Inside Late Night With Mark Malkoff Ep 4: Burt Sugarman

In 1972, Burt Sugarman came to NBC with an idea: What if, instead of going off the air when Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show ended, they aired a late-night music series, aimed at younger viewers? NBC turned him down three times, so he ended up buying time on the network himself to prove there was an audience for late night TV after The Tonight Show

Needlesstosay, he was right. The show he created, Burt Sugarman’s The Midnight Special, went on to air on NBC Friday nights for nearly a decade, welcoming the top music acts and comedians of the time. And in short order, NBC, seeing that there was indeed an appetite for more late night TV beyond just The Tonight Show, launched a pair of new late-night entries on other nights of the week–Saturday Night Live and The Tomorrow Show (which would ultimately be replaced by Late Night With David Letterman).

In this episode of Inside Late Night, Mark Malkoff talks with late-night pioneer Burt Sugarman about his extraordinary career, the role his friend Johnny Carson played in getting Midnight Special off the ground, and his experiences working with the likes of Elvis Presley, David Bowie, and Richard Pryor.

Though it’s been off the air now for over four decades, Midnight Special is reaching new generations of fans through a popular YouTube channel and online store, where fans young and old can purchase show-related memorabilia. 

Click the embed below to listen now, or find Inside Late Night on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Show Transcript

Mark Malkoff: Burt Sugarman, thanks for talking with us. 

Burt Sugarman: I’m happy to be here. 

I have wanted to talk to you for years and years. What you accomplished, just in your life, not even Midnight Special is… just, to go back from even when you were in your 20s, but let’s start with Midnight Special. You’re 31, 32 years-old. You go to NBC to pitch Midnight Special, and they, in 1972, they turned you down three times, correct? 

They turned me down over and over. They said all these people in the music business are a bunch of drugheads. They’ll never show up to do a show, and you want to do it at one in the morning? Oh, wow. There’s no audience here. Nobody will watch it. I got that for a long time. But I didn’t give up. 

Back then there weren’t any shows. This is amazing to think about: the three major networks. There was nothing at one o ‘clock or after it was always just the American flag… 

It was an American flag. That’s all that was put up and some other networks would play the Star Spangled Banner. But the biggest audience was Johnny Carson. When he went off the air at 1am, there was a real audience there that didn’t have any more TV.

You really did change NBC with late night, and we’ll get into that because you have this enormous success with Midnight Special. Soon, Tom Snyder. NBC gets smart and said “We can do programming five nights a week on NBC after Carson.” And then two years later, whatever it is, Saturday Night Live, but we’ll get to all of that. So Midnight Special, the pilot, airs in August of 1972. And then the series is February of ’73 to March of 1981, which is absolutely incredible to have longevity on a show like that. And one of the reasons that you say that it got on the air was because you were friends with Johnny Carson and he believed in you, correct? 

Well, yes, that’s true. Johnny was a neighbor of mine and we played tennis together a lot in the afternoons. He shot his show around six at night and of course it aired late in the evening, but he had the afternoons open and we would play tennis. And I had the idea that after Johnny went off, because I would watch him all the time. Uh, it was one o ‘clock in the morning and, and what am I going to do? I can’t watch TV. There’s no movies. There’s no TV. There’s no talk shows. There’s nothing. What did I think might be a good thing to go on on a weekend? And I thought that music would be, that young people would be up and out, and coming home maybe at one or two o ‘clock and I wanted to put a 90 -minute show on right as Johnny went off. 

And you’re playing tennis with Johnny when you mention this idea. And I want to preface this by saying Carson was one of the most competitive people in show business in terms of somebody that had that longevity in terms of his what would follow him competition and he obviously had final say with NBC, so when you mentioned the possibility what did Carson say? 

I mentioned that to Johnny over a tennis game and sat down with him for a couple of minutes and we talked about his audience and the age of his audience, et cetera, et cetera. And he said, “Well, I like the idea, Burt, because it means that I would have people in my last half hour waiting to see your show that are tuning in, and it would pick my ratings up ,also”. He said, “Of course, it starts to go down as the evening gets later. But if there’s a show following me, there’d be a lot of new people that would come in, younger people, wanting to see it. So I like the idea. Can I help it all?” I said, “Yes, go to… and I gave him the name of the executive at NBC who was in charge of that. And I said, “Talk to him. Tell him you think it could work, et cetera.” And he said, “Well, I will.” I assume he did. Once we had that kind of conversation, we didn’t go any further into it until I said to him, “Well, they’ve got the show now and we’re going to go on in August, which was 1972 and it’ll be about six, eight weeks. I’m going to make a show and they made me pay for it.” And he said, “What do you mean they made you?” I said, “Well, I offered. I said,’If you guys don’t want to buy it, I’ll do the show myself and I’ll pay for it and I will get the sponsors,’” and I figured the sponsors that couldn’t be very much money between one to two thirty in the morning because I really didn’t have any at all and everybody would be trying it out. I went to a fellow that I knew that worked at General Motors, his name was John DeLorean and I said, “Look, here’s the thought I’ve got,” and I knew John well. He said “I like the idea because it’ll get me young viewers for my cars and I love that nobody else would be on.” So John was the part sponsor, a big part of it, and I got one or two others, and I produced a show and paid for it, and we went on the air and it went real well. Before it went on the air for about a week or two, Johnny would talk about it coming up. That definitely helped. 

He did talk about it on the air, which was very rare because he would never mention Tom Snyder. In terms of people should stay up and watch Tom Snyder. He never did it with Letterman when he produced Letterman, but this shows Johnny’s loyalty to a tee. He was on vacation when the first episode airs with John Denver hosting. Joey Bishop is the substitute host (on The Tonight Show]. This was, I think, yeah, between Bishop. This was between August, I believe the 14th til maybe September 4th, but Bishop is subbing and this is unheard of, Carson comes in during the middle of [his vacation] for one day, on a Friday, when your show is gonna premiere after his time slot, and he comes in, just the host of the show just to help you out.

That was nice, wasn’t it? 

I just couldn’t believe that. In terms of loyalty, yes to his friends, but the show came first and for him to do that on a break, I don’t think ever happened in 30 years that I know of, just to accommodate a friend and really yeah, you told me on the phone Carson said tell me what I can do to help no restrictions on guests, because you were putting on some of his regular guests in terms of, I mean, a lot of that music acts not so much. But some of them there was some overlap and definitely with the some of the comedians, and he was even so supportive. He would come over to visit and watch the show. He was a fan, correct? 

That’s correct. And John did come around, keep in mind though, John and I were friends. We played tennis and this and that. He was extremely competitive as a guy, even on the tennis court. He wanted to beat me no matter what. And I thought that was terrific and fun and we had a great time. But this was also good for him. This was also something that he quickly recognized that if that show got some ratings at one in the morning, his ratings between 12 and one or 1230 and one would probably go higher. So there was a combination of friendship, as well as something that would be good for NBC and good for him, even though the NBC executives that I talked to didn’t think it would work. I paid for it. I paid for the show, and that’s why I’ve always retained ownership to 10 years, once a week, 90 minute, terrific sound, high band television shows. 

Yeah, for 1972, 1973, to have that ownership is super rare. Johnny could not get Linda Ronstadt booked on his show for 14 years. She did an appearance in July of 1969. To my knowledge, she wouldn’t do the show until something like 1983 because she later told Johnny it was just when she would do TV a lot of times, the audio, their inside audio group just didn’t, it wasn’t good for rock and roll. And so Johnny couldn’t get Ronstadt booked, so he would just come over to visit you on Stage 3 across the hall just to see Linda perform, correct? 

That’s correct, you’re absolutely right. And with her and Johnny, it was nothing personal. She just came around and we started talking to her and we said, well, come over and watch the show being taped and see what it looks like, or listen to it on the radio or TV. But make sure you listen carefully because our sound is better than anybody else. And we had great sound and I made sure that happened, because our show was sound. It had to be good or we would never have an audience. And so that’s why she did our show. So proud of it. 

Linda Ronstadt said when she finally after 14 years went on Carson that as she mentioned that the audio people at Carson were up until like, I don’t know, early in the morning the night before, just really trying to accommodate what she needed. And she liked it so much. It went so well. She did it six more times. But there’s certain people with television back then. I mean, Neil Diamond did not do Johnny Carson’s show until his final year in ’91. It might have been ’92, but I believe it was ’91. And there’s just these certain people. I know that you wanted a few people on it. It seemed like everybody did your show. But Neil Neil Diamond’s an example of somebody that I’m not going to be doing TV. He said he had a bad experience in the late ’60s, and that just wasn’t his thing. 

Well, I remember so much that Elvis Presley was a wonderful, personal friend of mine, and I wanted him to do it. When I asked him, he’d been in the Army, etc., etc., and I asked him, he said, “No, I’m a little heavy. I don’t want to do it now. No, I don’t think so. You know, there’s some great people on there, and I enjoy watching, but I will do it, but it’ll be a little while.” And of course, when he passed, I believe it was ’77, he just never did go on, and I felt bad about that, because he was the tops, he really was. And then you had Linda Ronstadt with that pure voice, few people have ever matched her voice, outrageously good. 

I would agree, and we’re going to get to your YouTube channel which has 635 videos and 248,000 subscribers and it should be in the millions and I have a feeling it will. I mean the catalogue that you have, we’re going to get to that in a bit. I do want to mention with Elvis, you’d play football with him on the weekends and you really got to know him. What was that like? Him being probably one of the most famous people on the planet, playing football with him just as a regular guy. 

He truly was a regular guy and he was a gentleman and also he was extremely competitive. We would play in West Los Angeles at a park, and when people would drive by they had no idea that he was there playing. They just look at 15 or 20 of us out there, 25 of us and running around and he was a regular guy playing flag football or touch football And he was tough. He wanted to hit you hard and get hit back. He didn’t mind falling tumbling anything. He was just a regular terrific person to be around. 

So you luckily you didn’t have to deal with Tom Parker at all, since I guess Elvis never did your show. You didn’t have any dealings with Colonel… 

I never yeah, I never did deal with Tom Parker. It never got to that, and I think if Elvis did the show I would not have had to do that. Jerry Weintraub was involved with Elvis quite a bit then. And I had talked to Jerry a couple of times and he said, “Look, I want to get him to do the show too. I think it’d be fantastic for Elvis on that show. Maybe we could do an all-Elvis show or an Elvis with a couple of his close friends that he liked.” He loved Tom Jones very much. And he said, “Maybe we do a show like that.” And I said, “Anytime, name it, we’ll make it happen.” You know, I don’t have to tell you, but between, you know, people like Steve Miller, The Doobies, Jim Croce, Ray Charles, there are just so many people we had that I knew Elvis likes, Steely Dan, whatever it might be. He just enjoyed those acts and thought, “Yeah, I’m going to do it one day,” but he really kept saying to me, “I want to look really great, really great,” and I just left alone.

That’s smart, your friendship. And it’s unfortunate that didn’t happen. But I love that you knew him. Richard Pryor, you know, Johnny was friends with him, would actually call him “Richie.” You knew Pryor. I mean, it was like around the late 60s, where you did a handshake deal with Richard Pryor to manage his money. And I’m guessing some of his career. And you, you were close with him as well, probably more close and that friendship just really just went for up until he passed away. It was a handshake deal, right? No contract. 

That’s correct. Richard was one of my closest closest friends in life. I loved him for his talent, and I loved him for being a wonderful human being. Just wonderful. And not only did Richard do the show quite a bit, but he also came to watch the acts. He would walk in the dressing rooms before they went on. If it was a comic, he’d usually have fun with him.I remember he did that with Chevy Chase, but he hung around. He just loved it. 

And I know Carson would go across the hall when Richard Pryor was on the show and around, just to say hi and hang out with him, which was really, really nice that they had that friendship. And I mean, Richard Pryor, it’s hard for younger people to understand how controversial this man was and how feared he was by TV executives and just to put somebody like that on the air back then was such a big deal. But the fact that he was so talented that he could easily work clean. I mean, he would go on Carson and they’d bleep him out here and there and stuff because Johnny wouldn’t let anyone talk like that except for Pryor. But he didn’t need to use those words to get laughs. I mean the guy was most people I think, just stand-up comedians if they did a poll, like the successful ones, Pryor right would be number one. 

You’ve done your homework, because you’re so correct. You’re just absolutely correct on these things. I did four television specials also on NBC with Richard Pryor and the network always said “No no no” and Richard said himself “No no no why would I do it?” Finally, I got everybody together. We sat, and talked and we said, “Look, if there’s something you think is not right for an audience, you’ll just stop it. We won’t put it on the air. It’s that simple.” Richard was laughing saying, “Why would I do anything like that?” And of course, he did everything he always did. And there were certain things we never put on the air, but the specials were wonderful. And they were all Richard. And Johnny just loved it, loved it madly. 

When you were playing tennis with Carson, is that when you moved, because you were both in Bel Air. Is that when you moved into the Louis B. Mayer  mansion? Is that accurate? Is that where your tennis court was, like the sunken tennis court? 

Yeah, it was on a street called Saint Pierre in Bel Air. And the tennis court was a sunken court. And so the sound was very unique. And I was playing a bit of tennis and Johnny was a terrific tennis player, and we would socialize and play, and this thing just came up and Johnny’s help was just amazing. 

And occasionally you would hear drumming come in from next door from Carson? 

That’s what he did. He played his drums in the afternoons often. I don’t know if he wanted to get frustrations out, or was just learning his craft a little better, but Johnny was a very unique person. He didn’t have a whole lot of personal friends. When people came on the show and he didn’t want to visit with them early on before they came on like most shows, he wanted to have everything right top of the line there. When they came out, they didn’t know what he was going to ask, and he didn’t know what they were going to talk about, and Johnny was great at that. There’s only one Johnny Carson ever. 

He was a master. When he came back at one point for the first Midnight Special when John Denver was the host and John Denver was a guest, and I’m guessing that since you were friends with Jerry Weintraub is that how the John Denver booking came about?

It did. You, again, you’ve done your homework well because that’s not really widely known but when I was putting the show together, Jerry Weintraub was a major agent in town, personal manager. And he said, “I’ve got this fellow named John Deutschendorf.” I said, “What?” He said, “Well, his new name is John Denver. He’s terrific. He’s got an album out that is just doing well. He is perfect for your show. He’s, um, he doesn’t swear. He doesn’t scream. And I know NBC is very tough on that kind of stuff. And, um, and, and come meet him and you’ll talk to him. I’ll bring him over to the office.” And he brought him over and I listened to his voice and he was an exceptional singer, and, I thought, a nice fellow. And, why not? Let’s give this a chance.  Also, it was a year that “get out to vote” was important, and here this was gonna air in August of ’72, and the FCC always wanted the television networks to talk about get out to vote, more people get out to vote, and John Denver said he’d be very comfortable telling young people who were of age to get out to vote and please vote etc. and that helped us with NBC as well. 

You were really smart to mention that when you were talking about the show because, it’s hard to believe, but this is 1971 when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. I mean, and it just took me a while to realize that, you know, people could go to Vietnam and they couldn’t vote, which is pretty unbelievable to think about now. But you did leverage that extremely, extremely well, and knew what to say to NBC. So yeah, that was that was phenomenal. 

Good point. Yeah. Very good point. And that really did help me sell them on the show. 

Yeah. I was on your YouTube channel and I’m on there way too much. The pilot episode has 2.4 million views and, you know, I’ve studied your show, and just the success. And, you know, you did an interview where you were saying that Johnny Carson’s viewership was somewhat conservative, the Midwest. So the way you would program your show, you would build your show, which makes complete sense now, just looking back, but at the time, that you would start with maybe a little bit more mainstream acts in the beginning, you said like Cass Elliott, John Denver, and then slowly as it increased, because it’s a 90 -minute show, then you could throw on more of the rock acts and maybe some of the acts that Johnny’s audience wouldn’t necessarily put on, correct? 

That’s right. That’s right. I mean, if we think today about Gordon Lightfoot, the Doobie Brothers, The Cars, Fleetwood Mac, Electric Light Orchestra, Jim Croce, Loggins & Messina, Steely Dan, David Bowie. I’m just throwing them off the top of my head. Blondie, Bee Gees, Journey, Heart, Steve Miller Band, Steely Dan. You know, just so many people. We knew we’d catch an audience. We knew it. 

I mean, you had ELO on seven times. And some of these bands. I mean, these bands. You were selling records, so everybody wanted to be on the show. One pivotal appearance, as you mentioned, there’s hundreds of amazing appearances, but one that I want to point out that was special was November of 1973 when you have David Bowie coming on and it’s his final performance doing Ziggy Stardust. How did you book him for that the final time he did that? This was “The 1980 Floor Show” 

Well, I met him, I met his manager at the time on a quick trip I made over to England and talked about it, and Bowie, and how he could blow up in the United States and shake everybody up with his enormous talent. He said, “Well, okay, well if you come over and do it in a club a little small club in England, you can, you can tape them and we’ll get it. And I’ve talked to him about this already and he’d like to be on the telly, uh, in the U S,” and so I did it. I took my crew over and sound people and everything. And we went over and there’s, there’s Bowie. And who knew that Marianne Faithfull would walk in with Mick Jagger, whoever was there in the club. And Bowie was absolutely amazing, amazing. He had a lady he worked with named Dooshenka, whose name is not well known, but he was just sensational and the tape that I had that even didn’t get on the show was really something. And Bowie was an outstanding, wonderful person to work with, just wonderful. 

Yeah, when he did that show, I mean, it just got so much endless press. I want to mention, also, if you go to the YouTube channel you have a Midnight Special store. We talked yesterday and you’re actually wearing a Burt Sugarman Midnight Special t -shirt. I love this store. I was looking, you know, four types of t -shirts, you have hats, sweatshirt, mugs… I’m not a big belt buckle fan, but if I ever get one, and I’m tempted to do this, you have this $350 belt buckle made out of a hundred percent German silver, and I have to say that design is absolutely beautiful. And it says inside “Compliments of Burt Sugarman.” 

Well, it makes me laugh to hear about that, because, we have sold some belt buckles to people. I know that one went to Australia and another couple of them went to Japan. But I find that really interesting. The belt buckle is terrific. I mean, I would never. But I didn’t know if any of them would sell on there. I didn’t really care. But they’re so beautiful. 

I agree. 

I have for a couple of years, up in in Big Sky, Montana. The professional bull riding is up there late July early August every year And I have given the winner of that for a couple of years, one of the bell buckles and I find out that they send me pictures. They wear them all year long! So it really makes me feel good to see that. It is the only bell buckle that I wear. 

It is gorgeous. It really, really is. I want to also talk about the comedians, because I know obviously people will talk about these amazing iconic musical guests, but I mean, I’m looking at the comic list now. Steve Martin, of course we talked about Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Joan Rivers, Monty Python, Andy Kaufman, and it just goes on and on with the comedy. When did you realize that that might be a good fit with what you were doing with Midnight Special, just in most of it, like in the beginning, was we’re gonna do music. But how did that organically happen? And looking back, what was that experience like working with the comics? 

Organically, it happened because I used to watch Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show, And he had comics on there. And I was laughing so much at some of these comics. I thought to myself, well, why can’t I do the same thing? And that’s how that happened. And Steve Martin started. It was just absolutely outstanding. He was part of a group called the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. This is a whole long time ago. But then Richard Pryor, once Richard came on, everybody knew they could come on no matter what, every comic. Once Richard did it, that was the license for everybody else to do it. 

You had Ed McMahon, I believe, host at one point. Maybe he did the second show. I know he was on the second show for sure. I don’t know if he hosted. Did you know Ed McMahon at all? Does anything stand out? 

I did. I did. And I thought that Ed was a celebrity in his own right. He was, what they call the second banana with Johnny, which is not easy when you have the star of the show next to you who wants as much camera time as they can get, and you can also be serious with that person and make them laugh. Ed had that, and he was a real talent himself. 

1976, at what point do you realize, with the Bay City Rollers being on your show, that it’s actually getting dangerous in the soundstage because of the fans. Again, they’re a group I don’t think a lot of people maybe today, younger people, know who they are, but at the time I mean you can compare their popularity to anybody today at the very top. I mean. it was, a journalist said it was “chaos and almost a riot.” Is that accurate, and what was that experience like for you being right there? 

I’ll call it excitable. Remembering back on that, it was excitable in there. It was a different audience than we had normally We had many many celebrities that came in and want to be in the audience and the young people kind of left them alone, knowing they were really in there to watch the show. But that night was a different audience, and it was promoted by the record company early on to let everybody know that they were going to be on the air and it was quite noisy, quite excitable.

And it said in the newspaper, and I don’t know if this was accurate, that five people were injured, one hospitalized, and that NBC, I don’t know if it was security, had to remove certain fans that were just so over the top. I mean, is that accurate? Did it get a little bit of a security issue for the band, or was that overblown? 

I don’t remember anybody getting hurt, but I do remember some people, maybe 10, 12, out of the 80 or 100 there that really were removed. They were carrying in sticks and things to tap and make noise. So people were removed, but I don’t remember anybody being hurt.

You were quoted as saying many rock and roll acts were scared to death about TV and initially doing the Midnight Special. Why do you think that was? 

Well, they were. And what happened was the record companies were pushing them to do it. But think back, there was no Coachella Music Festival. That didn’t exist. And they hadn’t been on stage, out in city to city. Country acts did that. They get in a van and the country people came on and they’re so used to live performing that it was easy for them, but many rock and roll acts would come in and they had not been in that kind of a situation with an audience, right a few feet away from the audience, etc. And so you just had a different kind of thing. They were frightened. Fortunately, if Richard Pryor hung out that night, he talked to them and didn’t worry, but Sam and Dave, and Redbone and, you know, the Bee Gees, Think about this: Mini Ripperton, Little River Band, The Ojays, Chuck Berry, Johnny Rivers, all these people had not all performed in front of audiences like they were coming on to do with TV cameras in front of them. 

That’s a good point, Billy Preston. Yeah, I mean, the amount of people that you got, they saw the record company and the musicians just saw the success and there was nothing like it. You were one of the rare shows at that time to insist that nobody lip -sync. I mean it was common knowledge, I don’t know if the time, but now that Dick Clark with Bandstand was doing lip -syncing, I mean it was so obvious when you look at it now, and you had your friend with Rock concert with Don Kirschner, they would do a decent amount of lip -syncing, correct? 

Yes, that’s who was known and it was fine. There was nothing wrong with it, except I had made the decision with show number one that there would never be lip syncing on the show ever. And when I’d mention it, whether it’s a Tom Jones, somebody said, “I’m not gonna lip sync. Of course I’m not gonna lip sync,” et cetera. And then a few acts said, “No, no, I have to lip sync. That’s what I do.” And they couldn’t be on. I won’t mention the very few that did that, But I couldn’t put them on and have them lip -sync and I wouldn’t do it. I’ve got interesting stories. I’ll give you one. 


There’s just so many stories over the years, but John DeLorean called me and he said “Listen I you know, I was your sponsor of that first show there early on,” he said “but I was in England recently,” and he said “I met an act she’s going to come to the United States. And when she comes over, would you, she’s going to come to LA and I know I’d love her to be on the show. And she’s that good. Would you pick her up at the airport and do me a favor?” I said, “John, I’d do anything for you. You were there early on. Are you kidding?” It was a lady named Olivia Newton John. 

Wow, yeah, 

I went to the airport. I didn’t know at the moment that she’s just broke a record in and I didn’t know that, I just a friend of John’s, that’s all. I got her, picked her up, and spent a nice dinner in the evening with her and all of a sudden that record starts to break in the US. We put her on the show and of course that’s Olivia, she was wonderful, one of the great ladies I’ve ever met in my life. 

That’s what I’ve heard from everybody, that she was so nice and personable, especially to the fans and people she really had a lot of respect. So I was invited to go to Jimmy Fallon a bunch of years ago when Paul McCartney was on the show and Paul did, for the studio audience, he did five or six songs and only two aired. And that was you know, he just wanted to play that would happen sometimes where Musical acts would play more songs than would air. Is that true? 

They loved to perform. They loved it, just loved it. I mean, think about Elvis Presley out there, like Bruce Springsteen for three hours, three hour shows in Las Vegas. He just didn’t want to get off the stage. He loved performing. 

I love hearing that. Yeah, I’ve seen Springsteen twice and that’s absolutely true. But just the fact that really doesn’t happen a lot anymore. Sometimes on Saturday Night Live after goodnights, occasionally a band will play an extra song or so, but I just love that McCartney, you know, he’s been around for so long. He jus…t and I know he did, I used to have a day job at The Colbert Report, I know when he was over there he put on a mini concert and, again, not everything aired, but he just yet loves what he does. So is it true and I don’t know if this was through your entire run that you had Multiple sound stages at least to where if one band was done with their act, that you could go to the second stage, we’re having the other band, their equipment was ready, their audio, so you didn’t have to have these huge breaks. Is that true? 

Exactly what we did. One would be setting up and all the mics around them would be off and the other band on the other side of the stage would be performing on television. We’d be shooting it. And in a matter of seconds, they were applauded. “Good night. Goodbye.” And here came Joe Walsh, or whoever it might be.  I want to make sure, you’ve talked about the, uh, the belt buckle and the shirts and all those things, that people understand, on YouTube there are a couple of Midnight Specials that people really don’t do what we do with live shows going on each Friday, uh, as we have and shows in order from ‘72 on, they have to go into without any spaces between any letters “midnightspecialTVshow” and then say subscribe and it’s free and you get a chance to look at every one of these Midnight Special shows and we let one new one out a week free. 

It’s unbelievable in terms of, you go down this rabbit hole, and it’s just, I mean it seems like everybody and it’s just this eclectic group from KISS to Ray Charles to Johnny Cash to Tina Turner to Zeppelin. It’s unbelievable. Did you do at least 350 episodes of Midnight Special? Was that about right? 


Wow, and at one point you were doing 48 episodes a year? Is that what the highest was?

That’s exactly right. 


48  90-minute shows, I can’t believe it. I never missed a taping. Oh my God. 


For 10 years. 

Wow. And you were smart. You were on the floor, which doesn’t happen a lot. A lot of times the producers, the EPs will be in the booth. So you got to experience it with the audience, which I think was a smart thing. And just, I mean, in terms of the experience, You can’t beat that. 

I thought that the acts would be more comfortable since I’m the one that talked to him interviewed them That if they saw me both producing and directing the show right from the floor in front of them If they want to stop have a question I could do it right there on the spot and it made many of the acts comfortable. I used to hear that from Loretta Lynn a lot. “You stay out there now. You stay out there if I miss something, I’m gonna stop it and I can talk to you.” That’s exactly how I worked on that show. 

And there were certain people initially like Jim Croce who just, it was just such a new thing, I guess, for him that when he was there the first time, he didn’t know if he wanted to do this and he was talking about maybe slipping through the door and leaving. And you, is this right? You convinced him to stay and he had such a good time. He said, “I wanna come back in three weeks. I want to host this, and I want to hear it here. 

Yeah, here’s the story with Jim. Uh, I had never gone on camera. That’s not what I wanted to do. I always wanted to be behind the camera. And, uh, Jim said “The record company tonight, while I do your show,” and this is while we’re doing the show, he said “they’re going to hand me a gold record for a million seller, but I want you to give it to me. It’s really important for me that you give me the gold record.” I said, “Jim, I just can’t. I don’t do that.” He took the guitar off his neck. He said, “Well then, Burt, I’m not going to do the show tonight. I’m just going to leave and I’ll see you later sometime.” I said, “Hold it. You can’t walk out and leave… We’ve got a whole show here.” He said, “Well, then you’re going to have to give me that record and then I’m going to stay.” Well, I did. The only time I went on camera in 450 shows. I gave him a record on camera and had a great time with him joking and laughing. He said, “I’m having so much fun. I’ll be back in three or four weeks.” And then, unfortunately, he and Maury [Muehleisen], who worked with him, were killed in a plane crash.

Yeah, and that was after one of his big hits, I think it was the day after trying to figure out what song it might have been. I don’t know if he’s saying it in your show, but it was, I think it’s, “I Got a Name.” I think that was the one that was released, and then he passed away the next day. 

You remember that better than me. 

Oh, I mean, he’s just one of the, I mean, in terms of a performer and just dying, so young and so sad, but I’m glad you captured him. Were there singers and musical guests that required or asked for cue cards? 

For what, for what reason? 

On Johnny’s show, they were given the option and some musical guests wanted cue cards. I remember going to David Letterman’s first show on CBS and Billy Joel used cue cards just to remember their lyrics just to just in case they needed. 

I didn’t I didn’t run into that. I did not. It’s so long ago, but I did not run into that. They might have written something in their hands, but I wouldn’t have known about that. 

Yeah. Did any of the acts ever asked to redo a song? 


That would happen occasionally? 

Yeah, occasionally they’d say, “Look, I missed a note or somebody missed it, and the drum, it wasn’t exactly right. I’d like to do it again.” And of course I always said yes. 

Of course, yeah. I mean, you want the best product possible. Was there any segment or any guest that was unable either because the censors or maybe the performance, just you judged it not to be as adequate or maybe it didn’t make the artist look good, was there anything that didn’t air? 

It’s a wonderful question. And I’m thinking back now, and I don’t think that ever, ever happened. But I love the question.

Yeah, I mean, that’s amazing. I mean, the segments that have aired are all excellent and everybody looks great. What was the situation like with the dressing room, with the riders for all these bands? Did everyone get the same, or did you have to make special accommodations, depending on how famous the singer was? 

We had nice dressing rooms. And if they wanted something in front of a certain cola or a certain this or that, we were happy to oblige if they liked a certain kind of chip or whatever it might be, sandwiches. We would do that. And a young fellow who was also on the show named Rocco or B .C., sometimes if an act, if the manager said they’re really nervous, Rocco would go with him the night before, have a bite to eat with him, talk about the show. I know we might even smoke something with him and make them more comfortable. But Rocco was a big help for coming out on stage the first time. 

I was looking online and just trying to do as much research as possible on Midnight Special and yourself, and I found it interesting and in terms of the compensation, ’cause I’m looking at certain acts, I’ve found contracts, and you have somebody like David Bowie coming on in 1975. He’s given $337.50 plus a 10% agency commission, and then you have someone like Harry Chapin. Maybe it’s because he’s hosting. He’s getting $728. The Shirelles come on in ’73. They get $615 plus commission. Gladys Knight and the Pips, $1,227 plus agency commission. How did the pricing work? Did it just depend on the group? 

No, it was all because of the guild. But if you saw Gladys at $1,000 something, that meant that the Pips were included. Gladys Knight and the PIPs. 

That makes sense. 

Whatever the guild said that they had to get, that’s what we paid them. If you mentioned Bowie at $300, I don’t remember anybody less than 550 or 600 which was standard from the Guild, unless that had something to do with taping in England. 

When did you realize that putting Helen Reddy, who really got famous off of your show, to making her a regular host from July of 75 to March of 76 that that would be a good idea? Did Jeff Wald try to put that in your mind or did you just recognize her talent and this would be a good fit. 

Well, Jeff was her husband and manager, and her talent was just enormous. Her songs were hits, and then Delta Dawn, et cetera. I just thought that would work for a while, and it did. 

Yeah, she was phenomenal. I got to see her perform once. When you would tape, I saw people show different ticket stubs for Midnight Special, and some of the times were seven o ‘clock at night. There were other times it would be 11:30 a.m. I know once with David Bowie. Did that happen a lot that you would tape in the morning? 

It was their travel schedule. If there was an act that I really wanted , from Helen and Gladys and Hocus Pocus and Chuck Mangione, just think these acts. Again, ELO. So there’s acts unusual and I would tape when they were available. 

That makes sense. That’s smart. 

If they were going out of the country, yeah, and they’re available on a Saturday morning at 10 o ‘clock, well, we’d make it work. 

That makes sense for David Bowie, absolutely. What was the ticket wait like? Because the studio, 300 teenagers, people in their 20s for the most part, but to get a hold of a ticket like that, what was the wait like?  That must have just been, I’m guessing, just months and months, if not like a year or two. 

I’m going to be honest with you, I never got into that. I had three wonderful ladies that worked for me that took care of all outside people and ticket holders, and I have no idea. 

Yeah, I mean, you had so much to focus on at the time. If you had a comedian on that the audience just didn’t necessarily get, I don’t know about Monty Python, but if you had a comedian that just did not do well, would you have to sweeten in post and put laughs on just to make the comics look good. Did that ever happen? 

I don’t remember that ever, ever happening. 

Yeah, I mean, the people you got, like Billy Crystal, they all did amazing. What was your working relationship like with Dick Ebersol on Midnight Special? What did he add to it, if anything, and what was that relationship like? 

For the short period of time that Dick was there, he was outstanding. He loved television. He loved the camera. He loved the acts. And everybody that was around him knew that Dick had a huge future in television, including me. And for a while, he stayed with me in my house when he first came out to California. And when he started talking about things, and the first thing he saw in the morning, he grabbed the newspaper to read the sports section. Entertainment would come second, but sports first, and of course that’s where Dick ended up, but just an enormous enormous television person 

And you guys were both so young, I mean it’s amazing, I mean with Dick and I mean you were yeah like 30, 31 when Midnight Special came out. Why did Wolfman Jack leave as the announcer and what was your relationship like with him? 

His name was Smith. I don’t know if you know that.

Oh, Bob Smith wasn’t it Bob Smith? 

Yeah, Bob Smith. Yeah, but he was “Wolfman.” We all call him Wolfman, but he was on aTijuana radio station and when he played a record He usually turned into a hit so that helped get the acts between the record companies wanting an act to do it. Even if they were afraid. Wolfman, they knew if he played and liked their music They’d have a hit andmake money. So he was a big help and the acts that was scared, always said, “Can Wolfman greet me when I come out? Can Wolfman come my dressing room? I’d like to spend a few minutes with him.” And he loved it, and all the acts loved it. 

And then at one point he decided to leave, or maybe NBC had a different vision for him and the show changed, or how did that work when he departed? 

He just said, “I think I’m going to, I’ve done this for so many years, and I live in the East Coast, and my family’s there, andmy wife, I think I’m going to move on and we’re all happy because we loved them. 

That makes sense. During producing Midnight Special, you’re working on other things, and I have to ask, I’m fascinated by this. In 1976, you produced Bob Dylan’s, it’s supposed to be a one-hour TV special. You’re going to take it to networks. This is outside Clearwater, Florida during the Rolling Thunder tour, he’s with Joan Baez. So you filmed this in front of a hundred Audience members, what was that experience like and at what point in the process did you realize this is never gonna air? 

Well, I didn’t know it was not gonna air when we were shooting it. One of the reasons it didn’t air is because of Dylan. He said “I wasn’t comfortable doing what I did.  I didn’t like every my performance and I I just don’t think I want that show to air, so he was the important one saying Let’s not let it air.” 

I figured it was Dylan and it’s never been aired. Are there bootleg copies out? I have no idea. 

I have a copy of it. I’ve never put it out never done anything with it 

Yeah, I would not want to… I mean Bob Dylan. 

I wouldn’t do that that 

Of course. You, of course, you would never do that. Some of the acts, I mean, I don’t think people know this. But even before Midnight Special, I mean you were the executive producer along with Pierre Cosette for the first-ever Simon and Garfunkel network special on CBS. What was that like working with them? 

It was fun. It was just a lot of fun. They were amazing. They had hit after hit, two amazing singers and amazing people. It was just a lot of fun doing it. I loved it. I remember doing a game show in 1969 and 70, but we didn’t have a host. And the head of daytime program, he said, “Take a look at this fellow, he’s Canadian, and he’s not been in the United States, but we think he could work on your show.” And I looked at it, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, this guy is great. He is just great.” His name was Alex Trebek. So I had him do my show in NBC, and after a season, they canceled the show, but they kept him, and he was still around, and he and I were friends until he passed recently.

Yeah, that was his big break. He was in his mid-early 30s, and you put him on. What was the highlight for you when you produced The Grammys in 1971 with Pierre Cossette? What was the highlight? You had John Wayne, who was there to present for Best Original Film Score, which was big for the media, and you had Andy Williams, who was the host. But what stands out about you producing the Grammys. 

Well, my partner, Pierre Cossette, was a major part of that. He was really, really terrific with a lot of the acts and some ideas he had. A man named Bob Wood was president of CBS at the time, and the Grammys were not live. It aired way after the show, and we wanted to do a live show. No one had done that. And so for a couple of years, we did that. And again, Pierre was a big part of that and great to work with, and I learned a lot working with Pierre and live TV and had a great time then. 

Yeah Paul Keyes was a writer for that as well who with Laugh-In. Being at NBC Burbank, did you develop friendships with people like with Laugh-In and with The Dean Martin Show and shows like that around that, Sanford and Son around the world?

Dean Martin remained a friend of mine all through his entire life. Always a friend of Dean’s. And George Slaughter, who produced and directed Laugh-In, remains a friend as of today. He’s a buddy of mine. 

He’s great. I’ve sat down with him. Yeah, he’s wonderful. 

They’re old relationships, but they’re wonderful. 

You were friends with Elvis, so what was that like the year after he passes away? It might have been less than a year that Priscilla Presley trusted you enough that you were the person that she’s going to have manage her and, you know, that all, I mean, it was the biggest story in the world that Elvis passes away. Was that like working with her at that time, shortly after Elvis passed? 

Well, I enjoyed her enormously. I’d known her for a few years, and I enjoyed her. We both had an agent named Norman Brokaw, at the William Morris Agency. And Norman suggested one time, why don’t I get involved with Priscilla and she believes that she wants to go into TV or go into film, whatever it might be, “Would you just sit and visit with us? I did. We spent time together. She’s very bright, she’s terrific to visit with, but it never went any further than that. 

I read an article I found in the newspaper from 1973 that said you and Jim Aubrey, who is CBS president MGM, went to the same gym and were friendly. Is that true?  Jim Aubrey’s stories were larger than life. Did you know him? 

I knew him well and he was a good friend and a highly unusual, wonderful, terrific, smart guy.

What stands out about him? 

Take a look at what the CBS schedule looked like when Jim Aubrey was there. It was totally eclectic, from Beverly Hillbillies to shows that didn’t match that, and he put that together. I’ve always wondered how he did that. It was just great. He just had a knack a real knack for that 

Yeah, I mean it’s definitely his career when you look at it online on the internet. There’s so much stuff that isn’t true. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it said on Wikipedia, and I wanted to ask you, that Midnight Special was canceled by NBC at the request of, it says, of Dick Ebersol as part of the deal for him to take over Saturday Night Live. Is there any truth to that whatsoever? 

None whatsoever

I didn’t think so, ’cause I know you’re friends with Ebersol. It didn’t make sense. Yeah, just everything I’ve heard and stuff, it didn’t make sense. So that’s not true, okay? That makes me feel better. 

I’ll tell you why the show went off, and NBC didn’t cancel it. I stopped it. Here’s what happened. They came to me, NBC, after all these years and said, you know, “We have a certain rate card And for using our studios, you pay a certain amount of money, but we want to kick that up maybe three and four times. And we just feel we have to do that.” And I said, “Well, then I’m not going to make the show anymore.” They said, “You’re what?” “I’m not going to make the show anymore. You would just make the cost enormous and no fun at all.” And that’s how the show went off the air. 

That’s how it went off. I don’t know if you ever thought about writing a book, but I’m just looking and everything you’ve done. And it’s unbelievable. Imean, you’re 24 years old and somehow you get the American distributorship for all these cars, Excalibur specifically. That was the big one. And you’re in your 20s and you’re selling cars and you own everything. And you have people like Steve McQueen and Sonny Bono buying cars from you. Time Magazine does an article in ‘67 about you. You’re this 28 year old guy, and everybody in Hollywood is buying these cars from you. What was that like? 

Well, I know now that if I ever wrote a book you’d have to be involved in it with me 

I would be honored. I’m easy to find. 

Yeah, these are things I don’t think about. My wife often tells me to write a book and I want her to write hers first. But it just it just it doesn’t enter my mind. It’s just like wanting to be behind camera. I don’t like to be out in the forefront. 

You’re basically importing cars from Italy and I believe other places as well, Maserati and Gia. You have this dealership which you own in your 20s. This article I read in Time Magazine said that Phyllis Diller bought three from you, Rod Serling. In terms of that business being 24 years old and buying that, selling it 28, and then, I mean, you had enough money, you retired for five months, and then you’d got bored, and then you said, “Well, why don’t I try TV?” I’m guessing it’s just like street smarts that you, I know you went to college for it, but to be 24 and to be able to be that successful, how do you explain it? 

Well, I can explain part of it maybe, by saying that in my high school, I was a C student in almost everything I took. I got into college, I don’t know how, I went to USC and I think we got help to get into the college and I was… Other than numbers, and trigonometry and all these different things like that. I was a C student. I just… whether it was US History, English, whatever, I was a C student. But I always wanted to get out and do things on my own. I thought that I could do things in real life better than if somebody’s sitting over me with having to turn in a paper at a certain time. And so that’s what my life became. It became being an entrepreneur.

And so successful right away. I mean, the Excalibur was such a big deal. I mean, back then, zero to 60 in 5.8 seconds was unheard of and it just it seemed like everybody in Hollywood and you were friends with a lot of these people would would, yeah ,just show up and you develop this name worldwide really is the person to go for for that which says alot.

I had some, I had some really unusual interesting friends. One of them was Glen Campbell and Glen and I used to travel around together a lot and together a lot. When I first met him, he was a studio performer. He played instruments for singing acts. He didn’t sing himself. But I can remember a story with Glen. We were in Aspen skiing for a little bit, and we ran into John Denver, who lived in Aspen, on the street, and he said, “Listen, I’m having a party tonight. Why don’t you guys come by? Here’s how to get to my house.” And that afternoon, the snow started to come down. It was so heavy, we could hardly see the front of the car and we’re driving about five-six miles an hour on this dirt road, and Glen says “Oh there’s a light, there’s a light” I said, “Glen, we’re in Colorado, you just don’t pull over and pull up to somebody’s house they’ve all got guns inside.” “No no no it’s okay,” and I hadn’t thought about the fact that at that time Glen had his TV show on, and he says don’t get out the car, I’ll get out of the car ,come up to the light… And I pull up to this light and there’s a front door there and he opens his door and a little little old lady Comes out the door. And the door opens. He’s standing there. He hasn’t said a word and she yells “Hi Glen, come on in.” I was done. I was done. She’s seen him obviously on television all the time. I couldn’t believe it  I got in that house. She didn’t want to say a word to me. All she wanted to do is give him a drink, give him anything he wanted. She said “John Denver lives out down the road there, but don’t leave me.” And we never did get to John’s. We spent about an hour and a half with this lady. 

I love that, to be that recognizable. 

Those things that are really fun to think about, yeah. 

Even before you were doing cars, I mean, you were really young. I mean, in 1961, you start making the Hollywood gossip journalists, or writing about you, you’re dating well-known actresses. What was that like? I mean, from 1961 to ’65, I saw you mentioned in all these. Was that exciting? Was it unusual that you get used to it? 

It was normal. It was just normal, because those people lived near me, and we went to the same restaurants and same coffee shops, and I just knew a lot of these people. So it wasn’t unusual. It was put in the press a lot because some of these people might have been well-known for television or films. But it was just normal. 

I hope it’s okay, and if not, I’ll edit it out. But one of the ladies that created such a stir that you dated was Ann Margaret. Everybody covered this, and that was the early ’60s. 

Well, George Burns introduced her to me. She was working on stage with him in Las Vegas, and I went to see the show and introduced together, and so we went out a bit. And she was lovely, just absolutely lovely. I followed her career for many, many years. 

You were 25 and she was 21. It’s amazing to think that early that you were getting in the press. I’ll let you go, but I just wanna thank you and everybody check out the Midnight Special YouTube channel, the store, buy several belt buckles and that you also have a DVD collection that’s also for sale. Burt Sugarman, this was a huge thrill. Thank you so much. 

Well, let me know when this is going to be aired because I want to listen to it. 

Absolutely. This was an honor. I hope you have a good rest of your weekend, and yeah, we’ll be in touch. 

Same with you. Thanks so much. 

Thank you, sir. Bye -bye. 


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