The Host of Hollywood
"ET" anchor Bob Goen's easygoing approach gets celebrities to open up.
From the Print Edition:
Sharon Stone, July/Aug 2004
It's a spring morning on the set of "Entertainment Tonight," the long-running syndicated entertainment newsmagazine. Despite the show's inherent link to Hollywood's unmatched cacophony, the "ET" set, deep inside Paramount Studios, is as quiet and orderly as a church on a Monday morning. Co-hosts Bob Goen and Mary Hart stand by a table and work their way through an inch-high stack of paper filled with the show's script.
The 6-foot-2, brown-haired Goen reviews the script for the next on-air voice-over segment, walks in front of a camera, and rattles off headlines and tidbits from upcoming stories. Big-screen blowups of this day's newsmakers appear over his shoulders: Quentin Tarantino. Charlie Sheen. John F. Kennedy Jr. Then it's Hart's turn, which includes a joke photo of Goen in a maid's outfit wielding a pink feather duster. "Now you know what Bob does on weekends," Hart informs 12 million Americans.
More updates appear, and on and on it goes. At this point, neither Goen nor Hart nor the show's producers know the order in which these bits will air. It's all part of Goen's vocational bouillabaisse of Hollywood past, present and future.
"What I do is fun, it's simple," he says.
"I want people to think it's easy. That means I'm doing my job well. All I wanted to do was have a good time," he adds. "Life's too short."
Goen heads back to his office after the taping ends. Plastered on his door are news clips from his recent wedding to Marianne Curan, the host of the Home & Garden Television show "Landscapers' Challenge." (The best man was his nine-year-old son from a previous marriage, Max. The ring bearer was the couple's dog, Stogie.)
Enter the office and it's a nice mix of order and clutter. On Goen's desk lie a miniature golf cart, a small flag, stacks of papers, a computer and a telephone. On the credenza behind it are a batch of CDs, a bag of fruit candies and assorted magazines. The bulletin board features various press credentials, photos and a personalized Father's Day card from Max. A TV and VCR sit in the corner. On one wall are photos of contestants from several beauty pageants that Goen has hosted. Framed discreetly on a post is an autographed copy of a comedy album by one of Goen's idols, filmmaker and comedian Albert Brooks, a fleeting reminder of the most edifying moment in Goen's life.
Goen settles into a chair and contemplates his schedule. There's the possibility of an interview with Denzel Washington. If the interview happens, he'll sandwich viewing Washington's spring release, Man on Fire, around a talk with his producers about which questions to ask. Hopefully, Washington's people won't schedule the interview during a taping. But this being Hollywood, there's no idea when or even if the interview might happen.
Flexibility is particularly important for Goen on one unappealing story he's covering. The "ET" co-host has been front and center for the current scandal involving Michael Jackson and has often had to fly up the coast to Santa Maria by helicopter and join the media circus outside the courthouse in hopes of obtaining a comment from the besieged pop star. "There I am, up in the sky, circling Jackson's home, [the Neverland ranch], and watching the tragedy that's come from someone who made some of the greatest music of our generation," Goen says. "It's sad, very sad."
Rather than pursue a troubled celebrity, Goen prefers those times when he can relax with an icon. "The good thing about this show is that celebrities want to be on it," he says. "They usually put their best foot forward."
ne of his favorite memories is when he interviewed Milton Berle for the show. Arriving at the comedian's high-rise apartment in Los Angeles, Goen was told by Berle precisely where to station the cameras and how to start the interview.
"Uncle Miltie, you're 80 years old," Goen remembers saying. "How do you feel?"
"I feel like a 20-year-old," replied Berle. He paused. "But there's never one around when you need one."
"When it was over," Goen says. "He pulled out two nice Davidoffs and we just sat and talked. It was great. I mean, this guy's the man when it comes to TV and comedy."
Another manly cigar moment came after Goen interviewed James Coburn. The craggy actor offered Goen a Cohiba. Soon enough, Goen felt a bond with the gravelly voiced star in a way far deeper than a mere set of questions and answers.
"It's like he was saying, 'Here you go, kid, you're in the fraternity,'" says Goen. "Share a cigar with someone like Berle or Coburn, and you feel connected to that old-guard Hollywood, back to places like Musso & Frank Grill or that old Rat Pack hangout, Matteo's."
Yet Goen's personal cigar venue is far removed from the bright lights. He began smoking in 1986 as part of a regular golf game with his brother-in-law and a few friends. "Every Saturday morning we'd go out to this golf course, Recreation Park in Long Beach," he says. "I just liked the whole process of holding and drawing. I've never been able to be stressed out when I'm smoking a cigar."
Too busy these days to refine his 17-handicap golf game, Goen enjoys smoking one or two cigars a week in the backyard of his San Fernando Valley home. His preferred brand is Playboy by Don Diego. "I sit at dusk, in my home gazebo," he says, "and let myself recover from all the tumult that comes from working and living in Los Angeles."
Nowhere does Goen find the cigar a more appropriate part of the Hollywood he's admittedly "drenched in" than in the realm of comedy. "You watch Groucho, Bill Cosby or George Burns," he says. "These guys made the cigar as much a part of their act as anything else. The cigar is a punctuator. They'd make their joke, and then the cigar was their way of saying they were just going to sit back and savor it. The cigar's not an exclamation point, but a dot-dot-dot. I like that understatement."
And celebrities in kind value Goen's low-key approach. If you were trying to cast a "regular guy," you couldn't do much better than Goen. "I'm naturally frivolous by nature," he says, "which probably makes people want to enjoy themselves around me. I'm accessible, just the guy from down the street."
Goen's affable manner has proven particularly helpful when he's interviewed movie stars. Oscar-winning actresses Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry and Julia Roberts all get on well with Goen. He has built a trust level with Kidman so high that the Aussie actress invited him to be the only journalist on the set of her 2001 film Moulin Rouge while it was shooting in Sydney, Australia. Berry regaled him while on the set of the most recent James Bond movie, Die Another Day.
But it's the reticent Roberts he finds deceptively mischievous. One time, during the New York premiere for the 1997 film My Best Friend's Wedding, he wasn't feeling at the top of his game, so Goen asked the star to interview him. She complied. And while visiting Roberts in London when she was on location shooting the 1999 romantic comedy Notting Hill with Hugh Grant, Goen noted how amazing it was to see "Julia Roberts on the street." Countered Roberts, "Gee, Bob, you make it sound like I've hit the skids."
Then there are those no-so-lighthearted moments. While interviewing Elton John for an AIDS benefit, Goen asked the singer how often he was tested for the disease. Twice a year, John responded. With no further prodding, the star launched into a discussion of everything from his sexuality to his substance abuse—including his lowest point, when John confessed he crawled on the floor of his home in a vomit-stained dressing gown in search of cocaine. "You just shut up and get out of the way," says Goen. "That came early on here, and I think it showed me these entertainers felt they could open up in front of me."
But nowhere does Goen pinch himself more for all his good luck than when he gets to interview comedians. One reason for this goes back to Goen's own ambitions and a short detour he took on his way to achieving them.
Goen grew up in comfortable surroundings in Long Beach, California, a city near Los Angeles but far removed from Hollywood. From his early teens, he dreamed of being a game show host. "Everyone was having a good time, and the host was right in the center of it," he says. "There was no heavy lifting." Noting that most of the game show hosts of those days started in radio, he set out to become a broadcaster, studying radio journalism at San Diego State University (he graduated with a degree in telecommunications and film in 1976) and working as a disc jockey at KPRO in Riverside, California.
In 1975 stand-up comedy was taking off. Goen regularly watched a young Robin Williams, David Letterman and others perform at The Comedy Store in La Jolla, and he thought he had a shot as a comedian. After two years of watching, he entered the arena. On October 31, 1977, Cinderella walked onstage at The Comedy Store in Hollywood. And immediately turned into a pumpkin.
"I was terrible," says Goen. "I had no presence, no style, no material." One reason for this, Goen's been told, is that he lacks much of the angst that's the wellspring of most comedy.
Virtually sprinting off the stage, Goen entered his car and cried. Then he had an epiphany. "I realized right then that my strike zone was as a broadcaster and a host," he says. As he headed home down Sunset Boulevard, he gazed at the billboards of the stars up in the sky and vowed that one day his face would grace one of them.
For five years in the early '80s, Goen worked as a one-man sports department for TV station KESQ in Palm Springs. From hoisting a 12-pound camera to conducting interviews, editing footage and talking on-air, Goen never stopped, often going from interviews with notables such as Muhammad Ali by day to coverage of high school water polo games by night.
It also helped that Palm Springs was an area where many Hollywood producers, directors and agents vacationed. Goen caught the eye of Ray Horl, a legendary game show producer who spotted Goen's potential as a future host. "After my sports job was done, past midnight, I'd go to Ray's house and he'd teach me how to run a show. Basically, it was like hosting a dinner party. You have to make sure the guests all enjoy themselves."
By the late '80s, Goen had fulfilled his dream, hosting the daytime version of "Wheel of Fortune." During that time, he mastered Horl's lessons, even going so far as to tickle his guests to help them relax.
When "Entertainment Tonight" came knocking in 1993, Goen jumped at the opportunity. His years of training—primarily as a host and interviewer, but also as a producer and director—helped him fit smoothly into the job as a correspondent and weekend anchor. To Goen's delight, he was encouraged to inject his own passions into the show. After co-host John Tesh left in 1996 to pursue music full-time, Goen nabbed the co-anchor spot, opposite Mary Hart.
"When I started, they asked me who I most wanted to interview, and I surprised everyone when I said Albert Brooks," says Goen. The comedian-actor, often cantankerous, agreed to spend 10 minutes with Goen on the set of his 1994 film The Scout. Soon enough, 10 turned into 20, then another 20. "He was doing his whole routine for us," says Goen, "and it was wonderful. I think that really helped me get off to a great start."
Of course, despite the pleasures of cozying up to Julia Roberts, Brooks and Jim Carrey (who once apologized for skipping an interview with Goen by sending him a massive box of vintage '60s toys such as Slinkies and Etch A Sketches), there are those whom even Goen can't melt. While interviewing Tommy Lee Jones about the 1993 thriller The Fugitive, Goen inquired about a dangerous stunt. Jones merely glared and told Goen, "We were not in any jeopardy." When Goen pressed for more, a tight-lipped Jones informed him, "We had the best stunt people in the business." Shifting gears, Goen said, "So you're directing." Jones took a breath, folded his arms and glared again. "Just what would you like to know?"
No doubt Goen would agree there are jobs with far more stress. Still, the "Entertainment Tonight" job is never-ending. There are shows to tape each day, premieres to attend, films and shows to watch, articles to read, interviews, news stories—all part of Goen's constant mission to keep informed and sharp for the camera. In the echo chamber of contemporary culture, he's another case of a man with multiple identities: journalist-performer-confidant-interviewer-celebrity. On occasions, stuck in traffic in L.A., he thinks of one of his broadcast heroes, Johnny Carson, and admires the way The King of Late Night walked away from it all and has felt no need to return. But then Goen sees his own face blown up bigger than life on Sunset Boulevard and remembers he's precisely where he's always wanted to be.
Oakland-based Joel Drucker's first book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, will be published this summer by Sport Classic Books.
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