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Tonight and every night

Paul Clinton

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.

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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

show business.

The wisdom of that experience has made her a valuable contributor to

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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

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experience.

“My job is to try to make her life as smooth as possible,”

Freebairn-Smith said.

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

network executives.

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“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

Village home.

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

Freebairn-Smith.

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,

more movement.”


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