David Letterman may have cracked jokes about his poor health on the iconic Late Show with David Letterman, but offstage his concerns were seemingly real.
In an upcoming biography, Letterman: the Last Giant of Late Night, author Jason Zinoman alleges that the comedian was a hypochondriac who worried about anything from overdosing on aspirin to imaginary conditions.
“He was a spectacularly committed hypochondriac, and close watchers of Late Night could tell,” writes Zinoman.
“In the office, he would often study a well-worn copy of The Merck Manual, searching out symptoms in an effort to speculate about what disease was going to threaten his life next,” he adds.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Letterman admitted to suffering from hypochondria and other problems: “For years and years and years – 30, 40 years – I was anxious, and hypochondriacal, and an alcoholic, and many, many other things that made me different from other people.”
Once, Letterman called his agent in a panic because he thought he overdosed on aspirin, Zinoman writes. The host also obsessed “for weeks” about mercury in teeth fillings and would grill doctors about it.
According to Letterman, the medical manual gave him the idea that he suffered from “heart tumors” — which don’t exist — and he insisted he go to the doctor. Letterman’s then-girlfriend (and head writer of the show) Merrill Markoe approached him later that day about the visit to the doctor’s office.
“She returned home to find him smoking a cigar in the hot tub,” explains Zinoman. “When she asked about what the doctor had said, Letterman replied, ‘The doctor told me he never heard of heart tumors.’ ”
In one of Letterman’s episodes, he was so disturbed by the dizziness that he was experiencing (which he diagnosed as “disequilibrium”) that he traveled to Munich. He stayed there for two days for testing.
“He called me into his office and said, ‘You know, there’s nothing wrong with you,’ ” Letterman is quoted as saying about the followup with his doctor. ” ‘You’re still holding on to this idea that you’re injured. The house is not on fire. Stop it.’ And then it went away.”
The 69-year-old host’s hypochondria and his tendency to cheat both negatively impacted his relationships. In an interview with Zinoman, Markoe explained that she discovered Letterman was cheating on her.
“Look, you are either dying or you are dating,” Markoe remembers saying to Letterman in one of their last fights. “But you can’t be both. Don’t tell me you were dying and then it turns out you are dating. Pick one.”
Letterman: the Last Giant of Late Night releases on April 11.