So, was Chuck Barris really a CIA operative or is it just confessions of a frivolous mind?
Chuck Barris is tired of being asked the same question by the press. Was the famous Hollywood producer of such campy TV game show hits like The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and later, The Gong Show, also a CIA hitman?
If it’s time to go to confession, Barris isn’t budging. And why should he? Keeping his lips zipped to that juicy question will only lure people into see Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the high-profile film directed by George Clooney and written by screenwriter du jour Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation). The big-screen outing is based on Barris’s 1980 memoirs of the same name, in which he writes:"My name is Charles Hirsch Barris. I have written pop songs, I have been a television producer. I am responsible for polluting the airwaves with mind-numbing puerile entertainment. In addition, I have murdered thirty-three human beings.”
Two decades after beleaguered Barris thrust himself into a New York City hotel room to begin penning what would be “Confessions,” the fickle industry that once shunned him is now welcoming him back with open arms. Shunned? It’s like this: Barris was so bludgeoned by the press when his shows aired—the days between our love of dynamite daisies and that post-Farrah flip—that it ultimately lead to an emotional breakdown. He’d gone from paving the way for first-run syndication on television, a hotshot producer who spawned more half-hour television shows at the time, to being looked upon as yesterday’s entertainment leftovers. Even his memoirs were dismissed—until Clooney caught wind of them a few years ago. Suddenly, the book’s concept—game show host by day, assassin by night—was oh-so-chic. But was it true?
“I believe it’s Chuck’s story,” Clooney has mused. “I believe it was important for him to tell it and fun for us because the story is so wild. There is something fascinating about someone of his wealth and fame who would want to say this about himself. Whether it’s true or not, it’s in Chuck’s head.”
But Barris’s brain was always burgeoning with ideas. At one time, his rock song, “Palisades Park” became a gold record, and his other book “You and Me, Babe,” hit the New York Times bestseller list. And, admit it—wasn’t there always something oddly addictive in hearing The Newlywed Game host Chuck Woolery mutter the phrase “make whoppi” after network censors forbade the use of “making love” in the ’70s? Even The Gong Show, Barris’s stone-aged American Idol by way of Star Search, couldn’t get more showy with its troika of celebrity judges controlling the fate of the “mediocre” talent ushered before them. And that giant gong—it was the ultimate “boot” off the show biz island.
In between finalizing his next novel, “Bad Grass Never Dies: More Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and the whirlwind publicity tour Miramax has him on for the film, the 70-year-old Barris sat down and spoke with GT. (No gongs—or guns—were on hand.)
Good Times: George Clooney has said that when he once asked you about the specifics of your story—being a CIA operative. And he said you looked him straight in the eye and said nothing. But he walked away believing this was indeed your story, your double life.
Chuck Barris: It’s something I’ll never confirm or deny. The wonderful part of being George, is that he can say those things [about my life] and [now] I can’t. Basically it’s for a reason that I can’t and it’s not always an acceptable reason. I really feel that it’s not really important whether I did or not participate in the CIA. It was important that the book is a good read and that the film is a good film. I would say that it (the CIA events) are plausible. I would imagine that 90 percent of those who read the book or see the movie would not believe it. The CIA has been checked out by many people and they always say, ‘It’s absurd; Barris was never an assassin and would never be.’ One CIA person said, ‘Barris must be standing right by his gong.’ I went on David Letterman the other night and David even said, ‘I refuse to believe that Chuck could harm anybody.’ But then he saw the movie and said, ‘I must say, I walked out of the movie a bit perplexed.’
GT: Of course, not confirming or denying that you were part of the CIA is all part of the allure, isn’t it? Doesn’t it just make us want to see Confessions of a Dangerous Mind even more?
CB: Of course.
GT: What was the impetus for writing the book?
CB: It was a really bad time in my life. I’d been in television for 15 years. I remember when I created The Dating Game in 1965, the critics were all over it. The Chicago Tribune run a headline on the main page of their entertainment section that read: ‘Daytime hits an all-time low.’ I couldn’t understand what was so lowly and so awful and ‘puerile’ about The Dating Game. And it never stopped, and all through the shows I created, and all the way through The Gong Show, I was always looked upon as the shlock-meister. And then, around 1980, it all got to me. I was really in a bad way. I was hurt and angry and all my shows were canceled and I made a movie that came and went. I checked into the Windham Hotel in New York and I went about getting that anger out of myself. So it all crystallized on paper and you see it as a cathartic way to get rid of that stuff. Two and a half years later, I walked out with ‘Confessions of Dangerous Mind.’ The premise of the book was that there was this guy getting crucified for entertaining the public while on the other hand, he was getting medals for killing people for the CIA. When the book came out, it came and went. Critics said, ‘What do you expect from the guy who created The Dating Game? And as far as I was concerned, it (the book) was history, but I looked at it later and I thought it was good. There were moments of humor. Well, then it was dead and buried and gone. All of a sudden, George Clooney found a script written by Charlie Kaufmann and now it’s a movie with people I could never imagine doing it—Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, and Sam Rockwell playing me—it’s mind-boggling how this came to be.
GT: What do you think of Sam’s interpretation of you on the screen?
CB: George told me Sam was in it—he insisted that Sam play the part, and this was after it had been shopped around. I heard all sorts of things; that Russell Crowe was going to be the lead—Kevin Spacey, Ed Norton, Johnny Depp, Ben Stiller. It went on and on and on. And there was an equal amount of directors being considered. But when I met Sam, he hung out with me for about four months. He studied all my moves and looked at the [old TV show] tapes. He even made me read to him. I couldn’t imagine the picture being done by anyone else. I’m amazed by Sam, and I am amazed that he hasn’t been recognized as the great actor that he is.
GT: Now that all this has unfolded and the book has evolved into a movie and you are looking back over the last 20 years of your life, what’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned about yourself?
CB: Let me tell you something, I just finished a sequel to ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’ —it takes place from where it left off and goes up 20 years, to now. And I was trying to figure out the epilogue. You see, my life has always been a roller coaster; it’s always been full of ups and downs and a lot of that had to do with the fact that I couldn’t do one thing for too long. I was always into something new. But when I was trying to think of a truth, a questioning truth, or a wisdom I’ve learned, I just don’t know—I don’t know what I learned from this. Everything sounds corny—‘don’t give up’ or ‘forgot about your regrets.’ None of that seems true. I think there are times when you have to have regrets and times when you can’t hang onto them. I still have to come up with that epilogue …
GT: So … what’s been the trick—the secret, that magic that keeps it all going for you?
CB: The best thing I believe—and again it’s trying to figure out the epilogue—it’s to hang in there. All survivors … they hung in there when all of it seemed lost. It has to be intertwined with having some good luck too. I mean you can hang in there until the cows come home and not have an ounce of luck—so that’s important.
GT: What’s the most tiring question you’ve been asked?
CB: That would have to be about the CIA. But it’s purely understandable. I understand it from a journalistic standpoint, but it’s a tough time … to answer the same question all day long. And it’s still early today.
GT: If there is a part of your life you could gong, what would it be?
CB: There was one time in my life when I thought there were tons of things I’d like to ‘gong,’ and now, looking back on it, and at my age now, I think it all had a purpose and a reason. I really wouldn’t gong anything now. If I had this life to live over again—all of it—it would be just fine.
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