Today’s Guest: Bill Boggs, host, “Historic Traveler,” “Freeze Frame,” “Midday Live”
Originally published August 4, 1997
Bill Boggs is like the older brother many guys always wanted but never had — boyishly handsome and witty, a fun guy to hang out with who knows everybody and who everyone likes.
When I was a teen-ager in the mid-1970s, Boggs was hosting “Midday Live” on the old WNEW Ch. 5 in New York City. I watched the show religiously during summer vacations and sometimes — don’t tell Mom — cut classes if he had a really cool guest on.
Everybody who was anybody did “Midday Live” when they were in the Big Apple; Boggs was the Regis Philbin of his day. Like Reege, he did his show before a studio audience; Steve Goldin and I once took the bus in from the ‘burbs to see the show on a New Year’s Eve day, only to find Boggs on vacation and Marvin Hamlisch filling in. But I digress.
Boggs is a TV host cut in the old Mike Douglas mode; he’s not out to change the world, he’s not on a crusade, he’s not a stand-up comedian or a rocket scientist. He’s just a fellow with an easy manner who gets guests to relax and open up.
Lately, Boggs splits his time between hosting two shows on the Travel Channel , “Historic Traveler” and “Freeze Frame,” and two more on the Food Network, “The Corner Table” and “Daily Dish.” He also anchors Showtime’s “Championship Boxing Report Update.”
Boggs has always turned up in some pretty interesting spots. Following his 11-year run on “Midday,” he was executive producer for loudmouth Morton Downey, Jr.’s talk show and produced a talk show pilot for Jesse Jackson. He went back before the cameras as host of “Comedy Tonight,” a syndicated late-night show which boosted the careers of comics such as “Politically Incorrect’s” Bill Maher, Andrew Dice Clay, Marsha Warfield, “CBS This Morning”‘s Mark McEwen and “America’s Funniest Home Videos” host Bob Saget. Later, Boggs played a role in the birth of CourtTV.
The downside of Boggs’ career is that while he’s been perpetually successfully, he has not yet found the right vehicle to propel him to national fame and fortune.
“When I first got started in the business,” he says, “I really had it in my mind to defy category and I think I have done that successfully, so successfully that I am not that wealthy.”
At least he’s doing the things he always dreamed of. Because while his friends pretended to be John Lennon or Paul McCartney, playing guitar with brooms and tennis rackets, being on TV was the only career Boggs ever imagined for himself.
“My mother said that when I was four or five years old, I used to walk around the house with a pencil in my hand pretending it was a microphone,” he recalls, chuckling. “I am one of the lucky ones. Every single day of my life, unless I wake up in a mind-altered state, I am grateful for what I’ve got. I have been blessed, and I have worked hard, and I have also been very lucky. I am grateful to have pulled it off. If I get hit by a bus leaving The Food Network today, let the world know that I died a happy guy.”
Sure, Bill, sure. But don’t go yet — we’re only halfway through this story.
“Actually,” he says, “I’m going to take a taxi, so I think I will be okay!”
Boggs’ new Travel Channel series, “Historic Traveler,“ is a departure for him, stylistically at least. Rather than a free-wheeling conversation, it is a tightly scripted travelogue that alternately puts the host on location in funky locales such as Memphis and New Orleans and in the background as a voice-over announcer.
“This is more of a narrative and an acting job,” he says.
In New York, where he is still based and his tightly curly hair and big grin frequently get him recognized, people often question what he’s doing these days. Because, let’s face it, randomly scheduled gigs on the Travel Channel or TV Food Network are not as visible as being the host of a daily broadcast talk show.
“People want you to keep doing the same thing,” he says, “even though, when you go home at night and you are lying in bed, you have your own hopes and dreams.”
Not that Boggs is ready to give up that pencil — er, microphone just yet. He’s just conducting celebrity interviews on a different scale. “Bill Boggs’ Corner Table,” for example, grants him an hour of one-on-one chit-chat and joking with the likes of Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer (“Today”), Whoopi Goldberg and Rip Torn (“The Larry Sanders Show”). His guests pick their favorite New York City restaurant and Boggs meets them there with a video crew. They talk food, careers, have a drink, peek in the kitchen, have another drink, some dessert and bid adieu. It’s light, frothy and plenty tasty.
“There is very little market for me in straight talk shows,” he says. “The syndication people who are looking to create new talk shows passed me over a long time ago. They are looking for new people all the time; that is just the nature of the business. And I did it all, already — 11,000 interviews in all the live situations that I could have possibly been in, with the wrong guest showing up, cameramen shooting the wrong people, guests fainting, guests swearing, guests stabbing each other, that is all behind me.”
Boggs was in Philadelphia hosting “Time Out” on KYW when he realized he had interviewed one too many male dancers in his career.
“I was interviewing the Chippendales again,” he says, “asking the same questions, getting the same answers. I remember looking at this guy, his really shiny, oily, shaved chest, thinking, ‘I am tired of doing this.’ ”
The final straw, however, involved the late great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Davis, as it turned out, was a fan of Boggs.
“I met him at a restaurant in L.A. The guy actually watched me all the time on television and really liked me. He said, ‘I am going to be at Avery Fisher Hall, come and see me.’ He gave me a number. I went back stage after the show and he said, ‘I have always kind of wanted you to interview me.’ I said, ‘Great!’ So I set up this interview with Miles Davis. Do you know how many talk shows Miles Davis had been on? How many? I don’t know of any.
“Miles Davis came to Philadelphia,” he continues, “and the producer of the show wouldn’t let me do a one-on-one, one-hour interview with Miles Davis. We had to have other guests on the show. We had to have kids on who were learning to play the trumpet. I said, you know, you are missing the point here. This should just be a one-on-one interview with Miles Davis. But it got screwed up. Miles Davis, he didn’t understand why these other guests were on. I couldn’t control it. I didn’t have enough control over it to say no, and I said, that’s it. I didn’t have the control I needed and I walked away from the show.”
Now he’d like to see “The Corner Table” catch on view TV Food viewers and become a weekly, rather than monthly, series. Weekly would certainly be easier to explain, anyway.
“‘The Corner Table’ schedule is an enigma, very difficult to follow,” Boggs says, laughing at the vagaries of cable TV. “People say, ‘When are you on?’ Well, the last Sunday of the month, then the next Saturday…”