Several years ago, while scouting for new faces to sit on the Tonight Show hot seat gazing into Johnny Carson’s twinkling hazel eyes, senior talent coordinator Shirley Wood came across a man who had written a book about famous frauds. “He was wonderful at the audition—a nonstop talker,” she recalls. “That’s what we look for: someone with a high energy level who can tell a story and deliver the punch-line—the kind of person you’d love to sit next to at a dinner party.”
Came the appointed night, though, Mr. High Energy Level pulled a nuclear meltdown. As silence piled on silence, Wood remembers, “Johnny finally said, ‘How many large-scale frauds do you think happen in a year?’ And this guy replied, ‘How long is a piece of string?’ ” Drowning, Carson rolled his eyes while Shirley inwardly cringed. She needn’t have worried. Even in its abbreviated one-hour format, Tonight runs through some 700 guests a year, and no one can find them like Shirley.
The key to Tonight’s scheduling lies in the daily 11 a.m. meeting at NBC’s Burbank studios. Even as Carson hunkers down in his second-floor studio office to hone that evening’s monologue, producer Fred de Cordova, associate producer Peter Lassally, Shirley and her fellow talent coordinators, Bob Dolce and Jim McCawley, map out their alchemists’ mix of guests for the show, planning as much as eight weeks ahead.
Penciling in a name, though, is merely the first step in corralling a guest. From noon until 3 p.m. Wood and her colleagues work the phones like Wall Street brokers, negotiating, arranging and flattering. Although the Robert Redfords and Katharine Hepburns still shun the chance to chatter with Johnny, Tonight usually has its pick of celebs. Not so when Carson first went on the show 20 years ago. “Agents and managers wanted to see what he was going to be like,” Shirley says. “They didn’t know if Johnny was going to go for the throat, be sarcastic or what. And before Johnny the show had to grovel for guests.”
In addition to rounding up candidates for the couch, Wood sifts through the mail—Tonight receives some 300 “pitch” letters from anxious agents each week—and requests demo tapes from performers she hasn’t yet seen. Frequently Wood conducts auditions by telephone. It was one such session, back in New York in 1967, that earned her the on-air nickname by which Carson sometimes refers to her. Shirley was on the phone when Johnny walked by her office and began to come in. “I motioned him away and whispered, ‘I’m listening to a dog sing,’ ” she recalls. “He made this face, and I’ve been ‘Crazy Shirley’ ever since.” Not so crazy, however, that she hasn’t had the shrewdness to introduce on the show such then TV unknowns as Bill Cosby, Luciano Pavarotti, Peter, Paul and Mary, Robert Blake and Flip Wilson.
Every afternoon at 3:15 Shirley and the other coordinators gather on the set, where Doc Severinsen stages the music rehearsal; then it’s on to the production meeting, where de Cordova runs through the show’s final timings. At 5 o’clock, a half hour before showtime, Shirley appears in the Green Room, where some guests are sweating out the pre-talk-show jitters.
“Johnny doesn’t come downstairs until about four minutes before he goes on-air,” she explains. “He’ll say hello to the guests if he sees them, but he doesn’t like to start talking because he wants the show to be spontaneous.” That leaves it to Shirley to handhold the acts she has booked. Some need only motherly chitchat; others require something stronger. “Candice Bergen was always a little nervous,” Wood reports, “so I’d give her a couple of glasses of wine to loosen her up. One time she went out there feeling no pain, and the next time I saw her she said, ‘You know, people tended to think of me as rather reserved, but when the producer of Rich and Famous saw me making a fool of myself on Tonight, he gave me my part in the movie.’ ”
Occasionally guests imbibe a little too freely. One night Shirley accompanied Marlon Brando, who had enjoyed his complimentary champagne perhaps more than he should have, from the Green Room to the stage. Then she took her seat just off-camera. “We had Howard Duff, Ida Lupino, Eva Gabor and Brando on as a foursome,” Wood recalls. “Eva began talking nonstop. Finally Brando just leaned back in his chair and said, very sweetly, ‘How long are we going to have to listen to this crap?’ ”
Born in San Jose and raised in San Francisco, Shirley modeled as a teenager before matriculating at Berkeley. She dropped out at 19 to get married, went through a divorce a year and a half later, and had a second marriage, at 24, annulled. Soon afterward a friend got her a job with a public relations firm that numbered among its accounts Lanvin perfume. Shirley proved so persuasive that she was transferred to New York to work for the company’s president. Later she began dating an associate producer of the old Tonight Show, starring Jack Paar. “You could be a talent coordinator,” he told her. “It’s just a matter of booking guests and thinking up crazy things for them to do.” Wood applied for a job after Paar quit and was hired in 1962, during the brief interregnum before Carson’s arrival. One year later she quit because of a personality conflict with the producer but returned in 1967 when Carson personally summoned her back.
When the show moved to California in 1972, Wood purchased a two-bedroom house, complete with atrium and waterfall, in West Hollywood. Today, “between romances,” she lives there alone with her Bichon Frises, Pete and Dolly. Understandably, given her daily immersion in the business, Shirley shies away from socializing with show folk, though she rates Fernando Lamas and Esther Williams “the grooviest couple in town.”
How much longer can she spend rounding up conversational cannon fodder for the Great Carsoni? “I’m alone in this world except for some aunts and uncles and a half sister,” she says. “As long as Johnny hangs in there, I’m going to hang in there.”