October 05, 1992 12:00 PM

WHEN JAY LENO WALKED THROUGH THE Tonight Show’s purple curtain last Monday night, nervous staffers and network brass were asking the question of the moment: Would he or wouldn’t he? Just hours before, NBC had fired Helen Gorman Kushnick, Leno’s manager and close friend of 17 years, from her post as executive producer of the show. Would Leno, 42, walk off in protest? After all, his principal demand upon assuming Johnny Carson’s mantle last May 25 was that Kushnick, 46, be made boss of Tonight.

Kushnick, widely regarded in the business as volatile and abrasive, has long been Leno’s bad cop, doing the dirty work of negotiating contracts and arguing with club booking agents, while the affable Jay held first place in the Nicest Guy in Showbiz contest. But over the past four months, she has become the controversial focus of the booking wars—the battle between Tonight and rivals like The Arsenio Hall Show to be the first to get the biggest stars as guests. In the process, critics claim, Kushnick abused her power, threatening NBC’s relationships with the stars and perhaps tarnishing Leno’s image as well.

On Monday, Leno not only showed up for work but bounded into his monologue never referring to Kushnick’s dismissal. While NBC said that Leno had expressed his “continued commitment to the show,” he issued a statement before taping, saying, “I continue to support Mrs. Kushnick.”

That is only to be expected. Since 1975, when Kushnick discovered the struggling comedian in an L.A. club, the two have been inseparable career companions. As Leno himself once said, “This is more of a family relationship.” When Kushnick’s 3-year-old son, Sam, died of AIDS contracted from a blood transfusion in 1983. Leno helped her recover emotionally. (Jay and his wife, Mavis, remain close to Sam’s surviving twin, Sara, now 12.) Leno and Mavis also comforted Kushnick when her husband, Jerrold, died of cancer in 1989, and they were with her during her recent recuperation from a mastectomy. (Her cancer is in remission.)

Yet despite the depth and breadth of their ties, there was little Leno could do to help Kushnick this time. Everyone expected a battle for ratings when Carson stepped down. (Tonight has comfortably retained the late-night lead, followed by ABC’s Nightline and the syndicated Arsenio Hall Show.) But no one dreamed that guerrilla warfare would erupt behind the scenes. While many shows, including Arsenio, stepped up their push to get celebrities by hook or crook, Kushnick responded with an aggressiveness that angered Hollywood’s powerful agents and publicists. “Helen’s a tough player,” says an admirer. “She’s a very interesting, hard-driving personality. But she doesn’t know how to use the knife. She does not have the polish.”

Crudely perhaps, Kushnick staked out her turf. To enforce network loyality, she persuaded NBC’s Maria Shriver to cancel a scheduled appearance on Arsenio. Soon afterward, one Tonight staffer claims, when Kushnick found out that Elizabeth Taylor was going to be an Arsenio guest instead of appearing on Tonight first, she threatened to personally investigate AmFAR, the AIDS charity cofounded and headed by Taylor. (The actress appeared on Hall’s show June 11.) Kushnick denied the accusation. “Am I competitive? Sure,” she told PEOPLE. “But the rules were set before us. Getting people first is the name of the game.”

Unfortunately the game became embarassingly public. Two weeks ago, veteran Hollywood talent manager Ken Kragen told the Los Angeles Times that Kushnick had banned his client, country star Travis Tritt, from Tonight forever because Tritt was planning to appear on Arsenio. Kushnick responded that because Tonight had discovered Tritt, she was insulted that he would do Hall’s show. Moreover, Kragen charged that Kushnick canceled an appearance by another of his clients, Trisha Yearwood, out of spite. Says Kragen: “I’m sorry she’s out of a job, but she used her power abusively.”

Inside Tonight, things had also deteriorated. Kushnick, says a source, bullied both the staff and network executives. “The next minute,” says the source, “she could be charming. You never knew which it would be.” She could also be dismissive of Leno. Once, when he ventured an opinion in a meeting, Kushnick, according to the same insider, brushed him off by remarking, “Oh, go off and write your jokes, Jay.”

Meantime Kushnick’s actions were rapidly alienating the NBC brass. Even worse, the agents and managers Kushnick was offending were the very people that the network relies on to supply stars for its prime-time shows.

President of NBC Entertainment Warren Littlefield had talked several times with Kushnick and Leno about her booking practices. By Thursday, Sept. 17, he had had enough. That evening Littlefield called Kushnick at her ranch in the the San Fernando Valley’s exclusive Hidden Hills enclave, trying once again to persuade her to tone down her act. She refused. Nor did she change her mind during a meeting the next day with Littlefield and Leno. Afterward, Kushnick angrily confronted staffers. She accused producer Bill Royce of booking the wrong guests and being part of a “cabal” that was out to destroy her. He argued with her and quit in protest. (He was rehired Monday.) Over the weekend, a troubled Leno called friends and coworkers for their opinions. They were unanimous: Kushnick was “apparently sick and needed help,” as one staffer put it. Subsequently Kushnick was fired by the network on Sunday.

The following day, however, she came to a noon meeting at Tonight’s Burbank office and told the staff she had no plans to leave and that if she did, Jay would go with her. Two hours later, an official letter of termination was delivered by NBC lawyers. Kushnick slammed the door of her office, and staffers heard things crashing against the walls and the sound of breaking glass. Following the taping, she left the studios for the final time shortly after 8 P.M. In the trash can of her empty office were found the smashed fragments of a framed Hirschfeld drawing of Jay.

The next day, Tuesday, Leno gave what a source calls “a very emotional talk” to the staff, acknowledging that “something was wrong with Helen.” While at Tuesday’s taping Leno appeared refreshed and happier than he had been in weeks, no one believes he will abandon his Iron-bled friend. One insider believes that Jay will try to get her into therapy or at least to rest up after the late-night wars. “Helen has been like a mother to Jay,” says the source. “She believed in him when nobody else did. That’s not easy to forget, especially if you’re a nice guy. And Jay is a nice guy.”

J.D. REED

JOYCE WAGNER in Los Angeles

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