A Look Back At David Letterman’s Storied Career

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork)David Michael Letterman has hosted 6,028 late night television episodes in the past 33 years, and has launched the careers of numerous comedians.

But he got his start as a radio host and weatherman in his home state of Indiana – and even got pulled from a gig on a student-run radio station for failing to treat classical music with sufficient reverence.

Letterman was born in Indianapolis on April 12, 1947, to Harry Joseph and Dorothy Letterman. He attended Broad Ripple High School in Indianapolis and went on to Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.

His broadcast career began at student-run Ball State radio station WBST – now a National Public Radio station.

“The chairman of the department said to me, we have this young kid who is very energetic, and we need to hire him and put him to work,” former WBST manager Al Rent told CBS affiliate WTTV-TV, Indianapolis in a Tuesday story.

But the station played classical music, and Rent told WTTV that the rock music fan Letterman made a joke of it.

“His job was to put together the biographies of the classical composers. Every biography he wrote, he tended to embellish and change the composer’s lifestyle — such as Claude Debussy,” Rent told WTTV. “Letterman’s line was, ‘A little known fact was Claude wrote a song for Clair de Lune and all their little loons.’”

Rent told the station that he is known the only person who hired and fired Letterman, although he actually just reassigned the future star.

Letterman went on to join Indianapolis TV station WLWI-TV, Channel 13 – now WTHR-TV – hosting a Saturday morning children’s show and a late night movie and serving as a news anchor and weatherman.

He is well-remembered for his irreverent on-air delivery as a weatherman, once reporting that Indianapolis was being socked with hail “the size of canned hams” and another time congratulating a tropical storm for being upgraded to a hurricane, Playboy magazine recalled.

Letterman moved to Los Angeles in 1975, and served was a writer for the Starland Vocal Band Show on CBS in 1977. He also co-starred on the NBC comedy special “Peeping Times” in early 1978.

He got his big break in television on the national scale in 1978, on the CBS variety series “Mary,” starring Mary Tyler Moore. Months later, he paid his first visit to “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” — marking the first of 22 appearances. He also guest-hosted “Tonight” numerous times, CBS News recalled.

In 1980, Letterman started hosting the Emmy Award-winning morning comedy-variety program, “The David Letterman Show,” which ran for three months on NBC. He followed that up with “Late Night with David Letterman,” which premiered in February 1982 and ran for 11 years.

On the “Late Night” show, Letterman created many of his famous features that became staples of the CBS “Late Show” – including “Stupid Pet Tricks,” “Stupid Human Tricks,” a propensity for dropping items off the roof of a five-story building, and of course, the Top 10 List.

Letterman jumped to CBS in 1993 after NBC went with Jay Leno as the new host of the “Tonight Show.”

To accommodate the new late night program, CBS purchased and renovated the Ed Sullivan Theater, 1697 Broadway, where “The Ed Sullivan Show” was taped from 1948 until 1971 and which Letterman has used for his show for his entire CBS run.

In 2011, Letterman received the Johnny Carson Award for Comedic Excellence at Comedy Central’s first annual The Comedy Awards, CBS News recalled. Letterman has also won two American Comedy Awards as funniest male performer in a television series. He was honored as “Favorite Late Night Talk Show Host” at the 31st annual People’s Choice Awards in 2005.

In total, Letterman’s shows have received 108 Emmy nominations and eight wins. He also won a Peabody Award in 1992.

On the occasion of Letterman’s 25th anniversary with “The Late Show” back in 2007, CBS News identified the following milestones:

• Aug. 30, 1993 – More than 23 million viewers tune in for the premiere of “The Late Show with David Letterman” on CBS. Guests include Bill Murray, who spray-painted “Dave” on Letterman’s desk, and signer Billy Joel. News anchor Tom Brokaw and actor Paul Newman also make surprise appearances.

1010 WINS has a special connection to Dave. During one of his first shows after moving to CBS, he repeatedly called the station during a segment called “Fun With A Car Phone.”

• March 31, 1994: Madonna makes a famous appearance on Letterman, during which her use of expletives made it the most censored episode of any American network talk show in history;

• April 12, 1995: As CBS News put it, “Dave gets a birthday gift he’ll never forget when drew Barrymore jumps on his desk and flashes her breasts to a stunned Letterman.”

• Dec. 31, 1999: “The Late Show” rings in the year 2000 with a prime-time special, featuring “The King of Queens” star Kevin James, a performance by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and cameo appearances by Dick Clark and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

• Jan. 14, 2000: Letterman undergoes quintuple bypass heart surgery at New York Hospital. He returns on Feb. 21 and brings his doctors and nurses on stage to personally thank them. The following night Bill Cosby becomes the first person other than Letterman to host the “Late Show.”

• Sept. 17, 2001: Letterman returns to the airwaves for the first time since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in a show that featured Dan Rather and Regis Philbin. The Emmy Award-winning broadcast was hailed by the New York Daily News as “one of the purest, most honest and important moments in TV history” and a valuable service to the community, CBS News recalled.

• Nov. 4, 2003: Letterman proudly announces that “last night at 11:58, I became a father” to his first son, Harry Joseph Letterman – now 10.

• May 9, 2006: Britney Spears makes a surprise visit to the show and announces to Letterman that she’s having her second child. “Don’t worry, Dave,” she says. “It’s not yours.”

The memorable broadcasts have continued in more recent years.

• Sept. 19, 2012: President Barack Obama appears on “The Late Show” in the midst of his reelection campaign, slamming rival Mitt Romney for the Republican candidate’s remark about “47 percent of the people” being Obama supporters who are dependent on government and identify as victims.

• April 9, 2013: Lindsay Lohan tears up as she talks about her stint in rehab in an awkward interview with Letterman.

• Feb. 9, 2014: CBS airs Letterman’s interview with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr at the Ed Sullivan Theater – in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ American television debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the very same building.

• April 2, 2014: Letterman and Bill Murray join Lady Gaga in leading the entire audience from the Ed Sullivan Theater to the nearby and soon-to-close Roseland Ballroom for a surprise concert.

“The Late Show” has had a total of 4,214 broadcasts and four prime time specials, and has run for 1,135 weeks. Before that, “Late Night” had 1,810 broadcasts and ran for 595 weeks.

Over 33 years, Letterman’s shows received 16 Emmy Awards and 112 nominations. “The Late Show” received nine awards and 72 nominations, “Late Night” received five awards and 35 nominations, and the 1980 daytime “David Letterman Show” won two awards and five nominations.

In all, Letterman has read 4,605 Top 10 lists, and has interviewed 19,932 guests — 5,850 of them on “The Late Show.” The most frequent guest on “The Late Show” has been Regis Philbin, with a total of 136 appearances, followed by wildlife advocate Jack Hanna with 75. Marv Albert had 52, and Tom Brokaw 49.

More From CBS New York

CELEBRATING 50 YEARS
Get Our Morning Briefs

Watch & Listen LIVE