Former “Entertainment Tonight” and “Leeza” personality Leeza Gibbons has decades of experience as an interviewer — and in honor of TODAY’s “Where are They Now: Talk Show Titans” series, the Emmy winner revealed what makes a good host.
“I don't know if there’s one slam-dunk secret, but most everybody would tell you, being present,” she said. “If you are reading off cue cards and relying on a teleprompter and looking ahead to the next show, that's disastrous. Really listening — there's always that great surprise. You’ve got great producers and great guests and they all know what they came for, but the greatest shows happen when somebody drops that unexpected bomb live on your stage and you've got that jaw-dropping moment.”
So, what's the best question Gibbons ever asked?
“We like to think that we come up with these profound, provocative, insightful, cerebral, probing queries that crack someone’s mind to spill out the secrets of the universe, but the best question is probably ‘Tell me more,'" she said. “When we can really discipline ourselves to be quiet. I think the best question is no question at all, to sit with the silence and wait. Because when you wait and let the dead air punctuate, then the guests will invariably go to a natural place of either emoting deeper, freaking out, freezing up or naturally taking the probe somewhere else that you wouldn’t go. When you talk for a living, we tend to talk too much sometimes, so the best question is probably no question.”
We asked Gibbons to reminisce about some of her most unforgettable celebrity interviews.
“Well, look at the body language here. Not the worst of interviews, Bette Davis. In the end, I gained her respect, but I'm a hugger; she was not.”
“This was back when RuPaul was the first face of MAC. Remember, Ru raised millions of dollars for AIDS charities and was such a leader for those causes and such an innovator and just so darn beautiful.”
“Everyone will tell you that Whoopi’s one of the greatest interviews of all time, because she has such passion on so many causes and never skirts an issue. She never dodges a question; she’s the ultimate talk show guest.”
“Kim Basinger was talking about animal rights on the show. I remember being so impressed with Kim because she has agoraphobia, and she doesn’t like to do public appearances very much, but she’s such a lovely person and she cares so much about the things that she cares about. And when she gets lost in something that's meaningful to her, she really does open up. But I just remember looking at her — she’s so flawless. She has that soft Southernism to her, and I’m from the South. I've always been quite captivated by her. I always had a feeling of wanting to protect her — not that she needed it — but wanting to make sure that she got what she came for.”
“Well, look how chummy! That hair looks like it might have been the ‘80s.”
“This was for ‘Trio,’ when Emmylou Harris and Dolly and Linda Ronstadt had come out with an album. Dolly’s just one of everybody’s favorite interviews, and still one of my favorite interviews, and I was so glad that she just won the Grammy with ‘Jolene.’ She has remained relevant for so many decades, and is so beloved. She’s one of my favorite interviews and one of my favorite concerts to go to. Little kids, seniors — she is just indiscriminately devoured by fans. Look how I'm wearing my fringe! I love that I showed up with fringe in honor of Dolly. I have little boots on too. That's just sad. Dress the part, honey.”
Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty
“This was ‘Ishtar.’ That was the late ‘80s. This was obviously arguably reviewed as the worst movie ever made, but the two of them loved the director’s cut. During this interview, I'm there with my little notebook and Dustin came up and took my notebook and started reading aloud to the group what I had written down. I had written down some ridiculous thing like ‘Ask him about his whatever,’ some embarrassing notes, ‘Warren seems annoyed ...’ He outed me to the whole room. They were so playful and so funny, and I really enjoyed both of them so much. Dustin's hysterical and so kind, and Warren Beatty, I think I saw him 20 years later and he remembered the earrings I was wearing that day. It's just an uncanny kind of personal power that he has with everybody. They’re super cool.”
“That was at her house and I remember how infatuated she was with Sophie, her daughter, how she was and is so in love with being a mom, and so focused on doing it right and just every aspect of it. My daughter's a bit younger than hers. Every time that I have seen her, that's been our touchstone. Every star that I’ve ever met in my life, the Hollywood elite circle matters much less than the club of motherhood, which is always the biggest unifying factor, isn’t it?
“I was interviewing this woman with multiple personalities and that's fascinating enough, but during the show, Roseanne shows up and Roseanne was not booked on the show. I hadn’t done any research on Roseanne as a multiple and it wasn't at that time, really disclosed that she had personalities. And somebody said, ‘Roseanne’s here.’ She really was beginning her journey as a mental health advocate, and felt very strongly about wanting to be there in support of our guests and wanting to be very proactive about her own journey, and it was just amazing."
Looking back on “Leeza,” which ran on NBC from 1993 to 2000, Gibbons recalled, “I loved sitting across from people who had survived so much. I just really loved what I would call the ‘broken wing guests,’ who I couldn’t even imagine had the strength to show up and tell their stories. I would always tell our producers, they’re showing up there and they’re bleeding out on our stage, and you’re not going to just put them in a limo and send them home. It's not show No. 1,274. It’s a major turning point in their lives, and they need to be honored for their incredible courage."
These days, Gibbons’ passion is working with Senior Helpers, whose mission is to ensure a better quality of life for seniors and their families. She became involved with the organization after her dad needed rehabilitation following a heart attack, and wants to educate others on their options for "maintaining the dignity and independence of our parents as they get older."
While the ‘90s talk-show boom saw plenty of competition, Gibbons says kindness was key in distinguishing hers from the rest.
“I think in much the same way that on ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ I was known for winning with kindness, for not sabotaging anyone else on the way, I think our show was known for treating our guests with kindness and being respectful,” she said. “We were also competitive and we also were provocative and we also got great bookings, but we didn’t do it at any cost.”
Nearly a quarter of a century after “Leeza” premiered, Gibbons can see its influence on current culture.
"The shows that we did on ‘Leeza,’ these are the same topics that are being done now,” she said. “You take those perennial topics that always rate, and they're intrinsically fascinating. And now you still have primetime specials on the Menendez brothers, JonBenet and all the crimes that we reported on. All the ones that worked then, they work now. Our show on husbands that were wearing their wives’ clothes would work now. And people who thought they could reprogram gay teens would work now.”
She added, “I’m very proud of the shows that we did and the awards that we won for presenting accurate portrayals of gay and lesbian issues, accurate portrayals of animal abuses. They’re all the same things that are happening. Did these shows lead the way? Yes. These shows were, I think, the precursor to a lot of the reality that we see now.”