Robin Leach has set himself a simple, but who is to say ignoble, task in life, and he is quite up to performing it. "If the public wants to see an actress get out of bed and take a bubble bath, then it's my job to make sure that that gets done," says Leach, who treads bravely into bubble bath, bedroom and boutique on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," a foolish and entertaining program now syndicated to more than 100 U.S. TV stations, including Channel 20 here.
On "Lifestyles," one can accompany John Forsythe to a horse race, go deep-shopping with Suzanne Somers at Saint Tropez, and prowl for what seems like minutes through Cher's closet, pausing to gawk all awe-struck at her vast collection of shoes. Robin Leach is the Marlin Perkins of the glitzerati.
"My job is to make sure that we see how they spend their money, how they live, what actually is their life style, which I think we've done very, very well," Leach says in all seriousness, complete seriousness, mind-chilling seriousness, of the famous and the rich. "I don't regard it as catering to them. I like to say that it never rains on 'Lifestyles.' There is no bad news. It's a very up show. It's just an editorial philosophy. I don't hide from the word 'gossip.' It is gossip. It is gossip, no two words about it."
Inevitably chided as "the aptly named Robin Leach" for the way he slavishly affixes himself to the renowned, the British-born Leach, formerly a reporter for "Entertainment Tonight" and free-lance contributor to the National Enquirer, is branching out. The two-hour pilot for another fab and funsy series, "On Top All Over the World," a "Leach Entertainment Feature," is showing this week on dozens of independent stations around the country, including at 8 tonight on Channel 20. And yet a third Leach-generated program, "The Start of Something Big," with Steve Allen as host, premiered April 12th. The shows are distributed by TeleRep, whose president, Al Masini, churns out formats the way termites churn out, well, other termites.
Masini invented "Entertainment Tonight" and Leach recalls having lunch with him and trying to convince him that "Lifestyles" was a solid commercial venture, that he would show viewers not just stars' faces but their bedrooms, bathtubs and bric-a-brac. "I said that 'I hope that by the time we reach dessert you will have spent $8 million on bankrolling me,' " Leach recalls. "And we didn't even get to the soup. He shook my hand and said, 'You've got the 8 million.' "
A resolute mole with bushy Brezhnev eyebrows and a stock Cockney accent, Leach is unapologetic about "Lifestyles' " fawning frivolousness. The show celebrates celebrity to a degree even celebrities might deplore. It's also goofily fascinating to watch. The next edition, airing Saturday, features visits with William Shatner, Malcolm Forbes, tennis star Arthur Ashe and movie producer Menahem Golan. Publicity for the show assures us that Cathy Lee Crosby, another guest, lives "life in the very fast lane."
"Lifestyles" doles out in heaps the kind of information nobody needs but many of us feel strangely gratified to learn. Leave it to Leach to come crawling into Diane Sawyer's bedroom and get a shot of her little footsies sliding into slippers as she awoke to do "The CBS Morning News."
"Now this is not Watergate journalism," says Leach, his face as straight as it gets. "We aren't contributing to the benefit of morality and everything else in the world, but we're sure bringing a smile to people's faces. If I wanted it to be '60 Minutes,' I'd go ahead and do it. The show is a visual Architectural Digest. It's a visual Fortune magazine.
"My background is a fairly moral background, my only vice smoking, and I would love to do a show called 'Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown.' It's a bad joke. But if we did that, nobody would buy it, and worse, if we put it on the air, nobody would watch it. Because there is this thing, this innate curiosity that's born into us, that we want to know about the person who is better than ourselves, not the person who isn't. The public's appetite for what sensible newspapers call 'personality journalism' and what I call gossip is insatiable. It will never ever stop growing because everybody dreams. And everybody wants to escape. It amazes me -- because I've been in this business so long -- that you can't give the public enough of it.
"And I am amazed at the number of people who stop me on the streets -- not for the b.s. of entertainment or any of that, 'cause that's not where I'm at -- who tell me their kids watch the show. Kids who sit down and they make notebook notes and write papers on this subject. And they've decided which school and university they want to go to later in life because they've come to the conclusion that there's a lot of very successful people who've gone to either Brown or Harvard."
Let's see, was it Brown or Harvard that Suzanne Somers went to? Oh, just an idle thought.
While he realizes he isn't breaking earthshaking stories, Leach does say, with "Elephant Man" indignation, "It greatly upsets me when I'm called a journalistic toad. I mean -- I am a journalist!" Apparently Marvin Kitman of Newsday referred to Leach's tireless, popeyed voyeurism as toadying. Nor does he take kindly to being lanced by Johnny Carson in wisecracks on "The Tonight Show." Leach says that one night just before a commercial, that mean Shelley Winters leaned over and asked Johnny, "Just who is Robin Leach?"
"Well, you know what The Industry told me," Leach says, as if The Industry were some intimate Polo Lounge informant. "The Industry said, 'Ah, that's added five years to the life of your show.' I don't see it that way. I don't understand why that is a status symbol. I don't think it adds anything to me. I can't go to the grocery store and say, 'Johnny Carson did a joke on me last night, I'd like a six-pack of beer.' "
Early in the TV season, Leach was accorded another rare honor, akin to making Johnny's monologue. He was lampooned by that droll little wit Harry Shearer on "Saturday Night Live," which offered a takeoff called "Lifestyles of the Relatives of the Rich and Famous." Leach was not amused by that either. You really do have to go some to amuse this guy. "I think they could have been rougher and ruder," he says. "I mean, if you're really going to savage me, savage me. It's a perfect thing to parody, isn't it? It goes with the territory. Sort of like water off a duck's back actually."
Leach sees nothing wrong with so reverently venerating richness on his program. "I don't think that the rich should be attacked," he says. "There's nothing wrong in being rich. There's a lot of things that rich people might do that are not right with the world, but there's an awful lot that they do that we don't know that they do."
This leads us into a deep sociological discussion. Leach is told there is a theory that poor people or lower-middle-class people exposed to great gobs of extravagant wealth on television may become frustrated and unhappy at the sight of the unattainable. "I haven't heard that," he snips. "I read all the mail. I've had only two complaint letters from the time the show's been on the air. Really nasty. Really nasty. They were both from a Los Angeles post office box. I have no doubt they were written by the same group of people or family of people."
Perhaps some impudent starving indigents getting cheeky. The nerve!
Leach insists he is not rich himself, though he has a profit participation in the shows. Network shows are made at a production cost of $800,000 per hour but his budget is only $125,000, he says, and "every penny that we spend is spent on what you see on the screen. Not on me. When I go out, I don't go out with makeup and I don't go out with hairdressers," he says proudly. "I don't have bodyguards. I don't have an entourage." When he did a story on a rich Arab, "I didn't sponge a nickel off him to do it," either. Last year he says he logged 210,000 air miles. He also says, "I haven't had any fun, and that's the honest truth, since it started."
Well, at least he must be a good travel agent by now, after all this shlepping around Europe and Africa and everywhere else. He must be able to tell you what's the best restaurant in wherever. "Oh, yes, I certainly can tell you that. I can afford to film at those places. But I can't afford to eat at those places." Oh, go on. "I cannot." Really? "Absolute truth." Fun for him, he says, is going home to his "modest three-bedroom house" in Connecticut and putting his feet up and watching TV.
No Robin Hood our Robin Leach. He thinks the rich are entitled to their millions and left England scandalized by the way "socialism" there has deprived people of fortunes. "Socialism has destroyed everything in England," is the way he puts it. To qualify as "rich" for his program, you need $50 million, he says. Once a person has $100 million, does it really make any difference if they expand that to $500 million? "Not to me," he says egalitarianly. What about to the person? "It wouldn't make any difference to me if I had 1 million dollars or I had 5 million dollars. That's not the way I tick," he says.
"Somebody said the show works because I'm like the butler from 'Upstairs, Downstairs.' Sort of like the English humble servant who comes into the manor born, right? I've done this for 25 years with celebrities. I walk through the front door, I'm not in fear or awe, I know exactly how I want to live, I'm not jealous or envious. To me, they're just another human being."
Robin Leach pooh-poohs the idea that The Really Rich, the old moneyed, would never let him and his lights and camera across their marble thresholds, and he says that so far no one approached by "Lifestyles" has turned down his request to barge into the boudoir with camera rolling. "I tell you," he adds with a sly little smirk, "whoever said 'no' at the moment has only said 'no' for the moment, because we never leave them alone until they say 'yes.' "