Dr. Oz Talks Show's Health, Past "Mistakes" and His Future

Art Streiber/CBS/Sony Pictures Television

As his talk show enters season 11, The Hollywood Reporter's Unscripted TV Player of the Year opens up about carrying organs through security to appear on Oprah's show, his bruising day in Congress, Trump's "bogus" physician's letter and daughter Daphne's planned spinoff.

Mehmet Oz bounds through the double doors of his production office on the far west side of Manhattan. It's a Thursday in October, several hours after arriving back in New York on the red-eye from L.A. (he was there to make an appearance on Ellen DeGeneres' show). His white shirt and gray suit neatly pressed, his face slightly flushed, he's in perpetual motion, but never out of breath. He's just come upstairs from the studio where a crew is filming the pilot for a spinoff of The Dr. Oz Show, called The Good Dish. Distributed by Sony TV (like Oz's original), it's based on a regular cooking segment hosted by his daughter Daphne Oz and Gail Simmons, Vanessa Williams and Jamika Pessoa. If The Good Dish gets picked up, it would premiere in fall 2020 and become the latest asset in a wellness empire that includes several best-selling books, a nonprofit (HealthCorps) and an eponymous bookazine (launched by Hearst in 2014). In 2018, the 59-year-old cardiothoracic surgeon was appointed to President Trump's council on sports, fitness and nutrition. He maintains faculty positions at Columbia University and New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he performs about 50 surgeries a year, always with a partner. And his show, which began in 2009 after he made more than 60 appearances on Oprah Winfrey's daytime talker, is still watched by more than 1 million viewers every day. (That's down from 3.7 million at its peak in season three, as much of daytime has endured similar viewer erosion.)

Oz's embrace of alternative therapies and occasional willingness to trade in the quick-fix ethos of diet fads have made him a lightning rod inside and outside the medical community. The nadir came in 2014, when he submitted to a televised flogging by a congressional committee investigating scam products. "All my friends said, 'Don't go.' And I went there and I realized, I don't really understand this so well," he recalls, adding, "There is a lesson in this: People want blood in the water. But if you don't die, they go away." It was a turning point for the show and for Oz; he has become far more careful about the products and therapies he features on his program, which was renewed in 2018 for two seasons, taking it into 2021. As he celebrates his 11th season on air, THR's Unscripted TV Player of the Year spoke about what keeps his show and his brand healthy.

Are you an entertainer or a doctor?

When we started with Oprah, it was such a foreign concept for me to go on television and talk to people about health. I was much more comfortable one-on-one [with patients]. The idea of scaling that to a broad audience was not on my radar at all. Entertainment wasn't on my radar. The first time I went to Oprah [in 2003], she told me at the last second, "Bring some organs." So I carted the organs in an Igloo cooler through security.

What did security make of them?

I made small talk so they wouldn't notice. They probably thought I was Jeffrey Dahmer. What do you even ask someone who's coming through with a vertebral column in his suitcase? And I started dressing in scrubs because I didn't want to mess up my suit because I was carting all these organs onto the set. I never appreciated that inadvertently I was creating a visual brand. So Oprah didn't have to bother introducing the guy in the shirt and tie anymore, he's obviously a doctor; he's in scrubs.

How has your own show evolved over the years?

If I do a segment that feels like year one or two, we all notice it. Then, [the show] was much more on the nose with the information it's giving you: Here are three herbs to take to help you with your headache, here are six tips to sleep better. It felt magazine-y.

Is the daytime landscape more competitive now?

It's different; it's not more competitive, it's always been competitive. And whenever the new shows come out, I cheer for them, I really do. Because it's good for me if daytime is strong. [The genre is] in a strong period now. We had a couple of good launches this year.

But the past few years have been really rough.

Yes, it has been rough. Judge shows do well. Dr. Phil and I were spared. Ellen's done well in a place where a lot of entertainment shows did not. But that's a tribute to her.

If your daughter Daphne's spinoff, The Good Dish, goes forward, will you appear on it?

The angle for The Good Dish is to have women talking about stuff that matters to them while they're making something that you can eat. You don't want me on a cooking show. They're already experienced. I just want to make sure they jell the right way, that some of the mistakes I make don't get repeated in this setting.

What mistakes do you make?

Like most people, I am thinking about the next question while [the guest is] answering. So we used to joke early on that I needed a prompter to tell me, "Your guest is crying, ask her why?" (Laughs.) They were making fun of me. But effectively what I learned is: Give your guests confidence to go where they think they need to go. And an extra beat of silence puts incredible pressure on a guest to tell the truth. So that lesson allowed me to become a more impactful interviewer, especially when I have celebrities on. They've taken a risk to come on my show. For example, Selma Blair has gone through some difficult times. She has multiple sclerosis, she just went through a very difficult stem cell transplant. She's explaining how she made peace with the fact that she would never act again. If she's going to be on the show, I'm letting her tell her story.

You got a lot criticism for endorsing green coffee bean extract for weight loss.

I get it. There had been an article written in a peer-reviewed journal showing pretty spectacular results. Despite that, I wouldn't talk about it until we did our own clinical trial. It showed similar results. Then in that show I said I don't care what happens with any pill, you're never going to lose weight long-term if you don't do the following things. That's what the show actually said.

Was that a wake-up call about leaning into a more clinical approach and away from the quick-fix ethos?

I remember doing an interview with Matt Lauer [on Today] right in the middle of all of that. It was the interview that tamped down [the criticism] finally. He said, "Maybe you should just make it a regular show about blood pressure." And I said, "I've been talking about integration of medicine — about the ability for patients to be treated like adults and use alternative approaches, as long as they are thoughtful about it and transparent with their doctors — since I was a resident. The fact that I have a bigger platform to share that message has changed. But I'm who I am and I'm not going to pull back from that. And I would be lying to you if I said I did not believe some of these therapies had merit."

Do you believe 100 percent in every single thing on your show?

No, of course not. I did a show on the afterlife. I had a neurosurgeon on who had a near-death experience. People will criticize me for giving him space on a medical show because that's not pure medicine. It's very entertaining. It breaks the monotony of talking about blood pressure every single day. If I were a purist, I wouldn't do that. But that's not who I am. I'm earnestly curious about what this guy went through, especially because he was a doctor.

Did you talk to Oprah about the 2014 congressional hearing where you faced similar criticisms?

We talked a lot with everybody, Oprah and everybody else was involved in these discussions. And we all decided that if we're not going to tell our truth about what we think is going on, there is no point doing it.

She didn't say "Why did you do that?"

No, never. She's the fairest woman I've worked with. She was very clear. She said re-evaluate what you're doing, but if you decide you're doing the right thing, stick to it. If you think you're doing the wrong thing, fix it. I knew I needed better relations with the medical community; they should have been on my side.

You had Donald Trump on your show a few months after he released a letter from his physician stating that he would be "the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency."

Well, that letter was clearly bogus. I said, "If you come, do not lead with that letter because it's going to be an uncomfortable interview." So he came on and as is his classic style, looks at the audience and before I can start to badger him about that letter that he knew was bogus, he said, "Who here wants to see my real medical records?" The audience went crazy.

It seems like 59 is the new 39. Are you spending more time on your show on aging?

Yes, near death. (Laughs.) It's not that those things are more relevant because I'm older. When we first started the show, literally, people couldn't spell "quinoa." I would do these shows, and early on, those were big breakthroughs. I remember season one we had a program called "Just 10." And the idea was, if you lose just 10 pounds, then your chance of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol drops dramatically. The major problem America faces has shifted a bit from the basic, simple errors of lifestyle to the more complicated problems around loneliness and anxiety. And because of those you end up with issues of overeating, not sleeping, the constellation of issues that arise from that. So I have shifted the show to always respect those realities.

How long do you see yourself doing the show?

Forever. I love making the show.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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WIZARDRY OF OZ

1,800: Episodes of The Dr. Oz Show since Sept. 14, 2009
10: Daytime Emmy Awards, including four for Oz as host
2.5 million: Viewers for Trump’s 2016 appearance, 64 percent over the season’s average

This story first appeared in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.