LETTERMAN-LENO BATTLE ESCALATES INTO WAR

Published on: October 20, 2004

David Letterman has gone to war against former friend Jay Leno after the announcement that Conan O'Brien will take Leno's "Tonight Show" chair in five years.

Letterman--who believes Leno stabbed him in the back when he maneuvered for the "Tonight" job 12 years ago--took a potshot at Jay on his "Late Show" a few days after the announcement:

"Conan O'Brien is the most powerful person in television because he pushed Leno out of the chair, and he's really calling the shots over there at NBC. And now that we have a friend on 'The Tonight Show,' maybe I'll be invited as a guest on that show."

SNIPING

On another occasion, Letterman sniped that Leno has "quit 'The Tonight Show.' He's going to be gone in five years. You know what this does? It saves NBC the cost of a team of wild horses!"

Letterman has also called Leno a "lame duck," praised O'Brien for "booting" him--and called Leno's announcement that he was leaving the show voluntarily "bogus."

Letterman has never forgiven NBC or Leno for being passed over for the "Tonight" job when Johnny Carson left the show in 1992, an insider told The ENQUIRER.

BRUISED EGO

"You'd think a guy who's now making $30 million a year with his own late-night show on CBS would be able to forgive and forget 12 years down the road. But Dave won't let it be.

"He was certain he was going to succeed Johnny Carson, and his ego never got over being passed up in favor of Leno.

"Dave still feels that Jay betrayed him by working behind the scenes to convince NBC honchos that Letterman was too edgy, too unpredictable, for 'Tonight,' while painting himself as a safe, friendly choice.

"But Dave was one of Jay's biggest promoters when Jay was starting out in comedy, often having him host his old 'Late Night' show on NBC. He feels Leno rewarded him by torpedoing Dave's shot at the one job he wanted--'The Tonight Show.'

"Jay and Dave used to be great friends, but because of all the turmoil they haven't spoken since Jay got the 'Tonight' gig.

"On top of all the personal feelings of betrayal, Dave still feels Leno didn't deserve the show, and hadn't paid his dues like Dave did with his own late-night show on NBC for many years.

"He feels Jay, and NBC, stabbed him in the back by passing him over, when even Carson himself wanted Letterman to succeed him.

"Dave has spent the past 11 years, since his show debuted opposite Leno, trying to beat Jay in the ratings. He has been mostly No. 2 over those years, but he keeps trying harder.

"He's happy that Conan, who he feels has paid his dues, is going to get the show.

"But he still feels it was rightly his--and he can't let that feeling go."

Leno said in a recent interview that it's been 13 years since he and Letterman have spoken.

Of the feud, Leno said: "I don't know why there's still such animosity, but there is. Everybody's rich. Everybody's happy. Both shows are extremely successful. It does make you sad."

The insider added: "Dave will never forget his one big failure in life--losing 'The Tonight Show' to Jay.

"Jay would like to bury the hatchet with Dave--but as far as Dave's concerned, it will never happen."

--JIM NELSON