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The unlikely tale of Tammy Faye Bakker is dramatized in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, out Sept. 17, with Jessica Chastain as the mascara-caked televangelist. But the story of the rise and fall of The PTL Club, which she and then-husband Jim Bakker hosted for 14 seasons starting in 1974, and her path to redemption, stops short of one of the odder chapters in her career: when Tammy Faye (by then known as Tammy Faye Messner) co-hosted a talk show with Jim J. Bullock, aka Too Close For Comfort’s Monroe.
The concept for The Jim J. and Tammy Faye Show came from Fox Lab, a subdivision of 20th Television, which saw potential in putting Messner back on TV. “There was this idea of pairing her with an openly gay co-host,” recalls Bullock. “I was on a short list back then.” (Messner had endeared herself to the LGBT community by sympathetically interviewing an AIDS patient at the height of the crisis.)
Bullock was shocked at the pitch — “My exact words were ‘She’s fucking crazy …’ ” — but was eager to meet the tabloid queen. “When she walked in, it was the first time I’d seen how pretty she was,” he says. “A little-bitty thing. She had a beautiful face and gorgeous eyes.”
The pilot scored high with test audiences, leading to a pickup — but the two outsized personalities were reined in by producers, diluting their chemistry. Messner left a few months later, after being diagnosed with colon cancer. The show lasted one season, with Ann Abernathy filling in. Messner died in Kansas City in 2007 at 65. Bullock, 66, lives in Palm Springs and had been touring in theatrical productions, but says he is currently “retired until my 20-year-old cat dies.”
Bullock spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about that unlikely pairing.
So it wasn’t your idea to call Tammy Faye up and say, “We should do a talk show!”
No, it was not. What happened is Tammy had done The Leeza Gibbons Show. [And the producers thought], “Yes, she definitely needs to be back on TV, but she needs to be coupled with someone.” That’s how the idea of a gay co-host came out, and I was on a shortlist back then [of out gay stars]. This was like the early ’90s.
And so they called me up and said, “We would love to talk to you about a project that we’re kicking around.” My mind was like a Rolodex of names just spinning around. And then they finally went, “We’re thinking about Tammy Faye.” And I went, “Tammy Faye Bakker?!” And [the producer] goes, “Yes.” And my exact words were, “She’s fucking crazy!”
And he said, “Would you be willing to meet her?” And I said, “Oh my God, yes, of course I would be willing to meet her.” I mean, I used to watch her on The Jim and Tammy Show and laugh at her like everyone else, and the insanity of all that. And then there was that T-shirt that was all smeared and said, “I ran into Tammy Faye at the mall.”
I remember those!
She was living down here [in Palm Springs] with Roe, her second husband, and they came up to L.A. We met at Metromedia there, in an office, and I just remember when she walked in, it was the first time I’d seen how pretty she was. And little, petite. Little bitty thing. I didn’t expect her to be so pretty. She had a beautiful face, gorgeous eyes. If you could see them; there was a lot of mascara you had to get beyond. Great skin. Her hair was a little sad, but you know …
And then they literally threw three tabloid magazines at us and said, “OK, we’re going to record you just giving a host chat. Just go.” It was that quick, and it was that crazy, and that was kind of it.
And they just filmed it?
Yes! They had these test audiences and showed them all the pilots and new shows that they had spent all this money on, and then they would all of a sudden slip in this little nasty videotape of this fluorescent lighting in an office, me and Tammy Faye, and overwhelmingly the response was, “We want to see more of that.”
People were going, “Oh my God, this is revolutionary! This is so much fun. It’s just so different from anything out there.” And from that, the word of mouth went crazy, and so they committed to a pilot. We had a segment with a big ol’ yellow python. They put this python around my shoulder, this giant, yellow python, and Tammy was horrified of it because it was “the snake of the devil.” And so I was chasing her around the studio stands going, “Kiss the devil, Tammy! Kiss the devil!”
Sounds like a hit.
They committed to it for at least a season, but they didn’t have the courage or the foresight or the balls to let the show be what it should be. Once money started happening, it changed everything and people were brought in that wanted to turn it into another Regis and Kathy Lee, and it’s like, “Oh, no, no, no. This is not Regis and it will never be — ever.”
Were the notes they gave you to dial back your personalities, or be less gay, or what was their concern?
Yes, it was all about Tammy talking too much about Jesus and crying, and me being too gay. And you know, Tammy was not comfortable with the gay. She was comfortable around gays, but she had not embraced it. Tammy just wanted to be on a talk show that didn’t talk about what people did in their bedrooms, and that’s what she would say. She would get frustrated and she would go, “This [show] isn’t about what goes on in the bedroom.”
Most of our markets were in very small, conservative areas; the few that they had in large markets like Dallas or something, the show was beating Kathy Lee and Regis. But we got a lot of, “Why would you put this woman back on TV. and who is that homosexual?”
But that’s what’s so genius about it. I mean, it was so ahead of its time.
It was. But it continued being a frustrating experience. The producers would say, “Oh, that was funny, but let’s do it again and don’t do that.” That kind of shit. Then Tammy had got cancer and had to leave, and then they brought in Ann Abernathy and it became The Jim J and Ann Show, and it just didn’t flow. I mean, Jim J. and Tammy Faye flows.
When did you say goodbye to her?
I got to talk to her before she died, like six months or something before she passed away. I knew the cancer had come back again, but she was just such a fighter. We had a nice talk, and a little catch-up, and then, you know, that was it.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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