The late Jay Thomas is going to be remembered for a great many things. Children of the 1980s will always see him as Carla’s husband Eddie LeBec husband on Cheers. People that came of age just a bit later will remember him as kindly gym teacher Bill Meister in Mr. Holland’s Opus, while millennials will always associate him with the Easter Bunny from The Santa Clause 2 and The Santa Clause 3. He was also a disc jockey in the 1970s and a SiriusXM host over the past decade.
But one of his most enduring legacies is something he could have never possibly seen coming. It began on The Late Show With David Letterman in December of 1998 when he told the host a hysterical story about meeting Lone Ranger actor Clayton Moore at a car dealership back in his early disc jockey days. Despite being a little stoned, he offered to drive Moore back to his hotel when the event concluded. They got into an accident on the way and, when things got tense with the other driver, the Lone Ranger himself stepped in to offer assistance. Later in the broadcast, Letterman and Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde attempted to knock a giant meatball off a Christmas tree by lobbing footballs at the thing. When they kept missing, Thomas ran onto the stage, grabbed a football himself and got it in a single throw.
It was one of the great talk show appearances of all time. When Christmas came around the next year, Letterman invited him back to tell the Lone Ranger again. Afterward, they again threw footballs at a meatball atop a Christmas tree. Along with Darlene Love’s performance of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” it became a holiday tradition on Letterman. The Lone Ranger story never changed, but somehow it grew funnier year after year. Even people without any sort of Christmas tradition looked forward to it every time the holiday came around. Here’s video of him telling the story in 2009.
Thomas told the story for one final time during Letterman’s last Christmas show in 2014. That night, he once again managed to knock the meatball off the tree. “I’m never going to see you again after this, am I?” he playfully asked Letterman. That seemed like a safe bet, but earlier this year Letterman told Vulture there was actually talk of recreating the annual Christmas show at New York’s Beacon Theater. “Then people said, ‘”The ticket prices are going to be so and so,'” Letterman said. “And I said, ‘Oh Jesus, no. That’s larceny. We can’t do that.’ We couldn’t ask people to pay that kind of money to come see something that they got for free on television for so many years.”
If they ever find a way to stage the Letterman Christmas show without charging a fortune, it just won’t be the same. Who will tell the Lone Ranger story? Who will throw footballs at the meatball? Nobody could possibly do it like Jay.