The former king of cable news enters THR's no-spin zone to discuss his exit amid harassment claims, the president's Charlottesville remarks, Megyn Kelly's Putin sit-down and his latest 'Killing' book.
Bill O'Reilly has scores to settle — with his accusers, the media and the "far-left precincts" that have "viciously attacked" and plotted to "destroy" him. But on this September afternoon, the former king of conservative cable — host for 20 years of Fox News' top-rated The O'Reilly Factor — is trying his best to play nice. He (gently) chides President Trump for his comments about some neo-Nazis being "very fine people" before coming to his old friend's defense ("He acts and he speaks emotionally, OK?"). He compliments Megyn Kelly's interview with Vladimir Putin ("She asked the right questions"), albeit in a backhanded way ("but I'd get right into his face"). He shows restraint when asked about his former employers at Fox, who in April fired O'Reilly, then making $25 million a year, after accusations of sexual harassment. Those accusations are false, he insists, hinting that "stuff will come out."
What O'Reilly, 67, does want to talk about is the latest historical book in his best-selling Killing series (17 million copies in print): Killing England, out Sept. 19, which tells the story of the American Revolution through the eyes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. He's also eager to share plans for the expansion of his online empire, billoreilly.com (now produced out of his Long Island home but soon to move into studios in Manhattan), as well as his thoughts on someday returning to cable TV (he's been pursued by One America News, and his name keeps popping up in reports about the Sinclair-Tribune merger that could spawn a competitor to Fox News). "I've got to feel the odds of success are high," he says, "because I don't need to do a project just for the sake of doing a project. I got plenty of stuff."
You mentioned on a recent podcast that you've had offers to return to TV. Are you near a decision?
I haven't decided. There are some interesting projects in development, as they say in Hollywood, but it has to be the right situation. I'm waiting to see very specific details of the projects that people have pitched to us. And there have been many. I think by early October, we should have a pretty good vision of what we're going to do.
Did you pass on One America News? After publicly pursuing you, the head of that company tweeted in June that he was "pulling" his offer.
Yeah. I didn't make any yes or no one that. He was a very nice guy, and I thought I treated him very respectfully. But at that point, you know, we weren't going to make any decisions about long-term projects. So they, I guess, lost patience.
Are you looking at partnering with a bigger company?
No, I wouldn't say I'm interested in partnering. I've got my own enterprise, BillOReilly.com, which is extremely lucrative, and I can do that full-time. We have a very committed base of subscribers, and that'll only grow. I own that, and I don't have to partner with anybody. I'm a hired gun. If you want me to do something, I'm absolutely willing to listen, but I've got to feel that the odds of success are high.
How many subscribers do you have?
So we're never going to say. But it's hundreds of thousands.
Is it more challenging to get A-list guests without the Fox News platform and booking apparatus?
Yeah, but we don't even try. I mean I'm not going to go and try to get Speaker Ryan or somebody like that to do a podcast. And, you know, that's actually worked for us because now I can give more time; the "Talking Points Memo" used to be about 3 [minutes] 20 [seconds] on The Factor. Now it's about 22 minutes, and a number of topics. And the people like that. They want that kind of analysis not interrupted by guests. Each forum has strengths and weaknesses. So we don't even try to bring in people who are ultra-busy. Once we get into the studio, that'll change a little bit. But right now, you know, I had to establish that we have a unique voice, the voice is still here. It's on BillOReilly.com, and you can hear it every night. And, you know, the folks are liking it.
What do you miss most about being on TV?
I don't miss a lot. This summer, I realized it was much nicer to be out in the ocean than it was to be in the studio.
What do you miss least?
The business got really nasty. What people don't realize is that I was under attack constantly for 16 years. Once I became No. 1, once we passed Larry King, it was every single day. And then, as social media grew and got wildly out of control, the attacks got more vicious, more disgusting. Then you have the business, you have the competition. I mean, you don't think those people are sad that I'm not sitting in that chair anymore, do you?
When did you start working on Killing England? How long does it take you to write one of these?
Killing England was started a year ago — we do a book a year. I really got lucky with the statue [protest] business because Jefferson and Washington were, of course, slave owners and are now in this eye of the storm. With all the statues coming down, I mean, it plays right into it.
Speaking of which, what did you think about Trump's statements blaming the violence in Charlottesville on "both sides"?
I've known Trump for 30 years. I wrote a column for The Hill and said that Trump's mistake — and it was one — was that you can never under any circumstances equate Nazis with anyone else. It's a very simple thing, OK? So if you understand history — and I think Trump does to some extent, but not perhaps to the extent that is needed in this day and age — when you understand the evil that happened in the '30s and '40s in Germany, in Europe and even in Japan, really, truly understand it, you can't make comments about it in any other context other than, this is pure evil. That's it, OK? Now, if you want to make a point the next day that the antifa movement is destructive, you can do that, but it has to be the next day. You see what I mean?
But he's president now. Shouldn't the bar be higher? Shouldn't he have a better grasp of history?
He acts and he speaks emotionally, OK? Always. And that's why he got elected. People rallied to that because they're tired of the automaton politicians. He wasn't thinking about Nazis and what they did in World War II and the Holocaust. He was thinking, "I saw on television bad people, Nazis, neo-Nazis, but I also saw antifa people bring weapons to the park and look for trouble." He saw it, so he said it without stepping back and saying, "You know what? I got to put perspective in play here. I'm the president." So he didn't do that. And that's why he got hammered.
But there is an interpretation that he said those things because he does not want to alienate his white nationalist supporters.
No, no, no, no. It's not his style. He doesn't think that way. What he thinks about is, who's attacking me unfairly? Who's giving me a hard time? And I tell him all the time, "Look, you're the president, you know, and you're going to get it no matter what you say. You can't win it." But is Trump going to listen to me? No, he's not.
He did come to your defense during your final weeks at Fox News …
Yeah. He was a stand-up guy. He's very loyal to his friends. I think he understands that no one was mistreated on my watch, because that's the truth. He knows the politics of it because he has been in the same circumstance — accused — and the press will take any allegation and make it a conviction.
How do you think Fox News has done in your absence? You said recently that its ratings would have been better if you had been covering Hurricane Harvey.
Well, I'm not going to say anything bad about Fox News. I have 20 years, six months in there, and I think it would be untoward for me to say anything negative about Fox News. They're still a very strong brand, and they still have great correspondents, and their presentation is very, very professional. But I'm a different agent. I do things differently, and that's why we were very successful. So in a hurricane or breaking news coverage, I bring on certain people, and we develop story arcs. When I watched the Harvey coverage on television, there was a sameness to it. And that would not have been the case on our show.
When the allegations surfaced in April and the Murdochs were debating your fate, did you have any direct conversations with Rupert, James or Lachlan?
No. I'm never going to comment on any of that stuff. My lawyers are going to deal with that, and I am never going to say anything.
Did you talk to Roger Ailes during that time?
I'm not going to talk about it.
Do you have any thoughts on Roger's death?
I mean, it was terrible. I don't know what Roger Ailes did or did not do [with regard to sexual harassment charges]. But I feel so sorry for his wife and son, who are good, good people. Very loyal to him, and that says something about Roger.
Your 20-year career at Fox News was gone in two weeks. How did that make you feel?
That wasn't what was bothering me. I've had a terrific career, and I'm a lucky guy, and I'm not, you know, one of these guys that wants to hang on to the cliffs. You don't want me working for you, that's fine. They made a decision. It was purely a business decision. But the way it was done, I'm over in Rome [on vacation]. My [legal] team was caught by surprise because we had an amazing amount of exculpatory stuff that we had presented. And it just — it was sad. That's the word, sad.
Did you feel like you had support from colleagues at the network?
I didn't ask anybody to do anything. I didn't want anybody to get involved. Once you get a famous name, and once you're in the political arena, the combination is devastating. If they can get you, they're going to get you. And so we warded it off for 20 years, and then finally, you know, all of this happened, and that was it.
National Geographic Channel — which like Fox News is a 21st Century Fox company — passed on the Killing Patton adaptation. Are you shopping it elsewhere?
We have had discussions with Killing Patton. It's very, very viable. You know, all the other movies off my books have been very successful. We need to find a company that's going to do it right, you know? And I think it would be a huge, huge hit, because that book is very provocative and action-packed.
Why do you think Nat Geo passed?
Oh, because it's a Fox [company]. I don't blame them. I mean, what are they going to do? They didn't pass on it, by the way. They bought it. It was in preproduction. These are all business decisions. So they made them. They have a perfect right to do it.
Have you watched Megyn's Kelly's NBC News show?
I watched it. I feel bad for her because it's the same old game; you build them up and tear them down. I mean, what has Megyn Kelly done wrong? I don't get [the media criticism]. She worked her way up from being a reporter, and now she's making good money, and she's in a good position. So what has she done wrong? You don't like her haircut? Is that it? I don't get it. Megyn and I, we worked well together at Fox. She was very successful on The Factor. And after me, at 9 p.m., she did very well. So I don't get it. What is the hysteria about this?
Did you see her interview with Alex Jones?
No, I didn't. I'm busy. I watched the Putin interview because I want to interview Putin. And if Putin and I ever got together, that would be an event. But Alex Jones? You know, with all due respect, I'm not going to learn anything from that.
What did you think of her interview with Putin?
Well, Putin is scary. And I knew as soon as I saw Putin's facial expression what he was going to do with Megyn Kelly. That he was going to deny everything. It doesn't matter how much evidence she had, he was going to deny it. So right away, you've got a guy talking in Russian — who understands English, by the way; it's the old Fidel Castro trick — and he's looking at her and he's got this little sneer on his face going, "Look, lady, you can ask me anything, and I'm just going to deny it and I'm going to try to make you look stupid." And that's what he did. And with me, that's not going to work because I'd get right in his face. But again, it's not Megyn's fault. Megyn asked the right questions.
Have you ever been intimidated by an interview subject?
(Long pause.) Alf.
Alf, the puppet from that 1980s sitcom. OK …
I think you know the answer to that question.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.