Oscars Flashback: When the Academy Awards Had to Deal With Reagan's Assassination Attempt
Buz Kohan, veteran writer for dozens of awards shows (including Chris Rock’s last Oscars gig), explains how to keep a show running after crisis hits and why hosting is "the most thankless job in the world."
This story first appeared in the March 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
I always seem to be there for the crises. I wrote on the Oscars the year President Reagan was shot, and then the Emmys after 9/11.
As I recall, Reagan was shot on a Monday, and the show was supposed to be that night. The question became: Do we do the show or do we just suspend it and give everything over to the news department? I remember we were in rehearsals [with host Johnny Carson] at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and everyone was running around with an opinion. I'm sure there were network people running around, too, trying to appear human but really just protecting their investment. The ultimate decision was to postpone it one day. But nobody knew as we were holding these meetings whether Reagan was going to pull through. Oddly enough, it was Reagan himself who set the tone by saying to the doctors in the operating room, "Please tell me you're all Republican." We figured if the man who was shot can make a joke about it, he had given us permission to do the same.
The morning of 9/11, one of my first calls was to Emmys producer Don Mischer. The show was supposed to be on Sept. 16, but they ended up postponing it twice and airing it in November. I remember Ellen DeGeneres and her people calling the shots, and I had very little contact with her. That's how it usually works: The host brings his or her own writing staff, and then there are stalwarts like me who do the gut work for the rest of the show. Rarely do the twain meet. The only Oscar host who really tried out material on everyone was Steve Martin. He'd bring 20 people together at lunch and say, "Let me try this joke on you." Everyone else would keep it close to the vest. Even at dress rehearsal, they'd mumble the jokes and they'd never put them on the prompter because they didn't want anyone to steal them or print them before the show.
I wrote for Chris Rock's last Oscars, too. Chris can go off on anybody at any time, so I'm sure he'll have some choice remarks this year. What would my advice be? Ordinarily, I'd say as a general rule, try to keep politics out of the Oscars. I wrote the opening number in 1978, the year Vanessa Redgrave made her "Zionist hoodlums" speech, and there were people booing her. The difference this time is that you're dealing with the organization [the Academy] that's creating the problem. So Chris is between a rock and a hard place, and he'll likely pick up the rock and throw it at the hard place because that's his nature. He has to say something, and I'm sure he will, but I hope he couches it in humor and still makes his point. And I hope that the next day there's a voice of reason that judges it from the point of view of entertainment.
Look, it's the most thankless job in the world — why anyone would take it is beyond me. I've worked with the best of them — Billy [Crystal], Steve, [Johnny] Carson — and the worst of them, and it's a no-win situation. You have to serve too many masters: You're putting on an entertainment show, an awards show, a social show, a comic show and a memorial show. When each new producer would come in, I'd laugh because they were all going to change the world. I'd say: "Guys, listen to an alter cocker here: The Oscars are a dinosaur. If you paint it green, it's a green dinosaur. If you paint it red, it's a red dinosaur. But still, it's a dinosaur."
Kohan has written for dozens of awards and variety shows and is the father of TV creators David and Jenji.