The Late Shift (film)

The Late Shift is a 1996 American television film produced by HBO. It was directed by Betty Thomas and based on the book of the same name by The New York Times media reporter Bill Carter.

The Late Shift
DVD cover
Written byGeorge Armitage
Bill Carter
Directed byBetty Thomas
StarringJohn Michael Higgins
Daniel Roebuck
Kathy Bates
Rich Little
Treat Williams
Theme music composerIra Newborn
Country of originUnited States
Original language(s)English
Executive producer(s)Ivan Reitman
Joe Medjuck (co-executive producer)
Daniel Goldberg (co-executive producer)
Producer(s)Don Carmody
CinematographyMac Ahlberg
Editor(s)Peter Teschner
Running time95 minutes
Production company(s)HBO Pictures
Northern Lights Entertainment
Original networkHBO
Original release
  • February 24, 1996 (1996-02-24)


Behind-the-scenes network politics embroil television executives responsible for late-night programming after 1991's retirement announcement of Johnny Carson from The Tonight Show on NBC.

Carson's permanent guest host Jay Leno and the host of the show that follows Carson's each night, David Letterman, both vie for the position. It is widely assumed that Letterman is the hand-picked heir apparent Carson favors, but privately NBC executives speculate that Leno could be more popular with 11:30 p.m. audiences, as well as easier for the network to deal with and control.

Leno's tough manager Helen Kushnick secures the spot for Leno with negotiating tactics that could be construed as either shrewd or unethical. Leno is concerned that her methods might alienate Carson but does not wish to be disloyal, as he believes Kushnick to be responsible for his success and had promised to take care of her after her husband's death. She harshly instructs the comic to just keep telling jokes and leave the business end to her.

Surely enough, she lands Leno the coveted job as Tonight Show host and the producer's position for herself, on the condition that no public announcement will be made. Letterman continues to believe he is still in contention for the position. Another reason NBC's executives prefer Leno is that they will own the show, whereas Letterman stipulates that he will maintain ownership rights to his.

Kushnick's bullying manner angers Leno's bosses, colleagues, potential guests, and others to the point of interfering with network airtime and relationships. The top NBC executives warn the mild-mannered Leno that they are going to fire Kushnick and, if he sides with her, he would be let go as well. Kushnick is dismissed by NBC and barred from the studio lot. She keeps pleading with Leno to keep his promise to take care of her and her daughter, but he is angry because she nearly cost him a dream job. Leno eavesdrops on a private executive meeting in which they discuss the possibility of having Letterman step in as host.

Letterman, devastated at being passed over, hires Hollywood superagent Michael Ovitz to negotiate on his behalf after Ovitz makes the dramatic promise that not only will he ensure Letterman is offered an 11:30 p.m. show, he will be offered it by every network. True to Ovitz's word, Letterman is courted by all the major networks and syndicates. He continues to hold on to his lifelong dream of hosting The Tonight Show, but Tonight Show/Late Show producer Peter Lassally makes it clear that the Tonight job is now "damaged goods" and that he would be working with the very people who passed him by, who may also double cross him and retain Leno if he can make the show a hit before Letterman takes over. Letterman is still unconvinced, so Lassally suggests he call Carson to ask for advice. Letterman asks Carson what he would do in the same situation, and after Carson says he would probably leave NBC. Letterman accepts a lucrative offer to host his own 11:30 show on CBS.

Letterman and Leno ultimately go head to head at 11:30, with Letterman winning in the TV ratings in the beginning, then Leno firmly re-establishing his show's lead in the ratings.


Kathy BatesHelen Kushnick
John Michael HigginsDavid Letterman
Daniel RoebuckJay Leno
Bob BalabanWarren Littlefield
Ed Begley, Jr.Rod Perth
Peter JurasikHoward Stringer
Reni SantoniJohn Agoglia
John KapelosRobert Morton
Steven GilbornPeter Lassally
John GetzBrandon Tartikoff
Lawrence PressmanBob Wright
Sandra BernhardHerself
Treat WilliamsMichael Ovitz
Paul ElderRupert Murdoch
Michael FairmanMichael Gartner
Ken KragenHimself
Aaron LustigPaul Shaffer
Kevin ScannellDick Ebersol
Edmund L. ShaffJack Welch
Kerry NoonanLetterman's girlfriend
Rich LittleJohnny Carson
Little RichardHimself
Nicholas GuestBob Iger
Penny PeyserSusan Binford
Lucinda JenneyDebbie Vickers
Arthur TaxierLee Gabler

Real life CBS executive Rod Perth (played by Ed Begley Jr. in the film) appears briefly in a cameo role. (He’s the man Howard Stringer mistakes for Perth in the CAA lobby). Actor Ed Begley Jr. and Rod Perth share an extraordinary physical resemblance, something the film makers milk for humor in the scene.


The film received seven Emmy Award nominations in categories including "Outstanding Made for Television Movie,"[1] makeup,[2] casting,[2] writing,[3] directing,[1] and acting.[1] For her role in the film as Helen Kushnick, actress Kathy Bates won awards from the American Comedy Awards,[4] the Golden Globe Awards,[5] the Satellite Awards,[6] and the Screen Actors Guild Awards.[7] The film was also recognized with an award for "Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Specials" from the Directors Guild of America Awards.[8] However, David Letterman, who saw clips of the film, called the movie "the biggest waste of film since my wedding photos." He also likened John Michael Higgins' portrayal to that of a "psychotic chimp." Letterman invited Higgins onto his program, but Higgins declined.[9]

Awards and nominations

Year Award Category Nominee Result
1996 Artios Award Best Casting for TV Movie of the Week Nancy Foy Nominated[10]
Emmy Award Outstanding Individual Achievement in Casting for a Miniseries or a Special Nancy Foy, Phyllis Huffman Nominated[2][10]
Outstanding Individual Achievement in Directing for a Miniseries or a Special Betty Thomas Nominated[1][10]
Outstanding Individual Achievement in Makeup for a Miniseries or a Special June Westmore, Monty Westmore, Sharin Helgestad, Del Acevedo, Matthew W. Mungle Nominated[2][10]
Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing for a Miniseries or a Special Bill Carter, George Armitage Nominated[3][10]
Outstanding Made for Television Movie Ivan Reitman, Joe Medjuck, Daniel Goldberg, Don Carmody Nominated[1][10]
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Special Treat Williams Nominated[1][10]
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Special Kathy Bates Nominated[1][10]
1997 American Comedy Award Funniest Female Performer in a TV Special (Leading or Supporting) Network, Cable or Syndication Kathy Bates Won[4][10]
DGA Award Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Specials Betty Thomas, Jake Jacobson, Richard Graves, Robert Lorenz Won[8][10]
Golden Globe Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TV Kathy Bates Won[5][10]
Satellite Award Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television Kathy Bates Won[6][10][11]
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television Treat Williams Nominated[10][11]
Screen Actors Guild Award Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a TV Movie or Miniseries Kathy Bates Won[7][10]


Kushnick filed a $30 million lawsuit against Bill Carter, author of the eponymous book upon which the HBO film was based, claiming libel. Specifically, her case related to a claim that she planted a story about Carson's retirement in the New York Post.[12] The then-pending lawsuit was noted in the film's epilogue, as the Broadway tune "There's No Business Like Show Business" plays. The lawsuit settled out of court for an undisclosed sum; Kushnick died of cancer in August 1996.[13]


On January 19, 2010, during Conan O'Brien's final week as host of "The Tonight Show," guest Quentin Tarantino jokingly suggested that he direct a sequel to The Late Shift, cast O'Brien as himself and make it a revenge movie in the style of his film Kill Bill with the title Late Shift 2: The Rolling Thunder of Revenge.[14][15][16] The Toronto Star reported in February 2010 that a sequel to The Late Shift film was in planning stages.[17] In the final episode of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, O'Brien stated he wished that actress Tilda Swinton could portray him in a film version about The Tonight Show conflict,[18] referring to a running gag about their similar appearance. Swinton subsequently expressed interest in being cast as Conan O'Brien in a sequel to The Late Shift.[19]

When asked in a June 2010 interview with Movieline if there was going to be a film adaptation of The War for Late Night, Carter responded that plans were not serious at that point, stating, "Not really. Nothing serious. Let’s put it this way: There have always been people kicking it around because they think it’s funny. ... Letterman made a ... joke saying that Max von Sydow should play him. So, you know, people are just kicking it around like that."[20] Actor Bob Balaban, who portrayed NBC executive Warren Littlefield in the film The Late Shift said he would like to portray Jeff Zucker, and stated actor Jason Alexander would also be a good choice to play Zucker.[21]


  1. "Emmy Nominations". Orlando Sentinel. Tribune Publishing. September 9, 1996. p. A4.
  2. Elber, Lynn (Associated Press) (July 19, 1996). "'ER' leads the way with 17 nominations for Emmy Awards". The Deseret News. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret News Publishing Company. p. C5.
  3. Lorando, Mark (July 22, 1996). "Emmy aberration". The Times-Picayune. New Orleans, Louisiana: The Times-Picayune Publishing Corporation. p. C1.
  4. Sun-Sentinel wire services (February 19, 1997). "Disney cuts a deal on new series". Sun-Sentinel. Sun-Sentinel Company. p. 5E.
  5. From Beacon Journal wire services (January 21, 1997). "Golden Globe Winners List". Akron Beacon Journal. Ohio. p. C9.
  6. City News Service (January 17, 1997). "Golden (not Globe) Awards recognize finest in Hollywood". Daily News of Los Angeles. p. L10.
  7. Associated Press (February 25, 1997). "'Seinfeld,' 'ER' win Screen Guild Awards". Telegraph Herald. Dubuque, Iowa. p. A11.
  8. "People". Contra Costa Times. Walnut Creek, California. March 11, 1997. p. A02.
  9. Jacobs, A.J. (February 9, 1996). "Early Word on HBO's Late Shift". Entertainment Weekly. Time Inc. Retrieved March 1, 2011.
  10. Internet Movie Database staff (2009). "Awards for The Late Shift". Internet Movie Database., Inc. Retrieved 2010-01-16.
  11. "1997 1st Annual SATELLITE Awards". International Press Academy. The International Press Academy and The SATELLITE Awards. 2009. Archived from the original on 2011-06-26. Retrieved 2010-01-23.
  12. Fleming, Michael. "Dish: Fox backing off the gay buss", Variety, 21 April 1994.
  13. Shales, Tom (January 19, 2010). "Tom Shales on the villains in the Leno-O'Brien fiasco at NBC". The Washington Post. The Washington Post Company. Retrieved 2010-01-23.
  14. McNamara, Mary (January 20, 2010). "Show Tracker - Late-night Watch: The Revenge of Conan O'Brien". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 21, 2012.
  15. Conan O'Brien; Quentin Tarantino (January 19, 2010). "Season 1, Episode 142". The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien.
  16. Bierly, Mandi (January 20, 2010). "Quentin Tarantino to direct Conan O'Brien in 'Late Shift 2: The Rolling Thunder of Revenge'". Entertainment Weekly: PopWatch. Entertainment Weekly, Inc.; Retrieved October 21, 2012.
  17. Salem, Rob (February 28, 2010). "Why Tonight belongs to yesterday". The Toronto Star. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited. p. E01.
  18. "Conan O'Brien's next move". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. February 24, 2010.
  19. "The Bullseye: Hits". Entertainment Weekly. (1088). January 29, 2010. Retrieved 2010-10-04.
  20. Miller, Julie (June 18, 2010). "Late Shift Author Bill Carter on ConanGate, Letterman's Heirs and the Cannibalization of Late Night". Movieline. Retrieved 2010-10-04.
  21. Gillette, Felix (January 27, 2010). "Bob Balaban on Late Night". The New York Observer.

Further reading

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