By Tom Gliatto
May 20, 1996 12:00 PM

CONCLUDING 29 YEARS ON THE air, Phillip John Donahue at last reveals his Rosebud, the telling detail from his past that explains why he grew up to be daytime TV’s garrulous pioneer talker. It is this: He was no Mickey Mantle. “I talked a lot when I was a child,” says Donahue, sitting in his Penn Plaza office in New York City a few hours before taping two final shows that will air later this year. “I was small, and I was always good enough to make the team, but I never distinguished myself. I’d get my two hits of the season, so I was always on the brink of greatness—in my own childhood mind—but I never excelled. I think to make up for that, I probably just talked.” There you have it, ladies and gentlemen.

But Donahue, now 60, is about to stop talking. Starting as the 31-year-old star of The Phil Donahue Show at WLWD-TV in Dayton in 1967, Donahue had the distinction of being the first talk show host to add audience participation (“Caller, are you there?”). And he introduced his daytime audience to global power players from Nelson Mandela to Jesse Jackson, who taped his 29th appearance on May 1. But, sadly, Donahue’s creation has grown out of control and kicked him in the shins. Today’s viewers prefer youngish hosts who may think Salman Rushdie is a fish recipe. Donahue—who broke a lot of TV taboos (his show was the first to feature an openly gay man), yet never got as down and dirty as some of his daytime rivals—has seen his ratings drop steadily over the past few years.

Yet, even on the way out, Donahue, who says he has no idea what he’ll do next, won’t knock his competition. “We have one place to look for the kind of programming we’re getting in daytime, and that’s in the mirror,” he says. “But I still believe there’s a lot of information on these programs.” Wife Mario Thomas, 57, who appeared on his show in 1977 and married him in ’80, says the only thing that surprises her about the Donahue denouement is that “he could stay on this long—that he could be this fresh, this excited.”

Actually, backstage on this day, Donahue describes other emotions—”strange, sad, anxious, too.” But there haven’t been many tears as Donahue, preparing his swan song, sifted through 7,000 hours of on-air memories, though he did cry watching a clip of his friend Erma Bombeck, who died last month. “There’ll never be anyone like her again,” he says. “Ever.”

Does he have any regrets? “I was just looking at the tape we did with Rock Hudson in 1973,” he says, rolling his eyes in dismay. “One-word answers! Every question was, ‘What kind of woman do you like?’ ‘What do you look for in a woman?’ ” When Donahue learned, in 1985, that Hudson was dying of AIDS, “you could have knocked me over with a feather. Back then nobody was out of the closet. The past 29 years have been a world for which we never prepared.”

However much he loves to provoke an audience, Donahue never depresses—especially not with this afternoon’s crowd, which includes colleagues from Dayton and classmates from Notre Dame, class of ’57. For the last hour, spent reminiscing with executive producer Pat McMillen (who was once his secretary), he’s energetic, eager to please. He warms up the audience with the kind of banter he has been using for years: “You all look so much thinner in person!”

The hour with McMillen over, his staff gathers onstage. Champagne corks pop, and each person empties a bottle onto Donahue’s silver head. Then, crooning “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” in a brave Irish tenor, he disappears into his dressing room.


ANNE LONGLEY in New York City