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Producer Debbie Vickers Brings Order to ‘Tonight Show’

LYNN ELBERFebruary 21, 1995

BURBANK, Calif. (AP) _ The queen is gone. Long live the queen.

Once upon a time, about two years ago, Helen Kushnick’s brief reign as executive producer of ``The Tonight Show with Jay Leno″ came to an abrupt, messy end.

Tales of Kushnick tantrums and vengeful tactics involving guest bookings had marred the debut of Johnny Carson’s successor. When she was fired in September 1992, Kushnick blamed sexism for driving her out of the male-dominated late-night club.

But there’s still a tough-minded woman on the scene and in Leno’s corner: Debbie Vickers, who was promoted in November from ``Tonight″ producer to executive producer _ her de facto job since Kushnick left.

Vickers, however, is a practitioner of the velvet-glove school of motivation. That’s clearly a welcome relief to Leno, generally tagged as Mr. Nice Talk Show Host, and the ``Tonight Show″ staff.

It’s also helped the NBC late-night show find its footing against CBS’ ``Late Show with David Letterman,″ which continues to lead in the ratings but with smaller margins than it initially enjoyed.

``Debbie communicates the way I like to communicate,″ says Leno. ``I don’t like to give orders. I like to say, `Who thinks it would be a good idea to do this?‴

``I’ve worked with people who yell and scream and that doesn’t work at all. It’s not a comfortable situation,″ he said, an oblique reference to Kushnick, whom he’s never publicly blamed for his rocky start.

Chatting in Vickers’ office at NBC a few hours before a show taping, Leno was framed by a bouquet of pink tulips grand enough to inspire flower-envy _ his Valentine’s Day gift to her.

The gesture seemed appropriate. Earlier, Vickers had half-jokingly described her relationship with Leno in romantic terms.

``We are like a bad married couple. We bicker all day and there’s no sex,″ said Vickers, who is slender, casually dressed and has a bright smile and nervous energy to spare.

She nags him about his weight and diet. She forces him to work out with her personal trainer. She cuts off the long-winded debates Leno relishes _ ``He’ll argue forever; he has the stamina of eight bulls″ _ about sketches and comic bits for the show.

Vickers seems more akin to drill sergeant with the staff, running a daily production meeting with brisk efficiency. Here she’s issuing orders regarding a guest, new Sports Illustrated cover babe Daniela Pestova.

``She needs to dress in a sexy way. If not, somebody have needle and thread to be hemming. One more model in a long dress ...,″ she says, warning in her tone.

This is strictly behind-the-scenes management. Unlike Carson executive producer Fred de Cordova and Letterman’s Robert Morton (Morty, as Dave calls him), Vickers adamantly refuses to play on-camera foil to her boss.

``I have a really good relationship with Jay off-camera, and people have said to us you really need to do this on the air,″ Vickers says. ``But I am so camera-shy. As soon as the camera goes on me, I freak.

``I’ve even gone like this to the cameraman″ _ here, she makes a gesture generally not seen on television _ ``so they can’t take my picture.″

Leno takes impish delight in her discomfort but doesn’t force the issue, says Vickers. And she doesn’t regret not showcasing her rare status as a woman running a late-night show.

(Arsenio Hall had Marla Kell Brown in charge of his syndicated talk show, although he retained the executive producer title.)

Vickers acknowledges that Leno would welcome a little more visibility for his enlightened hiring: Women fill other top ``Tonight″ positions, including producer and director.

His support was crucial to her getting the job, Vickers says. And, she adds, there’s someone else who figured in her ascension.

``Helen. In all fairness, Helen. When I was a talent coordinator on the old show (Carson’s `Tonight’), she said to me `Come be our producer.′ I was always a hard worker and she knew I would bust my butt for her.″

Vickers is, in essence, a ``Tonight Show″ baby. After starting as a page with NBC fresh out of college (the University of Kansas in her native state), and then working on ``Tomorrow″ with Tom Snyder, she moved to ``Tonight″ as a talent coordinator in the early 1980s.

It was ``Tonight″ producer Peter Lassally, now sharing Letterman producing duties with Morton, who gave her the job. Small world, that late-night.

Working during the Carson era, when competition was virtually nonexistent, was ``heaven,″ recalls Vickers. Then she corrects the memory.

``I shouldn’t have said it was great, because we beat ourselves up there every five minutes, too,″ she says.

``There was pressure because you never wanted to disappoint Johnny. He wasn’t demanding ... you knew you were working for the best and you had to do your best.″

Now she’s the woman in charge. She loves her job, but it’s not the kind of success you can relax and savor, Vickers says. No tulip-pink colored glasses for her.

``I dress the same. I live in the same house. I drive the same damn car. I just have more people yelling at me.″

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