The Two Faces of Tom
Dancing with the Stars host Tom Bergeron has waltzed his way into the big time — but the Old Greenwich resident manages to keep the glitz and glamour of Hollywood at a safe distance
By Chris Hodenfield
It was time to give this young kid a break, so Barry Schulman, a producer at Boston’s WBZ-TV, called in twenty-five-year-old Tom Bergeron and told him he had an open slot: reading the evening lottery numbers. All Schulman knew about the guy was that he was some glib character out of local radio.
“So it wasn’t a big thing, you know,” recalls Schulman in wonder, “it was one minute of air time, tops. But this guy makes it … a terrific one minute. Just on his own, he makes it the best one minute of the evening broadcast!”
This sort of story crops up around Tom Bergeron all the time. Somebody catches a glimpse of his energy, and a new door flies open. From the lottery-numbers gig, it was only a few years before Bergeron was king of the Boston market, with a big morning show, 4 Today.
It’s not often you meet a man and immediately want to name him “Sparky,” but Tom Bergeron is one of those fellows. He walks into the Beach House Café in his adopted town of Old Greenwich and it feels like an old college buddy just blew into the joint — wisecracks are suddenly firing and everyone’s inner comedian is unleashed.
This is what Tom Bergeron does. He wins you over. Right now he’s winning over about twenty-five million viewers on live television in the major ABC hit, Dancing With the Stars. He is the designated straight-man cohost, alongside the flashing Samantha Harris, but there is always something a little … surreal on the edges of his wry smile. Smiling gently at the Brazilian mambo outfits of the dancers, he’ll say, “All the flavor of Rio!” and then add, “Without the bitter aftertaste.”
Whenever disaster looms, Bergeron just seems to go into a higher realm. “That’s what I love, when things go wrong,” he admits, smiling beatifically over a glass of club soda. “That’s when I’m in my absolute element! We had one show a couple seasons ago when everything went wrong: The music stopped, Bruno insulted a star by calling his dance crap, and all kinds of things were happening. And I stepped toward the camera and, in complete honesty, said, ‘I love live TV.’”
“That two hours I’m on live television,” he says laughing, “is the easiest part of my day. It is effortless. Why is that? I don’t know. But I’m glad!”
Meeting Tom, it becomes easy to see that all his fast lines are truly off-the-cuff. In the first year, the producers actually had him offer scripted rejoinders, but now in their sixth season, they’re letting him rip.
Bergeron, in fact, seems to be ripping it up everywhere these days. He’s doing serious (or semi-serious) interviews on Good Morning America. He’s hosting America’s Funniest Home Videos. And other people must have found out about his very involved interest in politics and world affairs, because the Discovery Channel is tapping him for yet another talk show.
Dancing’s producer, Conrad Green, marvels at his host’s ability to cover all those bases. “He can do a one-on-one, Matt Lauer–type interview, he can do a comedy sketch or he can do it straight and sympathetic if there’s been a bereavement issue,” says the energetic Cockney.
“The clue to understanding Tom is how well-read he is. He knows a lot about a lot of things, but he carries his learning lightly. He’s able to deal with pop culture, he’s able to deal with high-brow things, and he’s a funny guy. He doesn’t take himself too seriously and demand special treatment on the set — far from it, actually. Every season, with his own money, he throws a party for the people working behind the scenes. That’s just the kind of bloke he is — he looks out for other people.”
Yes, Tom is indeed extra-alive. I vow to find out where he gets this personal reservoir of extra energy. It can’t just be his beloved Starbucks coffee.
Before his Boston days, Tom had already proved to be something of a prodigy. As a high school kid in Haverhill, Massachusetts, he found out his public-speaking teacher was doing a little moonlighting in radio. When he confided in the teacher that he dreamed of a career in radio, the teacher got him a part-time gig as a DJ.
“I had always liked listening to the radio as a kid, particularly to Jean Shepherd,” Bergeron says. “I would listen to his shows under the covers at night. Shepherd was amazing because he wove these amazing stories. The intimacy of radio — that one-on-one connection with the listener — really attracted me.”
Although he was seventeen and his voice was changing, he worked to establish an intimate voice on the air by putting the photo of a beautiful woman in front of the mike and talking to her.
When I suggest that radio can actually be a welcome place for shy people, he nods vigorously. Although he was class president at Haverhill High, he was, he says, horribly shy. And, astoundingly, he says it’s still an issue.
“My wife is wonderful about going into a cocktail party and making twenty new friends in an hour. I, on the other hand, the one who feels completely at ease on television in front of millions of people, have to walk out of cocktail parties and catch my breath because my wiring is much the opposite — I get claustrophobia and the Richard Nixon sweaty upper lip.”
The couple’s contrasting-levels-of-shyness routine lives on today, as his wife did not really want to be part of this story. Tom thinks it’s funny and turns to the waitress to order the mahimahi.
“When we met, she was producing and directing live news broadcasts on public television in New Hampshire. I had seen her comfort people who were about to go on the air and were nervous as Barney Fife at a bank holdup. But she’d talk ’em down and they’d be all right. And yet,” he shakes his head in wonder, “if you turn the camera around on her, she absolutely hates it! That’s why the closest you’ll ever get to a picture of her for this article is a courtroom sketch artist!” He laughs uproariously at the thought and then gets quiet and confidential.
“If Lois were sitting here, you’d say, ‘You’re camera shy?’ She’s a gorgeous redhead, green eyes, beautiful smile, but, boy, does she hate having her picture taken. She does! And that’s the deal: ‘You’re the one in front of the camera, you’re the one who’s a public figure.’ ”
Shy or not, The Tom Bergeron Show became big on Boston television as well as radio. He could talk to anybody, from John Denver to Jimmy Carter, and if he saw an interesting story in the world news, he’d call China or Australia and follow up. With talk-show great Steve Allen as his model, his goal was constant improvisation.
In 1994 Tom and Lois, parents of two little girls, were just about to buy a house in Concord when an offer came in from Fox to host a morning show on their new network F/X. It was to be called Breakfast Time. Lois said, sure, they could do New York for a year.
“But I said, on one condition, we’ve got to stay in New England. We are, arguably, on the last toenail of New England, but we immediately fell in love with the area here.
“And then Lois, true producer that she is, hung out at various schools in various towns and said, ‘I just wanted to watch when the parents or nannies brought the kids to school. Where was the happiest group of people going to school?’
“Luckily she wasn’t questioned by the police for hanging around schools. And Greenwich just seemed right. It’s home to the kids now. I don’t know what home is anymore. Home is where they are. But I am a creature of New England.”
Breakfast Time, later called Fox After Breakfast, was staged in what looked like a massive New York apartment and allowed Tom to expand his madcap host styles. His off-screen announcer Jim Kocot remembers that it was often hard to keep up with his pranks. “One time,” Kocot says, “the street outside our studio was blocked off because they were shooting a scene from NYPD Blue. Jimmy Smits and Dennis Franz were in a cop car being filmed. So Tom gets a camera guy and a box of donuts and goes right up to the car while they’re filming and says, ‘Do you want the donuts now or later?’ And Smits just exploded! Boy, was he mad. But then when they found out it was a show, the two came on our show, and Franz acted like Andy Sipowicz and pretended to be mad.”
When the show was cancelled after a year or so, Bergeron found work as a substitute host on ABC’s Good Morning America, and then breathing new, surreal life into that warhorse Hollywood Squares. One day, ol’ center square herself, Whoopi Goldberg, tells him she’s going to shoot a scene for Star Trek: Enterprise. So he tags along. Looking around the film set, he cracks that Suni is about to come back from the twenty-fourth century and mess with the warp drive. The producer overhears this, recognizes a sure Treky, and says, “Wanna be on the show?”
“So that turned into the opening scene of the episode with me in a big rubber head that took four and a half hours to put on. It was such fun.”
Then nine years ago he had another one of his happy accidents. He was back in New England hosting an awards show for a friend, and cutting up a lot as usual, when one of the honorees, who happened to be the producer of America’s Funniest Home Videos, reached across the table to ask if he wanted to host the show. “I said sure! It all happened accidentally. It’s such a crazy business, you’ve got to enjoy it when great things happen.”
And great things continue to happen with Dancing with the Stars as the crazy mix of guests guarantees an ever-expanding demographic.
“I had a guy come up to me in the Stamford Mall,” Bergeron wheezes in amazement. “I guess it was at Brooks Brothers. He goes, ‘Tom! When’s the show coming back? Aw, man, with those women and those outfits, that’s my favorite show in high-def!’”
So what pushed the show to a new level?
“The third season with Emmett Smith and Mario Lopez duking it out towards the end, and Emmett coming in as a football legend and making the show safe … for any guy,” says Tom. “I think there will always be an athlete in the mix now. You want someone from film, pop music.” He pauses with a glint. “So far we haven’t had someone from politics. I’d like to see who we could drag in. I think Eliot Spitzer’s free, right?”
Indeed, all kinds of guests are calling to lobby for a shot. When I ask which celebrity has gotten a big career bounce out of a guest appearance, he says, quickly, “Virtually everybody who’s been on the show.”
Of course, Marie Osmond may have gotten the wrong bounce when she hit the floor in her now-infamous fainting spell. How did you react, Tom?
“Like a dad,” he responds readily. “When she fainted, I immediately went into the mind-set that I would go into when our girls were little. If they skinned their knee, they became your sole focus. And, similarly, when I realized that she wasn’t kidding, that she really had passed out, the fact that I was on television was the last thing on my mind. I just turned to a camera and said, ‘We’re going on break’. The EMTs were by my side in seconds.
“When she fluttered awake and looked at me and was regaining focus and realized she’d passed out on live television, the first words out her mouth were, ‘Oh, crap!’ ” And then I knew I had a joke line when we came back from break.
“Afterward, it became the most downloaded thing on YouTube for about a week. They played her in slow motion more than the Zapruder film was seen for forty years.”
While Tom spends a fair amount of time on the West Coast, Greenwich remains the Bergeron family’s isle of sanity in an increasingly fast-paced life. “The Bicoastal Boogey, as we call it, began when I started hosting Hollywood Squares,” he says of the show he did between 1998 and 2004. “It was a real nice schedule, almost like semi-retirement:
I would fly out and we would shoot five shows a day for two or three days over a long weekend. Then I’d fly home for the better part of two weeks.”
But with Dancing with the Stars consuming the spring and fall seasons, his West Coast time has increased to twenty-seven weeks.
“Now, after eight years of motel living and corporate apartments, we finally decided to get a place out there. We originally thought of moving the whole gang out and frankly decided after some investigations that the school system didn’t compare to Greenwich. Also, we didn’t want to say to our daughters, ‘Time to say goodbye to all your friends now!’ They’ll be picking out the rest home later, why piss ’em off now?’ ” With the eldest daughter now in her senior year of high school, the family is coping.
As our lunch went on, there were times when we paused to talk about the current presidential-race craziness. He had such pointed, informed opinions that I wondered if he had an inner Keith Olbermann locked away, ready to bust out.
He seemed to shy way from that but then admitted he is taking a small step toward the serious side. “There’s a launch of a new cable network that’s an offshoot of the Discovery Channel to be called Planet Green. It will be an eco-based channel. And I’m hosting a show I think will be fun called The Supper Club,” he says. “It will be taped in an actual eco-friendly home in Venice, California. Some of the guests will be from politics, some from entertainment, some from the environmental movement, and there will be contrarians who think that global warming is hooey. And that’s nice for me, to get back to a show that can slide from entertainment to topicality to issues and conflict. All of those things that can happen at a dinner — with an interesting guest list.”
This show will be taped on what Tom calls his weekends. Is keeping the energy level up a problem? “Sometimes,” he says after a thoughtful pause. “I’m a gym rat. When I’m in L.A. doing the dance thing, I’m at the gym at six in the morning before I go to the studio, and that helps. Plus, I’m standing next to all these twenty-something, hard-bodied dancers, so I don’t want to look like the middle-aged guy gone to seed.
“And I’ve been a meditator for years.
I started out in TM [Transcendental Meditation] but I don’t think that matters.
I think TM is a brand name. I think if you’re meditating to your breath, or a spot on the wall, or a sound or whatever, the basic discipline is there.
“There are times when I do it regularly, as I do now, which is two times a day for about twenty minutes, and you feel so good, so present, you think, ‘Ah, I don’t have to do it today, I’ll get busy.’ And then you start falling back into feeling a little behind the eight-ball, the stress is getting to you.”
So what does he get out of it?
“For the work I do, particularly live broadcasting, you can’t afford not to focus your attention on the present moment. Because everything is happening vividly, you’ve got forty million eyeballs on you. And there are opportunities in the air — just moving the show forward, getting ready for commercials, smoothing over rough spots — there are moments, an opportunity for a one-liner or a quip to the judges. And if I’m not there, if I’m worrying about something that happened yesterday, thinking about what’s going to happen later in the show, you screw up easily.
“It’s a very important part of my life, strengthening that brain muscle that allows you to be there. And not just at work. Right now, talking to you.”
The lunch crowd has quieted down, and Bergeron’s voice is intense as well as friendly. He gazes at his club soda. “There’s an Indian parable I read once. This child was asking his grandfather if it really was true that in every person there is an evil wolf and a good wolf fighting for control. And the grandfather says, ‘Yes, that’s true.’ And the child says, ‘Which one wins?’ And the grandfather says, ‘The one you feed.’
“And I thought, that’s great. If I’m feeding myself with the workouts, with the meditation, with the awareness that our kids grow so fast and life should be enjoyed, that gets stronger, just by that decision.”
He offers a grave, meaningful look. “The meditation helps me not be an ass. Because I’m fully capable of being an ass. It’s in there, it’s hard-wired in there. If you feed it, that gets stronger. And then,” suddenly the sternness melts away and out comes a volley of hearty laughter. “And then you end up on E True Hollywood Story as a burnout!”
By the time we hit the sidewalk, he’s enjoyed a goodbye laugh with the waitress, he’s ribbed three other Beach House patrons, and he’s ready for something else. With a hearty handshake and the kind of wave you give some dear old pal, he’s walking up Sound Beach Avenue, where it seems ever a sunnier day.