There is the matter of the smartest person in the room, who regrettably tends to display Dr. Sheldon Cooper’s litany of quirky behaviorisms, an instant buzz-kill in the personality department, although massive ratings for CBS-TV’s “Big Bang Theory”.
Conversely, one particular attendee is bound to exude a certain magnetism that commands instant attention, making them the clear-cut focal point.
Often, although not always, an overwhelming contributing factor to that charisma is a person’s striking good looks and/or extraordinary talent.
One would hit the proverbial jackpot by inviting Marilu Henner, as she would be the most astute person in virtually any setting yet free of all baggage – social graces or otherwise. Unquestionably, she would be the most exuberant one there with numerous qualities including an indescribable spark that lures interest. If that were not already sufficient, the well-known actress remains extremely stunning.
Since this past May 13, the continuously effervescent Los Angeles-based Henner has been fronting a daily talk program, executive-produced by Sun Broadcast Group, which handles affiliations and national sales as well; Genesis Communications Network provides satellite delivery and streaming audio for the show.
Unique in today’s talk radio landscape on multiple levels, the three-hour (9:00 am to 12:00 noon PT) project is female-targeted; it is non-political; and the host, while new to radio, has amassed sterling accolades on several entertainment platforms. In other words, Henner is anything but a one-trick pony.
It was at a speaking engagement last June (2012) when someone planted the seed in Henner’s mind that the former “Taxi” co-star should consider doing radio. The person indicated they could connect Henner with the appropriate personnel, although the actress put it off. “Six months ago, people said if I were interested, I could probably do it now,” she remarks. “Not knowing the business at all, I said a three-hour daily radio show was something I could handle. I thought I would give it several months to see if I really liked it. About one month in, I thought, ‘Gosh, I love this, it is so much fun.”
Trademark bubbly Henner enthusiasm is palpable in-person and on-air, lending perfect credence that she could indeed be the medium’s next big thing. “I knew radio would feel intimate, but I had no idea just how intimate,” she comments. “I never realized how much fun it would be.”
Responsibility of delivering three hours of content a day is something Henner does not take lightly. “I call it ‘life through the prism of health,’” she explains. “‘Prism’ is kind of a cool word. When you put something through a filter, it is not just a single thing, it grows exponentially so it has many angles to it. I have many points of view. I have collected all this information in my head.”
Significantly ahead of the curve on the tech level, Henner has had a website since 1999 and she has been teaching classes online since 2000. “I found two guys like Wayne and Garth who were working out of their basement in Ohio,” she recounts in making the Mike Myers and Dana Carvey “SNL” reference. “I mentioned my website on ‘The Rosie O’Donnell Show’ and the next day I had 2,000 emails. I teach a different online class every month and I have coaches who teach with me. I have tons of content. What better way to share this ongoing information than a daily format on radio.”
Certain health-related material that Henner has been dispensing the past 34 years can accurately be depicted as life changing.
While that part is extremely gratifying, it is nonetheless bittersweet for the 61-year-old actress-author-advocate who has already surpassed the ages of both of her parents, who passed away in their 50s – her father from a heart attack and her mother from arthritis.
Nearly impossible to fathom, but following her father’s death, the always-svelte Henner ballooned to 174 pounds. When her mother took ill thereafter though, she vowed it would not happen to her again. “If she lived, I would learn everything I could about the human body to make sure she lived a better life; if she died, I didn’t want her death to be in vain,” Henner emphasizes. “I became a real student of health and would cross-connect things I would read. Pretty soon, I was experimenting on myself.”
Part of the process led to Henner dropping – then keeping off – 54 pounds and as she proclaims, “I got healthier – it changed my life. It was not just a weight thing but a total, overall health picture.”
Initially, Henner’s three-hour radio program commenced at 5:00 am PT, but it was pushed back four hours to accommodate her schedule when she appeared nightly in a play in New York. “I was glad I was doing the play in the Eastern Time zone,” she confides. “I got to settle down, sleep for five or six hours, and then get up to do the radio show.”
Especially in light of Henner’s exemplary portrayal of Sunshine Cab driver Elaine O’Connor Nardo, many assume she is a native New Yorker of Irish-Italian descent. In reality though, she hails from Chicago and is half-Polish/half-Greek. “My father built a fake three-car garage in our backyard for my mother, so she could teach dancing,” Henner points out. “We had a tiny house but a good-sized backyard. As soon as the six kids in my family turned 14, you would get your own dance class.”
Family members were constantly looking for material, thus radio was always on in that household and Henner recalls listening to iconic Chicago personality Dick Biondi because, “We wanted top 40 so my mom could teach all the dances that were popular at the time. As a kid, I thought I was going to end up on Broadway, but I would do radio shows with a hairbrush. I was always interviewing people, whether it was for pretend radio shows or for pretend television shows. I had a tape recorder and I would interview people at school. I was curious about other people and I knew that things at my house were so crazy.”
Not only was there a dancing school in the backyard, Henner’s mother operated a beauty shop out of the kitchen. “Our garage never looked like anything but a dance studio and our kitchen never looked like anything but a hair salon,” Henner jokes. “We didn’t even have a refrigerator in our kitchen.”
Rather unsurprisingly, that appliance was located in the basement. “About 25 customers from the neighborhood would come over and get their hair done,” Henner explains. “I would sit and interview them. I love asking people questions because everyone has an interesting story.”
Completely unbeknownst to her at the time was that Henner possessed perhaps the two most important elements of a successful talk host, curiosity and genuineness. “I came from such a good, big family of six kids that you could not get away with being a jerk,” she modestly downplays. “If you did, you would be ostracized.”
Counter-Programming Option Declined
Daily radio does not constitute the first time the highly engaging Henner has held the spotlight of a national broadcast. Nineteen years ago (1994), she hosted “Marilu,” a daytime television talk show that had a 165-episode run. “I loved that show because I am a talker, I am a listener, and I love sharing information,” she stresses.
Pregnant with her son Nick, whose due date was May 12, 1994, Henner somehow managed to do a test show the day prior to his expected arrival. “Nick was born [on schedule], and at 1:00 on Friday – May 13 – I had a meeting at my house with a baby in my arms,” she proudly describes. “We did the pilots on June 4, 5, and 6.”
Executives were so impressed with what they saw in those episodes that her show hit the air without having been pitched at the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) convention. “We never even put together a team – it was like the craziest thing ever,” Henner remarks.
For perspective, it was at the same time of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. “Soaps and most [other] talk shows were dying, but the only programs doing well against O.J. were Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake,” Henner recalls. “If I went that route, I was told my show would be kept on the air.”
In the meantime, she became pregnant in February with her second son, Joey. “I am breast-feeding Nick, who was under one year old; was pregnant with Joey; and I was about to do a television movie,” Henner notes. “I decided I did not want to do tabloid-type stuff, so the show went off the air with a 2.2 share. Today, shows will stay on with a 1.0. I did that talk show before I was a mother. There is so much more information that I have gotten and I have been teaching the online classes.”
With tongue in cheek, Henner advises that the main takeaway from the “Marilu” experience is, “Do not go up against O.J.”
Dangerously Fun Movie
Voluminous, noteworthy credits jump out from Henner’s imposing vitae, and while there is a rapid association with aforementioned “Taxi” (1978 – 1983), it was with particular elegance that she graced another sitcom. “We kind of got killed in syndication which is terrible,” she remarks of CBS-TV’s 1990 – 1994 “Evening Shade,” in which she co-starred as Ava Evans Newton, the wife of Wood Newton (Burt Reynolds). “Pat Robertson’s network [Family Channel] bought the syndication rights. In addition to not showing about half of the episodes because they thought they were a little bit sexual, they [edited] some others. That show never got its due, which always makes me sad.”
Writing on “Evening Shade” was superb, with creator/co-executive producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason a frequent contributor. “The cast with Burt, Ossie Davis, Hal Holbrook, Elizabeth Ashley, Charlie Durning, Michael Jeter, and Ann Wedgeworth featured Oscar, Tony, and Emmy Award-winning actors,” Henner states. “It was a fabulous experience of going to a master class every day.”
Opposite Steve Martin as “Trudi” in 1991′s “L.A. Story,” Henner earned an American Comedy Award as “Funniest Supporting Female in a Motion Picture.” Seven years earlier (1984), she was “Lil Sheridan” in the cult, gangster movie spoof “Johnny Dangerously,” which starred future Batman Michael Keaton. “I always say that when the wrap party is 24 hours long and the director [Amy Heckerling] shows up wearing a dog collar, you know it was a fun shoot,” Henner comments, unable to contain her laughter.
An Undisputed “Ten”
If the word “hyperthymesia” doesn’t instantly ring a bell, you are not alone. Not only is this condition of a highly intense autobiographical memory difficult to describe, there have only been roughly a dozen confirmed cases of it.
Based on the root words, it is essentially excessive (from “hyper”) remembering (from “thymesis”).
Approximately three years ago (December 19, 2010), Henner discussed her hyperthymesia with Lesley Stahl on “60 Minutes,” where she claimed she could remember almost every day of her life since she was 11 years old. “With six brothers and sisters, you are always looking for something that will set you apart from your siblings,” Henner reasons, lightening the mood by proclaiming, “I’ll take great memory and great legs – those will be my things.”
Albeit an incorrect assumption, Henner, a consultant on CBS-TV’s “Unforgettable,” rather logically believed that millions of other people have the same memory that she does. “I did not realize until after the ’60 Minutes’ segment how bad peoples’ memories are and how much they miss in not having a better one,” she laments. “I thought my memory was a ‘ten,’ while everyone else operated at about an ‘eight.’ I now realize that is not true. When I was ten years old, I literally thought everyone else could do this. People don’t exercise their brains enough. My situation is a combination of nature and nurture. There is no doubt to me that I was born with something unusual and I love that I can say what I did when I was exactly the age of my sons. It is fun and meditative.”
Clarifying that her hyperthymesia is not a photographic memory, Henner specifies that, “It is not two-dimensional.”
What happens in her brain is nothing short of … well … mindboggling. “An entire year becomes like a scene selection of a DVD,” Henner points out. “It is almost like a montage that goes scrolling through the days.”
Chances were miniscule, at best, that Henner would have known one question put to her in our conversation would be to identify the day and date of a random David Letterman booking. Not only did she instantly supply the information from that appearance in which she confidently made the stage completely her own with Paul Shaffer using Rick Nelson’s “Hello Marylou” as her walk-on music, she recited precisely what she was wearing that night. “People should always play to their strengths,” she suggests. “One thing I do in all my memory classes is to help people figure out their dominant sense. That is how you receive, retain, and then retrieve memory. I am a very auditory kind of person [so] I am always much better off hearing directions than seeing them.”
It is one thing to hold the power of celebrity but quite another to use it for benevolent purposes. With her tremendous gift of super-memory, it is only fitting that Henner help those who struggle to remember. “How could I not [try to aid those with Alzheimer's],?” she rhetorically asks. “I want to be helpful because I have something that very few others in the world have. Your memory is your story and your story is you.”
Losing oneself is as horrible as it gets, a factor prompting Henner, Carol Burnett, Loni Anderson, Helen Reddy, and Elliot Gould (among others) to do a benefit tomorrow, September 25, at Los Angeles’ Stephen J. Ross Theatre. They will be reading from the first act of Trish Vradenburg-written “Surviving Grace,” a play about an obsessed daughter desperately seeking to find help against Alzheimer’s, the disease ravaging her mother (Burnett).
Proceeds will benefit Vradenburg’s co-founded USAgainstAlzheimer’s, a national advocacy committed to stopping that affliction by 2020. Two nights later (9/27), Henner, Reddy, and several others will do another “Surviving Grace” performance on the University of San Diego campus. That particular reading will be presented by USAgainstAlzheimer’s and Beating Alzheimer’s By Embracing Science (B.A.B.E.S.).
Earlier this year as she played on behalf of The Alzheimer’s Association, Henner won $50,000 on “All-Star Celebrity Apprentice.”
New York Times best-selling author Henner has written about everything from health, fitness, exercise, beauty, lifestyle, and parenting. In chronological order, her books include “By All Means Keep Moving” (September 1994); “Marilu Henner’s Total Health Makeover” (May 1998); “The 30-Day Total Health Makeover” (March 1999); “I Refuse to Raise a Brat” (October 1999); “Healthy Life Kitchen” (July 2000); “Healthy Kids” (August 2001); “Healthy Holidays” (October 2002); “Wear Your Life Well” (April 2008); and “Total Memory Makeover” (April 2012). “Every single time I had a book tour, I would ask if I would be doing radio,” she remarks. “I would be so excited to hear that I would be doing [interviews on] 12 – 14 stations.”
Segments of Henner’s daily radio show are named after parts of her books. “We identify who is in a particular week’s ‘Brat’s Corner,’” she explains. “I have a ‘Backstage Pass,’ where I bring in one of my Hollywood guests, and I do healthy Hollywood secrets. I know my guests and I get ‘scoopy’-type stories from them. We talk to each other like friends.”
With elongated mock disdain in her voice, the 2006 – 2007 host (with Tony Meredith) of PBS’ “America’s Ballroom Challenge” concedes, “Yes,” she has a fervent desire to be a participant on ABC-TV’s “Dancing with the Stars,” and opines, “It is like the boy you want to ask you to the prom. You wait throughout high school and he doesn’t ask.”
Consideration had been given to calling Henner’s daily radio venture “Shape Up Your Life,” mirroring the title of the five specials she did for the Discovery Fit & Health channel, but for instant brand recognition, her name was inserted in the title instead. “For three hours a day, I get to talk to people in a way that [I provide] a lot of content and get to share great information,” she declares. “I do it in a much more intimate way than a television show does. If you are lucky, most television show segments are six minutes. I like the breathe-ability and fluidness of being on the radio. I get to write, be in plays, and all the other stuff that [happens] in my life.”
Hardly astonishing is the fact that Henner, who readily admits she is still learning daily radio’s mechanics, eagerly wants to meet affiliates and listeners face-to-face. “We have already received fan mail from Patagonia,” she boasts. “I love being a student and in September, we are all susceptible to that. Our DNA is programmed and hard-wired that way. I love that I am a student of what – for me – is a new medium. Some radio people make it look so easy that you do not realize that a clock is ticking and they are getting in that tease and that tease had better sound personal. You must be able to switch gears and be a traffic cop for your guests. All those things are fun for me as I do something new. I like comments and criticism because I want to get better and smoother. I think the smart people are in radio.”
Mike Kinosian is managing editor and West Coast bureau chief for TALKERS magazine. He can be telephoned at 818-985-0244 or emailed at Kinosian@Talkers.com