This was 1993. Stern shut himself in his basement and wrote a book. It was a way to escape, to salvage some sense of victory. He called it Private Parts. He told everything in it — about his crummy childhood, how his dad called him names, how he was the punching bag of his school, how he waited patiently for puberty, and when it was over, his penis was still small, and about his tortuous rise in radio, like a dead fish floating to the top of the tank. He held nothing back. He was Philip Roth on goofballs. It was the fastest-selling book in Simon & Schuster's history. All of a sudden, everyone in Hollywood wanted to make the book into a movie. Stern had again played the percentage. This time he hit.
He struck a deal with Rysher Entertainment. Two weeks later, the execs at the company came back with a screen adaptation of Private Parts. "I just didn't get it," says Stern. "I don't know about scripts, I just know what I like. And I would be embarrassed to be in it. They kept coming with more scripts. There was no story. Also, there were fantasy sequences where suddenly Richard Simmons is baby-sitting my kids, and I'm yelling at him. I said no to six or seven scripts."
Stern showed some of these drafts to Ivan Reitman, a friend, who had produced the hit comedy National Lampoon's Animal House. "When his book came out," Reitman told me, "I said, 'Yeah, it's basically right here: a heightened version of his life.' His personality and charm come through. But those scripts didn't capture the wit and intelligence of the book. They were silly."
"I thought Ivan could tell me if I was being unreasonable," says Stern. "I was starting to feel pressure; these people had put in a lot of money. Ivan read a couple of versions and said, 'Look, if you do any one of these, you can kiss a movie career goodbye.'
"After the sixth script, I met with the executives," says Stern, looking out the window. "I said, 'I cannot in good conscience do these scripts.' They threw up their hands. 'You're afraid to be in a movie,' they said. 'I swear, I'm not afraid,' I told them. 'But I can't be in some goofy Coneheads movie. My radio show isn't even like that. Yeah, there are times I'm goofy, but I'm serious, too. I like Richard Simmons but not for my movie.'
"So they said, 'Fine, we'll get somebody else to play you: Jeff Goldblum.' I said, 'You must be insane. That will be the biggest bomb in history. The Fly as Howard Stern? But if you want Jeff Goldblum, you have my permission. I would like to see that movie myself.'"
Reitman took over the picture. He had long wanted to work with Stern. "He's a remarkable person," Reitman says. "He has overcome an inferiority complex, I guess instilled by his parents. His parents did an interesting thing. They gave him all these hang-ups, but they also gave him their intelligence, drive, humor. It had to come from somewhere, right?"
Reitman wanted to focus on Stern's rise in radio and also on his relationship with his wife. "He wanted people to see what I'm like off the air," says Stern. "People say I'm reasonable off the air, a human being. Yet on the air, I'm this fucking animal. Ivan wanted to see that in a movie."
In 1995, Reitman began assembling a team. He asked Betty Thomas (The Late Shift) to direct. He wanted Len Blum (Meatballs, Stripes) to write. At first, they weren't enthusiastic about working with Stern. They saw him the way adults once saw rock music: a noise, a curse, a threat. No one dislikes Stern so much as someone who has not put in the hours.
Len Blum: "Ivan asked what I thought of Howard. I said I thought he was dangerous. 'Forget that and read his book,' Ivan said. He then told me to come meet Howard in New York. 'Don't make a judgment until you're on the plane home,' he said. I had the impression Howard would be this attack dog. But when I met him, I saw he was afraid. I could do something with that. Then he told his story, and it was funny and self-deprecating. The next day I went to the station with Ivan and my friend Danny. On the way, Danny said, 'We are going to see the Beatles.' I knew Danny when he was 15, so I knew what he meant. He saw Howard Stern as a monumental cultural event. When I watched the show, I laughed and laughed and laughed. We then sat with Robin, Gary, Fred and Stuttering John. They each told us how they met Howard. We recorded it. It could go on air as a performance piece. On the plane home, I thought, 'Should I do this?' Then I realized I had laughed harder in two days than I had in the last 20 years. I decided to do the movie."
Betty Thomas: "Ivan and I were working on The Late Shift. When we were done with that movie, Ivan asked what I thought of Howard Stern. I said, 'Not much.' My boyfriend is a fan, so sometimes I would be forced to listen. But it was not my thing. But Ivan wanted me to read the script anyway. It was a very interesting script, so I flew out to meet Howard. I went to the station and looked into that little room where he broadcasts. Gary tried to bring me in, but I wouldn't go. I did not want to be on the air. After a while, Howard came out. When he took my hand, he was shaking. He was so vulnerable and scared. I couldn't believe it. I saw something in his eyes that I loved. Right then, I wanted to do the movie."
The screenplay that Blum came up with is a collection of crises and sight gags that dramatizes one man's attempt to change radio, have fun and show his father and the women of the world that he is not a schmuck. (When Stern told his dad about the movie, he said, "But you never took acting!") And it offers the public a different Howard, a Howard moving away from the mike, slipping into the street, driving home to his wife, and she's mad as hell. This life has always been discussed on air, but it came through in a vague way only, a Xerox of a Xerox. The camera would now follow Stern up the steps and through his front door.
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