I was sorry to hear of the death this weekend of Bill Zehme at age 64 after a long battle with cancer.
Bill was arguably the top celebrity profiler of our time. He did the last interview Johnny Carson granted. He wrote or co-wrote the biographies and autobiographies of Regis Philbin, Jay Leno, Frank Sinatra, and Andy Kaufman. He even got naked with Sharon Stone for an Esquire piece.
Bill’s greatest talent lay in the way he got his subjects to open up about aspects of their lives and careers they hadn’t discussed publicly elsewhere. How did he do it? Through his boundless curiosity — the single most important trait great interviewers share.
He appeared on my radio show several times, including my favorite on January 8, 2003, when he was promoting “Intimate Strangers,” a collection of his work. That day, Bill shared stories about Regis, Albert Brooks, Barry Manilow, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and his 20 year acquaintance with David Letterman and Jay Leno. We also traded stories about Leno’s former pitbull manager Helen Kushnik. You can listen to that conversation here.
I traded occasional emails with Bill for a few years after that, and in 2007, he asked me if I was interested in talking with Joanne Carson, Johnny’s second wife. She was about to release a DVD collection of material Johnny did before he took over “The Tonight Show,” including his 1955 sketch show on CBS and his game show “Who Do You Trust?” on ABC. Of course I said yes, so Bill arranged it, and I spent a lovely half-hour talking with Joanne. You can listen to that conversation here.
After he was diagnosed with cancer, I would drop Bill a note now and then asking how he and the project were doing and he’d respond rather quickly. But at some point as the disease progressed, our exchanges grew rarer and rarer and I eventually stopped because I didn’t want to invade his privacy any further.
But today I’m remembering Bill Zehme as a great storyteller who, ironically, never wanted to be thought of as a profiler of show business stars. He maintained that celebrity journalism was the lowest form of journalism, despite his status as one of the best ever.
One of the sad things about Bill being diagnosed with cancer several years ago was that he never finished the biography of Johnny he worked on for so long. Friends who saw what Bill wrote called it his magnum opus, but lamented his desire to talk to everyone who met or knew Carson. Knowing there was someone else who might have an anecdote about him — just one more! — kept him from completing the book.
I hope that his heirs will allow the parts that he had finished to be published at some point, because some Bill Zehme will always be better than no Bill Zehme.