Jay Thomas admits “there may be tears” when he does his annual Yuletide turn on “The Late Show with David Letterman” this year — knocking a meatball off the top of Dave’s tree and telling his Lone Ranger story again — because, with Dave retiring, this is going to be the last time for that oddball tradition.
“I don’t know what year it started — 1998 maybe? Wow. I guess the genius of it is that Letterman thought of doing it every year,” says Jay. “It’s nerve wracking, there’s no doubt about it. The damn thing looks pretty small up there.”
As a football devotee, he loves having a football-related claim to fame — but even more, he gets to be “the guy,” that recurring guest who always pumps up the crowd like Don Rickles or George Gobel when Jay watched talk shows as a kid.
But although his Letterman finale may be bittersweet, Jay certainly has other irons in the fire to think about. The veteran actor and radio talk show host is in his 10 year with Sirius Satellite, doing his daily talk show that runs 3-6 p.m. Eastern time. And he has his recurring gig on “Ray Donovan” as a tabloid TV producer named Marty Grossman who bears more than a little resemblance to TMZ’s Harvey Levin.
“Harvey’s not interested in it,” Jay lets us know.
Or at least, whatever interest he may have had seems to have subsided. “I was getting out of a car at a mall and there’s this TMZ guy there, and I said, ‘Oh, this is great.’ I made fun of the fact they were following me around. Harvey doesn’t like that. The kid was laughing and I was laughing, and I acted shocked and all that, and pretended I cared. I don’t even know if they ever ran it or not, but you know, Harvey tends to take himself a little seriously,” Jay opines.
Jay had envisioned his character on the gritty series about a tough Hollywood fixer ending badly, “Ray Donovan” style: “They’d have me having sex with a man and get killed with a baseball bat.” However, Marty lives on. “I was talking to one of the producers and asked if they’d thought about killig him off, and he said yeah. I suggested that it would be interesting for Ray to need him. I mean, he’s always doing stuff and Ray is always getting mad at him, but it looks like they know each other. So the writer says, ‘I never thought of something like that,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, okay. Just trying to keep my job, basically.’
“So I was in the second to last episode of the season, and in the last episode he hands this DVD to his assistant and says, ‘Get this to Marty,’ the name of my character. My wife turns to me in bed and slaps me five and says, ‘Well, I guess you’re back.'” I’m back. Marty ran something for Ray and now he owes Marty something.”
He enjoys playing Marty, who tends to be surrounded by gay bodyguards. “I have my muscle shirt on. I worked out for it. It’s gotten me into good shape, so it’s very good,” Jay notes.
He says he hasn’t acted as much as he would have liked to through the years, but what he has done has had focus. He has a way of being memorable on memorable shows. On “Cheers” he was Eddie LeBec, hockey player husband of Carla (Rhea Perlman). On “Murphy Brown,” he was Murphy’s boyfriend, the Morton Downey-esque Jerry Gold — and won two Emmys for it. He was the Easter Bunny in two “Santa Clause” movies and the football coach in “Mr. Holland’s Opus.”
Jay did an onstage turn recently that was particularly close to his heart — his son’s musical, Somewhere With You. Country song writer JT Harding is Jay’s eldest son, “my biological son that I gave up for adoption many years ago. And then about 20 years ago, he came back to us and I became friends with his mother and father. Sadly, they both passed away in the last few years.”
Jay was close enough to his son’s adoptive family to have flown to Grosse Pointe for his brother’s wedding. Harding “is the big brother to my other sons,” he says. Jay and his wife had everyone over for Thanksgiving.
The musical features Harding songs made famous by Kenny Chesney (as in the show’s title, the Number One song “Somewhere With You”), Uncle Kracker, Jake Owen and JTX. Jay performed in it at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre in New York last summer. It’s described as a “coming-of-age love story centered around a new generation of Southerners, confronted by the methamphetamine epidemic, the war in Iraq, and other post-9/11 challenges in the rural South.”
According to Jay, the producers are taking it “all over the country. That’s what it takes to get these shows done — perseverance.”
He’s looking forward to more family time during the holidays. But first, he has a meatball to topple.