Paul Shaffer Learned About David Letterman's Retirement Only Moments Before the Announcement
"We kind of go around the corner into a little private area, and he told me," says the keyboardist turned sidekick. "And then we were off to do the show."
A version of this story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
"What am I going to do at 4 o'clock every day," wonders Paul Schaffer. We are sitting in his 11th floor office above the Ed Sullivan Theater, where Schaffer and David Letterman have been performing since 1993, when CBS plunked down $4 million to buy the theater as part of its wooing of the late-night star after he was passed over as Johnny Carson's successor on NBC's Tonight Show.
Here's how he learned he would be out of a job on Monday. "We were about to go onstage," says the 65-year-old keyboardist turned sidekick, remembering a preshow conversation with Letterman on March 31, "and Dave says, 'I need to speak to you.' We kind of go around the corner into a little private area, and he told me [he was retiring]. And then we were off to do the show."
Four days later, on April 3, Letterman again beckoned Schaffer to the wings of the theater. "He said, 'I have to talk about this tonight on the show because it's going to slip out somewhere,'" recalls Schaffer. "After the show, I said to him, 'Well everything is different now. Everything feels a little bit different."
Shaffer has been at Letterman's side, trading zingers from the band pit, since the first episode of Late Night With David Letterman aired in 1982 on NBC. In those days, the sidekick was far more familiar with the late-night airwaves than his boss: Shaffer had been part of Saturday Night Live's house band since 1975 (he was the guy playing the piano when Bill Murray famously sang the Star Wars theme).
Shaffer (right) with Letterman during the early years of their partnership.
Schaffer's first professional gig was in 1972 when Stephen Schwartz hired him as the musical director for the Toronto production of Godspell, which starred Gilda Radner, Victor Garber, Dave Thomas, Martin Short and Eugene Levy. Schaffer was actually there to play piano for a girlfriend who was auditioning for Schwartz.
"Stephen hated his audition pianist, didn't feel that he could play rock 'n' roll," recalls Short, who remains a close friend. "And Paul came in and he pounded the piano like only Paul does. And Stephen said, 'Who is that?' And he went up to Paul and offered him the position of musical director when we went into production if Paul would replace the audition pianist. He wanted to fire the guy immediately."
Schaffer would also work with Schwartz on the 1974 Broadway production of The Magic Show.
He joined his first band, The Fabulous Fugitives, as a teenager in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He began playing with jazz guitarist Tisziji Munoz in college at the University of Toronto (the two men still play together). He graduated in 1971 with a B.A. in sociology. And his close friend Dan Aykroyd notes: "He loves human behavior and is a student of it."
So what's he going to do now? Maybe nothing. "We all have this sickness: You must go in front of an audience and be loved," he says. "But maybe we had so much Sammy Davis-style love from our audience, day in and day out, maybe we're cured of the sickness. Maybe we won't have this sick need anymore. I don't know."