MEDIA DISTRICT WEST -- Billie Freebairn-Smith has been a player in one
of Hollywood’s most popular television shows for nearly two decades, but
her name is hardly known off the NBC lot.
As the right-hand woman for the producer of “The Tonight Show,”
Freebairn-Smith - now in her 60s - has worked with the biggest names in
The wisdom of that experience has made her a valuable contributor to
the long-running NBC program, said host Jay Leno.
“She’s a good link to remind us about the history of the show,” Leno
said. “It’s nice to have some steady hands on the throttle.”
Since 1979, Freebairn-Smith has been lightening the load for “Tonight
Show” producers swamped by requests for their time.
In earlier years, when Johnny Carson hosted the show, she eased the
burden on Fred de Cordova. In 1999, with Leno in front of the camera,
executive producer Debbie Vickers benefits from her knowledge and
“My job is to try to make her life as smooth as possible,”
Among her varied responsibilities, Freebairn-Smith shields Vickers and
other “Tonight Show” brass from kooky fans, irate viewers and other
less-than-top priority demands on their time.
Her job also requires a level of diplomatic finesse when dealing with
“That’s a lot of it in this job,” she said. “It pays to know who
people are and act like you know them well.”
Freebairn-Smith got her start in show business in the 1950s, shortly
after graduating from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. A
family connection helped her secure a job with producer Ralph Edwards,
who launched “Truth or Consequences” and “This Is Your Life.”
Two years later, she left show business to raise a family. But by
1979, seven years after Carson moved “The Tonight Show” from New York to
Los Angeles, Freebairn-Smith was ready to jump back in.
Divorced from her husband, a musician with whom she had three
children, Freebairn-Smith joined NBC, an easy commute from her Valley
It wasn’t long before she applied for the “Tonight Show,” where she
had a front-row seat for Carson’s legendary dry wit until the host’s
retirement in 1992.
A smile comes to her face when reminded of Carson’s jokes about
“beautiful downtown Burbank,” a wry reference to a time when Burbank
Village was a dead zone of thrift stores.
“Burbank had no production industry and then all of the sudden it was
the home of ‘The Tonight Show,”’ she said. “It was just a small town.”
When Carson walked away from late-night television, so did
A few years ago, in her early 60s, a call came from NBC. They wanted
her back for Jay Leno’s show. It was an offer she couldn’t refuse.
“I didn’t expect to be in show business,” she said. “It was a fluke.”
THE BILLIE FREEBAIRN-SMITH FILE
JOB: Assistant to the producer of “The Tonight Show”
AGE: Early 60s
RESIDES: Valley Village FAMILY: Three children
JOHNNY CARSON: “He was never at a loss for words and still isn’t. It
didn’t matter what you said, he had some kind of a line for it.”
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CARSON AND LENO: “They work in very different
ways. Jay’s monologue and his delivery are punctuated with more activity,