From His ‘Surreal’ Time with Johnny Carson to Destroying Richard Pryor’s Suit, Producer Andy Friendly Looks Back on His 40 Years in TV
Andy Friendly, the son of late CBS News president Fred Friendly, has spent his life in television.
“I grew up as a studio rat,” he told InsideEdition.com. “I loved being around production. It was a natural thing to hang with my dad at the studio. It seemed like just a kid going to work with his dad.”
But despite those early years in the formal setting of a newsroom, Friendly says a taping of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show made him want to work in television himself, sending him on a 40-year-career working alongside some of the biggest names in TV history.
Friendly, now 65, is sharing his behind-the-scenes tales for the first time in his autobiography, Willing to Be Lucky: Adventures in Life and Television, which is due out on Nov. 1.
In the book, Friendly recalls how at age 14, he attended a taping of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
“In the news setting, things are much more reserved and serious,” Friendly told InsideEdition.com. “It was exciting to go to a variety show where there was a band and other elements that go into making a talk show. I felt a rush of excitement in my veins.”
Watching the show “touched a nerve” and from there, he knew what he wanted to do.
And while some people can only admire their heroes from afar, Friendly got to meet his.
“It was one of the great joys of my life watching and getting to know Johnny,” he said.
Friendly became close friends with Carson’s son, Rick, when they were both working on NBC’s Tomorrow Show in their mid-20s. Rick even invited him out to his dad’s Bel-Air home where Friendly found himself having drinks, swimming and playing tennis with his TV hero.
Friendly describes his time with Johnny Carson as “surreal.”
While Carson was already a household name when Friendly met him, there were other TV icons that Friendly got to work with in their early days — potentially even helping to launch their careers. As a producer on The Tomorrow Show, he booked then-unknown comedian David Letterman for his first television appearance.
“I saw his potential and thought he would be great on TV,” Friendly said.
Friendly said his boss, Tomorrow Show host Tom Snyder, had one rule when booking guests: They had to be good on the phone. Snyder’s philosophy was that if they couldn't be engaging by telephone during a “pre-interview,” they would not fare too well on television beneath the glare of the lights, cameras and audience.
“Snyder would let you get away with mistakes but he wanted a good talker,” Friendly recalled.
He said that Letterman nailed his phone interview. Friendly is hesitant to take too much credit for helping start Letterman’s TV career but “I may have planted the seeds,” he said.
"Letterman was not nervous. He was very composed and as cool as can be," he said.
Friendly also booked Billy Crystal, a rising star at the time, but the "good on the phone" method may have backfired when they passed on a young Robin Williams.
“Robin was monosyllabic,” he recalled of Williams' phone interview. “He didn’t talk.”
But there were no grudges. Years later, when Friendly was overseeing Hollywood Squares as the president of production for King World, the comedy icon appeared as a guest and “had a laugh” with Friendly about how he hadn’t been booked for The Tomorrow Show.
Knowing what he knows now about the careers of Letterman, Williams and Crystal, he said he “had no clue they would be this tremendous” when he first encountered them.
“I knew it then and thought they were talented and funny but the fact that they went on and [Letterman and Crystal] are still doing so much – they were unique voices,” he said.
Friendly’s career also took him to Entertainment Tonight, where he earned an Emmy nomination. He also worked with Richard Pryor on his stand-up comedy film, Here and Now.
While on location in New Orleans in 1983, Pryor showed off a white silk suit with black pinstripes that he wanted to wear for the production. But under the lights, the suit created a strobing effect on camera. Still, the comedian insisted.
His demand sent Friendly's crew scrambling. After assembling the team to figure out what to do, someone suggested taking the suit to a dry cleaner to be dyed, but every business they approached said they couldn’t dye the suit without ruining it.
Nearing midnight the day before filming, Friendly and his team finally met a cleaner who recalled how a woman had dyed clothing using tea bags in her bathtub. So that’s how Friendly found himself in a stranger’s home, looking on as she filled up her tub with water and tea bags.
Unfortunately, the suit ended up shrunken, wrinkled and a different color to the one they anticipated.
After admitting defeat to Pryor, the legendary comic looked at them and just smiled.
“I am still not completely sure if he was having a good time at our expense or wanted to wear the suit,” Friendly now says.
Pryor wound up in a different suit for the performance.
“Once he saw that we tried and did our best, he said, ‘Let’s have some fun with this.’ He brought it out [on stage] and told the story and turned it into a bit,” Friendly said.
After the Pryor debacle, Friendly’s career took him to various roles, including the president of production at CBS syndication, where he oversaw Inside Edition.
It took him three years to work on his memoirs.
“It made me appreciate how lucky I was,” he said of the process, adding that “you have to be willing to be lucky,” an E.B. White quote his father used to tell him.
He says that while Willing to be Lucky is a book is full of stories about his family that he wanted to pass on to future generations, it is also a book for someone who wants to go into the entertainment business as a career.
“My purpose is for young people, and those in my life, to read it and learn from it,” he said.