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Larry King Live Weekend

Liz Smith Tells All; Jamie Rubin Goes Inside the NATO Air War; John Ritter and Henry Winkler Take on Broadway

Aired October 7, 2000 - 9:00 p.m. ET


LARRY KING, HOST: She's called the queen of scoops, gossip's grand dame. Liz Smith has a new memoir where she tells all.

He's the former State Department spokesman now living in London, Jamie Rubin.

Plus, you may know them separately as the Fonz and the third roommate; now they've hot on Broadway: Henry Winkler and John Ritter -- and they're all next on LARRY KING LIVE.

KING: Good evening on this Saturday night, good show tonight. We start with an old friend, a terrific, terrific columnist, Liz Smith. She's got a book that's gone through the roof. It's called "Natural Blonde."

This is your first? After all this time, finally an autobiography?

LIZ SMITH, AUTHOR, "NATURAL BLONDE": Yes, this is my first memoir.

KING: What took so long?

SMITH: You know, I was busy, Larry, like you; making a living, doing television, writing six columns a week. And I've been doing this for 35, 50 years.

KING: Did someone suggest the book previously?

SMITH: I had a lot of people begging me to write a book, but I kept saying, I can't write a book. I don't remember things well enough. I don't have any diaries. I didn't keep my letters.

But then Hyperion Publishing offered me so much money that my memory improved...

KING: Returned.

SMITH: My memory returned. I was able to concentrate.

KING: What's the toughest part about an autobiography?

SMITH: I think telling the truth about yourself, about your friends. Trying not to just make yourself this glorious hero of your own story, which is, as I say, I did because I couldn't stand to do it otherwise.

You know, trying not to be too tough on other people.

KING: It's also catharsis, isn't it, when you write something and let it out?

SMITH: It is. It's been a very unusual experience for me to be so, you know, have the focus on me. I always think of myself as a kid in the street with a pencil and piece of paper, watching other people.

So it's been fascinating to be the focus of it.

KING: Are you surprised at the reaction? I mean, not only is it a best-seller, but you make covers of magazines. You've been a whirlwind story.

Did that surprise you, or are you part of the marketing of this?

SMITH: I think, in a way, I am part of the marketing, just because I know a lot about how all of this works and everything; and I've got lots of friends in the business and so forth.

But, now, I was very surprised at the whirlwind take off of it. And I was sort of terminally naive in, I think -- thinking that my story wouldn't be -- it doesn't occur to me it was sensational. I don't mean to sound stupid, but...

KING: But when they advance revealed that you had revealed affairs with women.

SMITH: Right.

KING: This was something that, you know the public, that someone at your age would react to? I mean, you're a major public figure.

SMITH: I thought because I was someone of my age, but I'd get a...

KING: Who cares.

SMITH: Who cares about the sex life of a 77-year-old woman?

KING: So you were surprised at that?

SMITH: I was very surprised and sort of shocked, and I was criticized on both sides of the question. You know, I didn't tell enough. I wasn't forthcoming enough.

Well, I don't want to ruin anybody else's life. It's one thing to talk about what I've done. So I was a little reserved about it. My book is not about sex.

KING: It's about people you meet?

SMITH: It's about clawing your way to the top, I guess.

KING: But that part, you had to know as a journalist, would be picked up and advanced and help move this book?

SMITH: I never thought of it, honestly. I thought that most people in the business, I felt, maybe, already had my numbers and I didn't -- it didn't occur to me it would be so sensational; but evidently, Larry, if you just admit you ever had sex with either sex, your book is going to sell.

KING: Was it tough, then, being -- having both feelings?

SMITH: Yes, it was very bewildering to me.

KING: Especially young, right?

SMITH: I was young. I had already been married. I had already failed the Myrna Loy test once and I wouldn't do it again but, I mean, it was amazing to me that I had these strong feelings for this young woman. And, you know, it was, sort of, full blown romance, very romantic.

KING: Didn't you look in the mirror and question yourself, what am I?

SMITH: Yes, I said, "what am I doing," you know. And then, when that all blew up in my face and in my parents' face, the poor things; you know, I don't think there are too many parents in America just sitting around hoping their kids will come home and say I'm gay and I didn't ever say that.

KING: Especially not in Texas.

SMITH: No. It was the bible belt, it still is.

So I, kind of, went into hibernation from that. Went back to my other, more normal ways.

KING: Are you glad it's out, though, in a way? Are you kind of like, OK, it's out. Now what?

SMITH: You know, Diane Sawyer asked me an interesting question the other day. She said, don't you sort of feel like you gave something away that you'll never be able to get back that, you know, that element of your privacy? Of being your own person?

And I did feel that, but now I'm beginning to kind of relax and enjoy it I guess. It's nice to be open with people you admire and respect like I admire and respect you, and there are so many other people in journalism, you know.

KING: I tell you, everyone, Liz, that I've ever interviewed who had this occurrence, whether they came out or something like that, said it was the best thing they ever did, upon reflection. They were happy to know that whatever was a secret was is there. SMITH: I think that you are, kind of, only as sick as your secrets, and so that's true, I'm sure. Cathartic, philosophical, not a big deal, really, in the end.

KING: When you saw, though, in the past, in 15 years, did you ever report about people coming out?

SMITH: I did if they wanted it. I made a few mistakes about it, but I tried to formulate a thing that I wouldn't out anybody who didn't want to be outed. I mean, if people want to say that, you know, they paint themselves blue and run around in the shrubbery, it's OK with me.

And I've never written the kind of column that's, you know -- there are thousands of columns, one's I'd mind, that you can read.

KING: When we come back, you tell me what is gossip? And what makes a good gossip columnist?

Our guest is Liz Smith, the famous syndicated columnist, the best-known gossip columnist in the world and the author of a runaway best-seller "natural blonde." We'll be right back.


KING: We're back with Liz Smith.

What is gossip?

SMITH: Well, I think the dictionary says it's unsubstantiated rumor. But gossip is just a story; it's just part of a story that one person tells another person to make themselves more interesting.

KING: Now, gossip sometimes becomes front page. Does that mean when it's true it's front page?

SMITH: No, it means it might not be important enough, but a lot of today's gossip is tomorrow's headline. I didn't say that, Winchell did I, believe, and he was right.

I mean, look at John Kennedy. All the gossip about Kennedy in office never was in the papers, and it wasn't until the president had been killed that people began to print this stuff.

KING: Why did you choose to make that a method of living?

SMITH: It sort of fell upon me like a mantle on my shoulders. I was working for years in entertainment, but I had written a little gossip column at the daily paper in the University of Texas, and so I guess I got a little taste of the trivia, the fun of it, jokes, you know, what people were saying, that kind of stuff. But I never thought about it again much, even though I had adored Winchell when I was a kid. I used to listen to him and...

KING: He was the best, right? I mean... SMITH: Absolutely, non pareil. And years later I was a freelance writer after having been an editor for "Cosmopolitan" and "Sports Illustrated" and "The New York Daily News" came to me and said, we think you can write a great gossip column. And I demurred. I said, no I don't think people care about gossip anymore.

KING: You were wrong.

SMITH: Boy, was I wrong.

KING: Is the key in a good gossip column context?

SMITH: Well, yes it is, to some extent, but not totally. Because everybody has a different style. Let's take our friend Cindy Adams in "The New York Post." She has a very saucy, witty, kind of put down. She was there, but she didn't care about it. She's a really, you know, typical New York lady who knows everything. So that's her style and Page 6's style is really to go for the jugular.

KING: And what's Liz Smith's?

SMITH: And I am -- I think I'm more of an observer. I just like to see what's going on, tell what's going on. I'm more inclined to like something or to talk about the more positive side of what's happening in entertainment.

KING: Does that make you rare in that you like a positive story better than a negative story?

SMITH: I guess it does, but it seems to have worked for me. I'm not advocating it. I don't think I am a very good gossip columnist, but I think I'm a pretty good reporter. So I'm reporting and I'm observing and I'm saying what I think. And then, of course, as I got older and a maybe little better known, I got so that I would say a lot about what I thought, which some people don't like.

KING: And people break things through you, right, directly through you.


KING: A couple called and says they're getting divorced.

SMITH: Right.

KING: Why do you think they do that?

SMITH: Well, I think they think I'll give them a fair shake and I won't drag them around by the hair where they might be in the "National Enquirer" or something. I mean, I understand this philosophy. The other day, Goldie Hawn called, and what she wanted to say, she and Kurt Russell are not separated. They are not getting a divorce. They just happen to be two people who aren't always joined at the hip. They've had different lives to some extent. She wanted to get that out. She was tired of being speculated about. KING: You have broken the Trump divorce, Madonna's first pregnancy, Woodward and Bernstein's book "The Final Days." You had the big scoop on what was in it before anyone knew. When Jackie married Onassis, you had it. Rupert Murdoch getting divorced, you had it. Elizabeth Taylor's divorces, you've had all of them. This has to be...

SMITH: I haven't had them all.

KING: Is this -- what lends you on the trail of a good story? Is there a constant through that?

SMITH: I don't really know. I mean it's just what happens. People call me. I call them. I'm chatting them up. I run into you today, you tell me your going to lead the parade at the Mardi Gras, you're going to be King Bacchus.

KING: So that's an item. You use

SMITH: I mean, that's an item.

KING: Let's say it's a negative, though. You hear someone say to you...

SMITH: Well, then you have to go after it and you have to try to see if it's truth. And then you have to confront the people and ask them if they want to comment. And then they start telling you please don't print it. And then you have to talk them into it. You know, it's a process.

KING: Do you -- have you had to break that. Someone says don't print it and you know it's a fact, do you print?

SMITH: Sometimes. It depends, sort of. Like, if they make a really, you know, heart-breaking argument like my child will be thrown out of school or something, I don't know. This is the bad part about it. This is the thing that's not fun.

KING: There's an amazing revelation in the book about Sinatra. I remember when you took off on Sinatra. He would rap you. I was at some shows where he would sit, have that cigarette, sit on a stool and get into Liz Smith.

SMITH: He hated me.

KING: Hated you. Frank hated you.

SMITH: I said he was a bully, Larry. That he shouldn't mistreat people like Barbara Walters and Tom Brokaw, and lots of other people. But usually women. I said he was -- why didn't he pick on guys more. So he just got madder and madder.

KING: But then you made up.

SMITH: Well, we didn't make up because we'd never met.

KING: But he took you out?

SMITH: I had just loved from afar, you know.

KING: But he took you out.

SMITH: My friend Sid Zion kept saying to him, you're wrong about Liz, you should meet her and so forth. So finally he said he wanted to meet me and I went to Jimmy Weston's old saloon, do you remember that in New York?

KING: Sure do.

SMITH: And met him there. And we had a drink -- we had a lot of drinks -- for about two and a half hours and it was a great relief to know he wasn't going to be attacking me anymore and I would, God mercifully, not have to attack him.

KING: You liked him, did you not?

SMITH: I just adored him. When he wanted you to like him, I defy anybody to keep themselves from liking him.

KING: On the money.

SMITH: Well, didn't he love you?

KING: Yes, he was great to me. He's a guy who wanted to like you, and didn't want to not like you.

SMITH: Well, we never discussed our disagreements.

KING: That didn't come up.

SMITH: We sat down in this place, and Sid, who was sitting there smoking a big cigar, said, Well, OK, I'll leave you two kids to talk. And I said, don't leave, like that. I was furious at him, and he just left me alone with Sinatra. And then, so we started talking, and he said, do you know Irving Berlin, and I said, well no, Mr. Berlin has been retired since my youth. And he said, I talk to him every day to the phone and he just started telling me this fabulous story.

KING: And he romances.

SMITH: Yes, and I...

KING: We've got to break. Liz Smith is the guest. The book is "Natural Blonde." You won't put it down. We'll be right back.


KING: We're back. A lady I interviewed you write about, Judith Exner. Like her?

SMITH: I just couldn't resist her. And I thought she was one of the most maligned people in American history.

KING: John Kennedy's, one of his, other woman.

SMITH: Right. She thought -- she was just about the only one. She was a deluded 25-year-old girl who was in love with the president of the United States.

KING: But no dummy, Judith?

SMITH: No. I mean, terribly, terribly misunderstood, maligned, misbelieved because, you know, she did lie a lot, Larry, because she was fearful for her life. And I think what people don't remember about Judith Exner was she didn't talk or blab or anything until they made her, a congressional committee made her talk.

KING: You write about certain rules you have, right? Children with celebrities are out?

SMITH: Right. I don't do that.

KING: You don't out people.


KING: You don't write blind items?

SMITH: I just flinched when you said that because I don't anymore, because I wrote an unfortunate one not too long ago that got me in a lot of trouble.

KING: With?

SMITH: It was just, I shouldn't have done it. Let's put it that way.

KING: A blind item is? Explain that.

SMITH: You don't identify the person.

KING: A blind item is when you say, what singer is dating what dancer?

SMITH: I was absolutely certain that this person, a talk show person, was going to come out and I really had it practically from the mouth so I'd print. So I print this as a blind item with a result that about nine people called up and volunteered that they were the subject of the item and that they weren't coming out.

KING: That's revelatory.

SMITH: So I was sorry I did it and it made a lot of people unhappy and for my pains I swore I wouldn't do it any more.

KING: You also wrote about Pat Nixon's drinking problem, before the book came out, right?

SMITH: Well, that was in the...

KING: You knew it was coming in the book.

SMITH: It was in the Woodward-Bernstein book. But later I kind of thought, why didn't I just leave that out. Poor Mrs. Nixon, she didn't need it.

KING: What's the worst part about what you do?

SMITH: That, where you're having a regret that you wounded somebody who, sort of, can't defend themselves. What was Mrs. Nixon going to do, call a press conference? You know.

KING: Is the best part meeting the people you meet?


KING: Having the life you have -- you have a great life, don't you?

SMITH: I do. I have had the most wonderful time and lived way beyond my wildest dreams.

You know, when I was a kid in Fort Worth I just wanted the bright lights and glamour. I wanted to know what the Stork Club and El Morocco (ph) were. I was always reading, hearing -- I thought there was a place somewhere where Fred and Ginger were dancing on a black glass floor. I didn't know that was just -- Hollywood made that up. That's what I wanted, and you know what, I think I almost got all of it.

KING: Is New York not the same, right?

SMITH: Well, New York changes.

KING: The New York of Winchell is no longer?

SMITH: No, that's gone.

KING: There's no Winchell anymore.

SMITH: There's no Winchell, there's just hundreds of other gossip columnists beating each other's brains out for a few little crumbs. There's nobody powerful like Winchell. No print voice that means anything like -- you have to remember, Winchell helped Franklin Roosevelt put the United States into World War II.

KING: He made stocks...

SMITH: ... go up and down.

KING: He could make a career.

SMITH: He was the major propaganda outlet for the president, too. And he was one of the first people to talk against the Nazis, talk against Hitler, and he always defended black people and stood up for their rights.

Later in life he went nuts. He began to believe his own us publicity.

KING: And the Josephine Baker incident, when she wasn't served at the Stork Club and...

SMITH: He took the wrong side in that.

One person went to Winchell's funeral. Unbelievable.

KING: Do you like the socializing that you have to do? A good columnist has to get out, doesn't she? You can't sit at a desk and just do this?

SMITH: No; I like it some. I get tired of it when I would like to, you know, go and play with kids in the park or not do anything or watch television or, you know, eat 5,000 calories for dinner.

KING: Did you know Rock Hudson?

SMITH: I did. I knew him very well.

KING: Was it tough? Was that one of the toughest periods for a writer and a friend?

SMITH: The end of his life was pretty awful. The rest of his life was wonderful, except that he had to keep this secret about being gay.

KING: That was a secret you knew, right?

SMITH: I didn't know it at first. I didn't know it when I first met him. I was just like any girl meeting Rock Hudson, I thought maybe I had a chance there. But we became friends, and still, he never discussed being homosexual, not with me, anyway.

KING: I don't think with anyone, did he?


KING: Didn't he die, even, denying it?

SMITH: Sort of. He just couldn't deal.

You know, he was a guy, a truck driver who wanted to be a great actor and they thrust him into romantic stardom. Well, if he had revealed his inclinations, he could never have been the big star he was.

KING: Didn't you help him keep the secret?

SMITH: I helped him to the extent -- I helped him to keep a woman from blackmailing him, because I happen to have a file on this woman for some unknown reason, and I sent it to him and he showed it to her and she dropped her blackmail. But blackmail is different than creating a fabrication.

KING: Blackmail is a no-no. SMITH: That's awful. It's against the law.

KING: Yes, also that's a crime.

Back with our remaining moments with Liz Smith, the author of "Natural Blonde." And more great guests to come; don't go away.


KING: In our remaining moments with Liz Smith, one thing that has risen in the time of Liz Smith is "Star," "Globe," "Enquirer." When we were kids it was "Confidential" magazine, and that was, what, once a month I think. What do you make of all of this?

SMITH: Well, that was worse, "Confidential."

KING: Oh, it was. But what do you make of all...

SMITH: Well, I don't know.

Listen, Larry, in a great, free democracy I think a lot of transgressions against privacy and freedom of speech and everything -- I mean, it's better to have freedom of speech, to have excess, to have people hurt a little bit or maybe even a lot, rather than to have censorship and to -- this country is great from that very thing, that bending over backwards to let them all say whatever they like.

KING: This may be naive. Why is it a story if he is sleeping with she? Why is it?

SMITH: I think it's just human nature. We like to know what the king is doing tonight, if it's a movie star. We like to know what the next-door neighbor is doing, too.

This is just human nature, this thing, this -- what's going on. If I just see you and I say, hey, Larry, you look great, you're doing great, the weather is...

No. But if I tell you something I really know, it's more interesting.

KING: Also, though, there are people who like to see bad things happen to other people. That I've never understood.

SMITH: No, I haven't either, but we are not perfect yet in our humanness.

KING: One of your many papers -- you're in hundreds of papers -- "The New York Post" is really tough on Hillary.

SMITH: They have eight columnists who do nothing but beat up the Clinton.

KING: They beat her up every day, now she's ahead in the poll. Is she going to win? SMITH: I think she'll win. And I'll vote for her because I'm a yellow dog Democrat. I'm the only liberal writing on "The New York Post" But I think Mrs. Clinton could do more for New York state than her opponent.

KING: What do you make of how she's run?

SMITH: Very strange, Larry, because you know perfectly well what a nice, charge, appealing person she can be in person. So why she has conducted such a strange kind of glacial campaign amazes me.

KING: Glacial is a good word for it.

SMITH: I just don't know. I mean, she didn't get warm and cuddly or anything. Maybe she deserves her own dignity or something. I don't know.

KING: And Gore -- apparently New York is pretty solid for Gore.

SMITH: Well New York is a big liberal state and Lieberman has helped Gore there.

KING: Is it difficult being a lonely voice at "The Post."

SMITH: No, they're been great to me. They're all wonderful. Mr. Murdoch called me himself to say he was getting a divorce. He didn't call his other columnists. I wonder why that was.

KING: Rupert Murdoch is an interesting fellow, isn't he? I mean, he's a complicated -- I see a lot of him and he's always nice.

SMITH: He is. I've worked for Mr. Murdoch a long time off and on and I'm intrigued by him.

KING: All right, how long are you going to keep this up Liz? How long are you going to keep being Liz Smith?

SMITH: You know, I was thinking when I when I went to New York there were nine newspapers, I work for seven of them.

If they shoot at me, I guess I'll quit. I don't want to quit, Larry, unless I'm sick or not capable of doing it.

KING: What did you do at "Sports Illustrated"?

SMITH: I was a writer. I wrote about the social side of sports.

KING: You were there when that magazine started taking off, then, right?

SMITH: Right. It was a great experience. It was pre-women's lib. It was a great place to be a woman.

KING: One other thing: Is there anyone famous you don't know, you want to know?

SMITH: Yes, I don't really know Jack Nicholson. I like him. I've met him, but I don't know him. We've never talked or...

KING: You're an ace, Liz.

SMITH: Thank you. Thank you, Larry.

KING: If you've got her as a friend, you ain't going to do worse. She's the best.

Liz Smith, syndicated columnist, the book is "Natural Blonde".

Jamie Rubin, formerly with the State Department, married one of our people, he's next.

Don't go away.


KING: Next we're going to spend some moments with James Rubin, the former U.S. State Department spokesman, author of a couple stories in the "Financial Times," "Countdown to a Very Personal War."

He was there when everything broke loose in Belgrade and surroundings and now that it's back in the news again -- of course, he didn't plan on that happening and writing this -- that was an unusual experience, wasn't it?

JAMES RUBIN, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: It sure was. It was a very moving time for the whole world to watch what was going on in Kosovo and then for NATO to try to do something that's never really been done before, which was to go to war not for oil, not for national security in the purest sense, but just because it was the right thing to do.

KING: Now, in your article, you recount your days as spokesperson. Did you have to lie at all?

RUBIN: No, that's the first rule that I made with the State Department when I got in there. I will admit that a few times people would suggested things that came on the edge of being misleading and I just made clear I wasn't going to say it. The first five, six, seven times you make clear you're never going to say something that's not true, then people stop even suggesting it.

KING: You say that March 24, 1999 was the worst night of your life, why?

RUBIN: Well, what happened that night, there was an enormous amount of stress just because NATO was finally, after those months and years was going to go forward and bomb the Serbs because of what they were doing in Kosovo. And I knew my wife was in Belgrade and was going to do what she had done so many times before, which was report for CNN about the dropping and the strikes that would hit first in Belgrade or in Yugoslavia; and what happened was, I was pulled out of a meeting that was going on to be told by a president of CNN that she had gone missing and that Serb police were scouring the halls of various hotel rooms and demanding to know where she was and there was a real risk of threat to her life because she had been threatened in Belgrade before.

KING: That, of course, is Christiane Amanpour.

By the way, was that difficult? Were you wearing two hats -- having a wife who's a journalist for an international network and being a spokesperson for one of the countries involved in a conflict?

RUBIN: There's no question it caused extra sensitivity and a lot of conflict within me. I think that both of us found our ways to be loyal to who we worked for and I think our bosses -- me at the State Department, and her at CNN, felt that we were doing our jobs and doing it with discretion and loyalty, even though we had this, sort of, built in awkwardness.

KING: How well did you get along with, and how good was, Madeleine Albright?

RUBIN: Well, she was one of the best bosses, I think, anybody could have. You know, I worked for her for seven years.

As you know her well from all the times she's been on your show, Larry, she's a very warm and a sweet person, but she's also a tough person; and that combination of being both tough and also a warm and human person made it a real privilege to travel around the world and watch her do her job as secretary of state. And we've stayed friends and it was a great ride.

KING: What was it like to become well known yourself? You were on the media daily.

RUBIN: Well, I was; and I think that's one of the strange new phenomenon, our 24-hour media world, and I'm sure you know this too, but when you're first noticed on the street and someone first comes up to you and talks to you as if they know you, it really hits you like a ton of bricks. And it's something you get used to and, certainly, when I was representing the government, it was awkward as well, because people assigned to me every single opinion or every single view they had about the United States government, and I can assure you, there are a lot out there.

KING: Do you miss government?

RUBIN: I don't think you can have a job like I had for seven years, being in the midst of these earth-shaking events and not feel some tug. On the other hand, I worked a long time, eight years around the round, I was getting tired and I felt like I was beginning to burn out a little bit and it's such an important job and such a privilege to work -- I think the moment that's no longer true is the time to get out, and that's the way it worked for me.

And it coincided, as you know, with my wife having a baby and me moving to London.

KING: In that regard I want to spend a couple more minutes with Jamie Rubin, so we'll hold him for a couple of minutes and then we'll meet Henry Winkler and John Ritter. James Rubin's article has appeared in "The Financial Times," "Countdown to a Very Personal War." A conflict that still rages.

We'll be right back with some more of Jamie Rubin and then the two boys. Don't go away.


KING: We're back with James Rubin.

What are you doing now?

RUBIN: Well, I'm doing a little writing. I'm giving some speeches around the country, getting an opportunity to talk for myself and not on behalf of the government, and I'm taking care of the baby a lot and getting used to life overseas and trying to figure out what the next stage is.

KING: So you're like a house husband at times? I mean, your wife is all over right?

RUBIN: Sometimes it is. She's still traveling, so sometimes I do find myself home in the middle of the a day when everybody else is at the office and some friends call me and I'm taking the baby from upstairs to downstairs and it makes my giggle; but I'm keeping pretty busy with events in the world and the speaking and writing.

KING: What is the interest in London in the American election?

RUBIN: Well it's intense. You know, when you're overseas you realize how much scrutiny they really give to the United States.

We are the 800,000-pound gorilla in the room in Europe, especially in London, where we have such a close relationship. And they are really, really focused on this. I think a lot of people are, in particular, because it's such a close race and any signal, any sign they somehow think I could steer them in the right direction and I think they are obviously wondering whether there's going to be a change in the administration or whether Gore will approach things the same way. But they can't get enough of American politics.

KING: James, is there no conflict like the Middle East conflict? It was reported that Clinton said, this is impossible.

RUBIN: It's really something. You know, I've spent a lot of hours in rooms where Secretary Albright was working with the Palestinians and the Israelis or the Syrians and a lot of others, and they have an ability to focus on -- with extraordinary repetition and detail on the tiniest little issues. And the emotions are so strong and so powerful; and sometimes you're sitting there with nothing, really, to do -- and yet, even though they disagree and even though they're not coming up with an agreement, they so desperately want the United States to be there sitting with them.

So there's kind of a built-in schizophrenia in the way the leaders approach the Middle East peace process. It's kind of approach-avoidance. The closer they get, the more emotional or concerned they get and they desperately want the United States to stay involved.

KING: Did you ever think, quickly, whether ground troops were ever going to go in in Kosovo?

RUBIN: Well I think that was a big question. You know, I had to repeat every day this policy that we had established which was, no plan, no intention for ground troops.

KING: But what did you think?

RUBIN: Right; in the terminology, that didn't rule it out. I thought that if it came to it, that president Clinton -- and he's the only one who can really answer your question. I hope you ask him -- knew we had to win this war and that losing simply was not an option, and if ground troops were ultimately necessary to do so, I personally believe he would have used them.

KING: Dad, get some rest. Thanks, James.

RUBIN: Thank you, Larry.

KING: James Rubin, former U.S. State Department spokesman -- spokesperson, wrote a two-part article for "Financial Time,": "Countdown to a Very Personal War."

Henry Winkler and John Ritter both -- they've made major names for themselves in American television, are now appearing together in a new Neil Simon comedy on Broadway, called "The Dinner Party." We'll meet them right after this.


KING: Neil Simon, the greatest of them all, maybe, has a new play. It was sensationally received at the Kennedy Center in Washington. It opens October 19th on Broadway in New York, and two of its principals are with us from our studios in New York.

They're Henry Winkler, he's on your left, the famed actor, producer, and director. And on your right, John Ritter. Two of the most venerable names in the history of American television. Their shows lasted forever. Let's start with Henry Winkler. What brings you to Broadway, Henry?

HENRY WINKLER, ACTOR: You know, this is where I actually started. I started in repertory theater with the Yale Repertory Theater, then I came to New York. I did one play in 1973. It was called "42 Seconds from Broadway." It opened and closed in one night.

KING: Almost in 42 seconds.

WINKLER: Yes. 42 seconds. And I've always wanted to make it right. And my wonderful family in California said, you know what, go, and they let me leave home without them.

KING: And the play came to you how?

WINKLER: Neil Simon called me in April of 1999, and said would you just read the play for the Mark Taper Forum where it had its birth in California in Los Angeles. And it was just a play reading. And then in July of that year he called and said would you just do it at the Mark Taper, and I said, yes, I will. It would be a pleasure.

KING: And the rest is history. Now John Ritter, what brings Mr. Ritter of "The Waltons" and "Three's Company" and Jack Tripper. What brings him to Broadway.

JOHN RITTER, ACTOR: Well, I'm riding on Henry's coattails, just like I did in the '70s. He was our lead-in, responsible for the entire ABC success story. He and I ...

KING: Your two shows were back to back?

RITTER: Well, we had -- there was "Laverne and Shirley," but "Happy Days" started off the evening and then, you know, we just sort of swam along with them.

KING: What brings you to Broadway, John?

RITTER: Well, you know, I heard that Henry was cast in this Neil Simon play, and, you know, I knew Gordon Davidson, I got my equity card many years ago doing plays at the mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and I read for Gordon and Neil Simon and John Rando and they hired me and we started rehearsing in L.A. and it's been just wonderful. We have Len Cariou, Penny Fuller, Jan Maxwell and the lovely Veanne Cox who drove to the studio with us today.

KING: There were six in the cast, right, John.

RITTER: Six of us, yes,

WINKLER: And we're each 1/6 of an incredible ensemble.

RITTER: I just want to tell you, we are three thirds of a group here, Larry. Your looking at two former Bacchaes or Bachusses from New Orleans, '77 and '86. And now, in the year 2000, your going to be saying a lot of hey, mister, throw me something. It's the greatest time in the world.

KING: All right, Henry, what's special about this Neil Simon play? Everyone knows Neil Simon, they named a theater after him. What makes "Dinner Party" special?

WINKLER: Well, you know, I'll tell you something. First of all you get to work with a master. He -- this is my image. It was like we were sitting on two -- on opposite sides of a block of marble. Neil was on one side and the actors on the other. And then we chiseled and met in the middle and formed this flower. He has written an articulate, funny, touching play that is so incredibly insightful. Audiences in L.A. and in Washington came to us and said, you know, there is something that everybody says on the stage that we're going to take home with us that is meaningful to us. KING: And John I know the critic in Washington said not only is it a great comedy, it's a great drama, too.

RITTER: Yes, she really -- the only thing that was missing from her review was the word masterpiece. I have never seen quite a review that loving to a playwrite. It was just amazing, and I think he deserves all the accolades he can get. He really has done so much for American theater and a lot of time the critics get a little real tough with him. And...

KING: They did in Los Angeles, didn't they?

RITTER: Yes, and he really has always worked the play. The thing that is so touching about -- I can come right up and call him Mr. Simon. The thing that's great about Mr. Simon is he really uses the audience as a partner, and they tell him what's working and what's not. So he's always working on a play. We got some cuts today.

KING: Really?

RITTER: Yes, and, I mean little changes, you know. And he's coming to the play tonight and giving us more notes which we digest and then we do the best we can.

KING: Now I'm going to see a preview of it in a week. Will I be seeing what the audiences will see on October 19th?

WINKLER: Absolutely.

RITTER: Unfortunately, Henry and I are not there that night. We have a parade in Buffalo we promised to go to, but I'm sure that the replacements will be just fine. You will see the play that's pretty close to opening night. We are going to be there. I'm just joking because that's the kind of guy I am.

KING: Henry, is comedy more difficult?

WINKLER: Oh, comedy is so difficult because it depends...

KING: See? That was funny.

RITTER: He is funny. John is funny. And this is our fifth time, actually, of working together over the years and we have a wonderful time.

KING: Comedy is more difficult because you can't play it as comedy, right?

WINKLER: You cannot. You must play a comedy as a drama and sometimes even a drama as a comedy, but the timing is so critical. It is so precise. If you are a millimeter of a second off, the joke is gone, the moment is gone. You're gone.

KING: As we're going to take a break before we have our remaining moments with Henry Winkler and John Ritter, after I see this play I'll let our audience know what I think. It officially opens October 19th. It's Neil Simon's umpteenth play, It is "The Dinner Party. As we go to break, here's a scene -- by the way, "Happy Days" is now seen on the Odyssey Network. Here's a scene from one of the great show in the history of American television. Watch. We'll be right back.


WINKLER: Where is Chachi? He wants to join the Lords or something like that.

RON HOWARD, ACTOR: Now wait, Fonz. Wait a minute.


HOWARD: Look. Don't hit him or anything. I already had a long talk with him.

WINKLER: At this moment in my life, I think that belting is better than talking.

HOWARD: Well, maybe neither one is best. I think he's got to make up his mind on this.

WINKLER: Hey, he can make up his own mind. If he makes it wrong I'm going to tie his eyebrows together.



KING: As we come back, that scene you just saw was from another great television show for years, "Three's Company," and that can be seen on Nick at Nite.

John we only have, like, minutes. Will you give us a synopsis: the dinner party is about...

RITTER: Well, there's a dinner party that's being thrown for six people and we do not know why we're there. We don't know each other and something happens that makes it very, very clear, but it's almost like an Agatha Christie mystery with a lot of comedy and it's also very, very touching and real.

I mean, it's very hard to describe, but the people have told us that they really, really love the play; and we have had many people come back and bring their friends.

KING: So Henry, these six people gather for dinner, they're not married to each other, they're not brothers...

WINKLER: Don't say a word!

We can't tell you exactly, but six people are invited to this party. They don't know who threw it. They don't know why they're there and they don't know who's coming and then that is unraveled as we go -- and as my ear piece is being unraveled from my ear. RITTER: The title used to be "Six Characters in Search of an Hoers d'oeuvres." Am I right?


KING: So it's got a lot of elements, her. There's mystery, there's drama and, certainly with Neil Simon, there's a lot of comedy.

Do audiences surprise you, Henry? For example, do some days they laugh in certain parts that they don't in others?

WINKLER: You know, that is true. It is very interesting and within the first four minutes of the play, we can feel where the audience is pretty much as a whole and then we start to along with them; you know, because that is the wonderful thing about doing a stage play is that you're actually there with a thousand people and it's immediate. So it's a lot of give and take.

KING: And John, when you're doing a play every night at eight, does the character change? Do you bring new things to it all the time?

RITTER: Well, you find things; but Neil Simon didn't like it too much when we came out in clown makeup. We stopped doing that.

KING: No, but do you find new things all the time to get yourself interested?

RITTER: My son Jason, who's actually -- my son Jason Ritter is doing a play at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York here with Mary Steenbergen. He's going to NYU, he's a 20-year-old boy and he's doing really well; and he came to see us in New York the other night, and he didn't recognize it.

It was almost completely different than what he saw.

KING: Henry, you produce and you direct. Would you like to direct on Broadway?

WINKLER: Oh, that would be a lot of fun, except that that is a whole other kettle of fish. Right now I'm very happy just being an actor on Broadway. This is really thrilling. I know I'm supposed to be cooler, but I'm thrilled.

KING: I met you in the hotel and you were jumping around the lobby -- how excited you are about doing this play.

RITTER: We're really grateful and people here have been really, really nice to us. And you thought that this might be sort of a cold fortress in a very tough enclave, but people have really opened up their arms to us and we really are so grateful and thankful of the reception so far. It's been wonderful.

KING: Would you guys do a sitcom again? Henry, would you do one?

WINKLER: You know what, I'll tell you doing something.

Doing a situational comedy is a wonderful way to make a living. You get to do your -- have fun all day and then you get to go home and be with your family. The only downside of being here is that my family is in L.A.

KING: So you would do one if you liked it.

WINKLER: I would, yes, but right now...

KING: John, would you?

RITTER: I'd like to do one with him.

KING: The two of you together, why not?

RITTER: Called "Happy Company."

KING: "Happy Company."


How long are you committed to the play?

RITTER: Well, you know, for as long as they want us. Until they run us out of town on a rail.

KING: I mean, if you have a smash, you could spend two years in New York?

RITTER: Yes, and with the actors strike coming up it might be good to look at the theater a little closer.

KING: That's right, it's not going to affect -- it's not a conflict involving...

RITTER: For film and television.

KING: Do you think there's going to be one, by the way, Henry?

WINKLER: The way that it's looking now, you know, there is a terrible strike going on right now with commercial actors and voice- overs.

KING: Terrible.

WINKLER: Actors and actresses -- and there is a tremendous -- the actors are ready to come back to the table and the other side has just walked away from the table, and it is causing havoc on the lives of so many wonderful actors and actresses across this country.

RITTER: I heard a horrible rumor that the "Survivor" cast members are going to be doing excerpts of "Three's Company" on Nick at Night.

KING: John, did you like growing up in a show business family? RITTER: Yes, I did, except it was weird. You know, my father was a country music singer, and a motion picture actor, Tex Ritter; and I, sort of, had a normal upbringing except dad would come down in full regalia with the boots and the guns and the hats and the horse would eat with us. But other than that it was pretty normal.

KING: He did the original "High Noon," did he not?

RITTER: That's exactly right. Oh, the original "High Noon," isn't it funny they have to say that, now because of the unoriginal "High Noon" that followed.

KING: Henry, were you a New York kid?

WINKLER: Yes, I was born and raised here in New York city.

KING: What a thrill it must be to be on Broadway for a New York kid.

WINKLER: I can't tell you. I cannot tell you -- that I came to see plays. I dreamt about it. I was on Broadway from eight until eleven on March 18, 1973 and here we are again in this wonderful, compelling, funny play.

KING: I'll see you guys next week. I'm really looking forward to it, and thanks.

Henry Winkler and John Ritter: there they are.

RITTER: We look forward to seeing you, Larry.

KING: Venerable aces of the small screen and now on the theatrical stage in "The Dinner Party" in New York, official opening at The Music Box theater on Broadway on October 19. Playing previews now.

Thanks for joining us. Big political show coming up Monday. Have a great rest of the weekend and good night.


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