In a television era of superheroes, car crashes, serial killers and supermodel dust-ups, isn't it surprising how the simple celebrity interview can still excite an audience?
The media went gaga this month with the news that Bruce Jenner planned to talk with ABC’s Diane Sawyer on a Sweeps Week sit-down in May. Jenner is rumoured to be currently transitioning to female, and is eager to talk about his journey. Soon after the revelation about the planned interview, Jenner was involved in a car accident which killed another driver, and his legal proceedings may either put paid to the anticipated interview or will make it all the more attention-grabbing.
It’s easy to be cynical about the motivations behind the interview. But, truth be told, as TV interviews go, this one has it all. It’s got shock value, surprise, fame, exclusivity, and a certain level of compulsive, shameful viewer appeal. Everyone who follows celeb culture is, needless to say, very curious.
Of course, whether the interview turns out to be truly memorable or not is up to Sawyer and Jenner. But by that point, everyone will already be tuned in.
While we wait for the Jenner/Sawyer chat to begin, check out a few of the more memorable, jaw-dropping, did-they-just-say-what-I-think-they-said? interviews that have gone down in TV history.
15 Tom Cruise (The Today Show, 2005)
This one came out of nowhere. The Today Show’s Matt Lauer was supposed to be interviewing Cruise about his new movie War of The Worlds back in the summer of 2005. But the interview soon degenerated into a bizarre discussion of antidepressants and psychiatry, as Scientologist Cruise admonished the practice of psychiatry as a destructive pseudoscience, antidepressants as a trap, and Lauer as ‘glib’.
Where did this anger come from? Wasn't this the same guy who had been jumping on the couch with Oprah not long before?
The interview was one of those rare glimpses into Cruise’s Scientology beliefs – and it wasn't pretty. Lauer has described the interview as his most awkward ever, though the pair apparently made up in the ensuing years.
14 Hugh Grant (The Tonight Show, 1995)
British actor and one-time RomCom darling Hugh Grant earned himself a place in the Tabloid Hall of Fame after being caught soliciting a prostitute in Los Angeles in the summer of 1995. Needing some immediate damage control, he chose television – in particular The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. “What the hell were you thinking?” opened Leno, getting the interview off to a flying start as Grant squirmed noticeably and the audience laughed.
The humbled actor eventually mumbled his way through an apology that amounted to ‘I did a bad thing’. It was great TV that marked the first time Jay Leno had topped rival David Letterman in the talk show ratings war. It was a position he would maintain for much of his two decade run on The Tonight Show.
13 Fidel Castro (ABC, 1977)
Barbara Walters’ interview with the Cuban dictator was a coup for ABC News, not to mention women journalists in general. While Walters had interviewed many world leaders over the years, she'd also frequently been assigned the more personal, lighter, celebrity-oriented material so there was the perception of her as a less-than-hard-nosed journalist.
But that was sort of what made her 1977 Castro interview so interesting – that it was more personal. For a first time, viewers had the rare opportunity to see the brutal dictator as a human being, a flirty guy who made grilled cheese sandwiches and talked about fishing.
Oh, there was also the hard-nosed, five hour interview (later cut down to a one hour ABC special). But that was not what we remembered. Castro himself described the interview as the ‘most difficult’ he had experienced in his life.
12 The Sex Pistols (Thames Television, 1976)
This notorious December, 1976 Thames Television interview was only seen by viewers in the London region, but instantly became the stuff of television legend. You can’t really blame the punk band for swearing on the Today show – they were asked to. Host Bill Grundy repeatedly insisted they ‘say something outrageous’. And when lead singer Johnny Rotten whispered a swear word, Grundy asked him to repeat it.
Grundy even flirted with a member of the Pistols’ entourage, resulting in more swearing from band member Steve Jones. And when the band began to pogo to the show’s closing theme, it was Grundy who swore.
The interview cemented the Pistols' image as the most notorious, dangerous band in the world. But it practically ruined Grundy’s career. He was suspended for two weeks, after which the show was cancelled.
11 Richard Nixon (Syndicated, 1977)
This is the interview that became a stage play and then a hit movie, but it didn't start out that way. British interviewer David Frost had trouble selling the idea of a Nixon interview to the American networks. They regarded Nixon’s appearance fee to be ‘checkbook journalism’ and Frost to be a lightweight interviewer.
Sold through syndication, the four part interview showed Frost to be an incredible journalist, proving the naysayers wrong. He was able to get the disgraced president to admit to more mistakes than any journalist in the past. The first segment – on the Watergate scandal – drew an audience of 45 million. That number still stands as the biggest audience ever for a political interview.
10 Princess Diana (BBC, 1995)
By 1995, it was hardly news that Princess Diana had an affair with her riding instructor. There had been a tell-all book about it. Still, it was shocking to hear Diana – in her first solo interview with the BBC’s Martin Bashir – admit to her mistake. In fact, she went much farther than that in the interview, which was conducted without the knowledge of Buckingham Palace.
Diana put a lot of blame for her failed marriage on hubby Prince Charles and his on-going relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles. “There were three of us in this marriage,” she said. “So it was a bit crowded.”
The fallout from the interview included the resignation of Diana’s press secretary, and an alleged directive from the Queen to speed up the Charles and Diana divorce proceedings.
9 Lance Armstrong (OWN, 2013)
It took only a few seconds for cyclist Armstrong to come clean to Oprah Winfrey in 2013. Though the OWN interview was a scheduled two part, two-and-a-half-hour affair, Oprah wasted no time in asking Armstrong if he took performance-enhancing drugs during his Tour de France victories.
Yes. Indeed he did. Armstrong admitted to the talk show host that his fairy tale life and incredible sporting achievements was ‘one big lie’.
In all, 3.2 million tuned into the first part of the interview, a huge number for Winfrey’s OWN network. It ranks second, only falling behind Oprah’s interview with Whitney Houston’s daughter Bobbi Kristina. Not surprisingly, since the doping cat was already out of the bag, those impressive Armstrong ratings would drop considerably during the interview's second part.
8 Charlie Sheen (The Today Show, 2011)
In truth, Sheen did a lot of manic, aggressive interviews, on both radio and TV, after getting canned from his lucrative gig on Two And A Half Men. But his February, 2011 Today Show appearance stands out as the pinnacle.
It not only featured many of his now-infamous catch-phrases (‘Winning!’), it also included his assertion that he had cured his out-of-control drug and alcohol abuse with ‘the power of his mind’.
The Today Show can be forgiven for just letting the cameras roll in this case. Sheen let fly with attacks on ‘the fiction’ of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Two And A Half Men creator Chuck Lorre. But he wasn’t angry, Charlie insisted. He may have been a warlock and a rock star, but he wasn’t angry. He was just being ‘passionate’.
7 Robert Blake (Piers Morgan Live, 2012)
The Baretta star has been an entertaining, if difficult, interview since his days talking to Johnny Carson. But CNN’s Piers Morgan got more than he could handle with this angry, confusing, expletive-filled 2012 interview. One couldn't help condemning, then respecting, the actor as he defended his behavior and broached the topic of the still unexplained murder of his wife in 2001.
Although Blake didn’t want to talk about the murder – from which he was acquitted - his anger led him to talk about it a lot, even as he attacked Morgan as ‘Charlie Potatoes’. One couldn’t walk away from this interview without thinking that Blake probably didn't murder his wife, though he sure looked like he could murder someone. “Go ahead Charlie. Keep dancing.”
6 Mike Tyson/Robin Givens (20/20, 1988)
This 1988 Barbara Walters interview on 20/20 saw the heavyweight champ looking dazed as then-wife Givens described Tyson’s abuse and love for guns. She characterized their eight month marriage as ‘torture’. “It’s been hell,” Givens claimed. Many wondered why Tyson didn't say anything in his defense at the time (though he apparently threw a tantrum after the interview).
In 2010, Tyson explained to Walters that he felt ambushed by the interview and that he was going through his ‘junkie’ phase at the time and was likely high. The interview apparently led directly to the couple’s divorce just days later.
5 Sarah Palin and (Katie Couric, CBS Evening News, 2008)
This interview sank the Republicans in the 2008 Presidential Election. Though, perhaps, it was picking Sarah Palin as a vice presidential candidate that did it in the first place. Coming only weeks before the election, Palin’s interview with CBS’ Katie Couric was supposed to improve her credibility and ease worries she was unqualified to run. It achieved the exact opposite.
So where did it go wrong? Was it Palin’s inability to name a newspaper or magazine she read? Perhaps it was her assertion she disagreed with some Supreme Court decisions, but then couldn't name one. Or it could have been that long, rambling statement on the economy – later parodied word-for-word by Tina Fey.
Palin eventually blamed the interview’s failure on Couric’s ‘partisan agenda’ and a conspiracy by those working for her campaign. She did not win.
4 Whitney Houston (Diane Sawyer, ABC, 2002)
Diane Sawyer’s 2002 interview found the troubled singer with a croaky voice and a defiant attitude. She denied she had an eating or drug problem – though she admitted to partying. She took particular exception to a tabloid headline tying her to crack cocaine.
"Crack is cheap. I make too much money to do crack," she insisted. "Crack is whack." She wasn’t telling the truth, of course, later admitting to Oprah that she did do crack, plus a host of other drugs.
The ‘crack is whack’ comment is what most people remember from the interview. Still, a more revealing moment came a few seconds later. When asked to name the ‘biggest devil’ in her troubled life, Houston smiled and replied simply ‘that would be me’.
3 Michael Jackson (Martin Bashir, ITV/ABC, 2003)
Made for Britain’s ITV (and aired in North America on ABC) the 2003 documentary had a decidedly British tabloid feel. Maybe it was interviewer Martin Bashir’s narration in which he gave his views of Jackson’s bizarre life, but some critics called it ‘yellow journalism’. Of course, Jackson certainly didn't help himself.
Among the moments captured by the cameras, there was the famous bit where Jackson hung his son 'Blanket' out a German hotel window. And then there was Jackson's admission he shared his bed with boys. Footage also captured Jackson buying $1 million in furniture on a shopping spree, talking about his dad conducting rehearsals with a belt in hand, climbing a tree and calling himself Peter Pan, and admitting to only two facial surgeries (to repair a nose problem).
It was not a flattering portrait. Needless to say, Jackson was outraged, producing a rebuttal video for Fox featuring outtakes of Bashir praising him, and interviews with his celebrity friends.
2 Monica Lewinsky (Barbara Walters, 20/20, 1999)
This was another coup for Barbara Walters and her show 20/20. The White House intern at the center of a presidential sex scandal had been in the news every day for over a year, but had yet to speak at length to anyone. So when she sat down with Walters in 1999, 70 million viewers tuned in out of pure curiosity - a record for a news program.
What Lewinsky said in the two hour interview didn’t live up to all the hype and anticipation. She claimed simply to be ‘very sorry’ for the whole Oval Office affair. She said she sometimes still had ‘warm feelings’ for Clinton and sometimes she ‘hates his guts’. And what would she tell her children? “Mommy made a big mistake,” Lewinsky said. Yeah. No kidding.
1 Joaquin Phoenix (The Late Show, 2009)
The Oscar-winning actor’s 2009 Late Show with David Letterman appearance came with advance rumors that he had given up on acting and was pursuing a hip hop career. What? Had Phoenix lost it?
He sure looked like it on Letterman, sporting dark glasses, a huge beard and an aloof attitude. If he answered any of Dave’s questions, it was with one word, usually a confusing one.
Months later, the whole incident was shown to be part of an elaborate joke for the mockumentary I’m Still Here. Phoenix insisted the exasperated talk show host was not in on the joke, though Letterman probably figured it out fairly early. While the actor claimed he found acting nuts in public to be liberating, he has since said he understands why some fans are still angry about being duped.