"This is happening," Jimmy Fallon tells himself, as he begins to panic. "This is really happening." He's all of 20 minutes into a brand-new gig as a talk-show host, which suddenly seems to be going about as well as his recently abandoned movie career. In other words, badly. Fallon's ill-chosen first-ever guest, Robert De Niro, has decided to take a playfully sadistic approach to their conversation, smirking as he contributes little more than New York-accented monosyllables and the occasional shrug.
The interview stalls. Time slows down. (Months later, Fallon's wife, Nancy Juvonen, will describe it as "the longest minute of his life.") As the awkwardness escalates, Fallon feels flop sweat blooming beneath his crisp black suit; his forehead glistens under the hot studio lights. He begins to stammer. His internal monologue speeds up: "This could go any way. He's right there, and I'm right here. This could go any way. This could be the end of my career."
This is an excerpt from the January 20, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. This issue is available now on newsstands, as well as online in Rolling Stone's digital archive on January 7, 2011. Click here to subscribe.
Watch our video from Fallon's Rolling Stone cover shoot below.