stepped away from Hollywood. So it was particularly sweet to see her make one more appearance, still as funny as ever, with her old friend in 2008 to discuss her illness and career.
Joaquin Phoenix (2009): Just what was the actor up to when he made his bearded, sunglassed appearance on Letterman’s show in 2009? Some argued it was a bit of performance art, while others pointed to it as evidence of a possible substance abuse problem. By this point in Letterman’s career, his stature meant there weren’t as many awkward interviews as in years past. However, this one was a stand-out. Phoenix returned to the show the following year to reveal that his earlier appearance was part of an act for his mockumentary “I’m Not Here.”Follow me on Twitter: @patrickkevinday