hal gurnee

Hal Gurnee won two Emmys for his work directing David Letterman's late night shows on both NBC and CBS

Courtesy of Hal Gurnee
hal gurnee

Gurnee on set with David Letterman

Courtesy of Hal Gurnee
Fill 1
Fill 1
April 24, 2024
The Interviews Archive

Foundation Interview: Hal Gurnee

The Emmy-winning director of Late Night With David Letterman on making TV history.

Late-night television hosts Jack Paar and David Letterman were separated by decades, but they shared a secret weapon in Hal Gurnee.

The well-liked director, who has a knack for comedic timing, got his start in television in the '50s. He's best known for a legacy of laughs from his many years of working with Letterman, who made a running gag of getting Gurnee's last name wrong.

Gurnee first became a director on The Tonight Show, then known as The Jack Paar Tonight Show. After Paar's departure from the show in 1962, Gurnee went on to direct Paar's subsequent efforts, The Jack Paar Program and Jack Paar Tonite. Gurnee made an attempt at retirement in the mid-'70s but was coaxed back to the control booth, and in 1980 he first worked with Letterman on the shortlived NBC daytime talk show The David Letterman Show.

Gurnee was nominated for 11 Emmys for his years of work with David Letterman, and won two. The first was for Outstanding Directing in a Variety or Music Program for NBC's Late Night with David Letterman in 1991, and the second was when CBS's Late Show with David Letterman took the award for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series in 1994. On Gurnee's last night before his retirement in May 1995, Letterman paid him this tribute: "There's no way myself or anybody else here on the staff of the Late Show will be able to accurately repay Hal for his friendship, his creative drive and his voice, which have made this show so successful over the years."

Gurnee was interviewed in December 2018 by Ron Simon for The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. Click here to watch the entire interview.

What were some of your interests growing up?

Hal Gurnee: I went to the movies at least two, three times a week. I've told my friends that everything I've learned in life, I learned at the movies.

Where did you go to college?

I actually enlisted in the Navy. The war came about when I was 17 and a half, and I decided I wanted to be in the war — in the Navy, because they had the best uniforms. I worked real hard, got through high school in three years, enlisted in the Navy and got sent to the V-12 Program that teaches you how to be an officer. But to be an officer you had to have two years of college. So they sent me off to Colgate for a year and then to Dartmouth for a year. When the war was over, I went back to Dartmouth, and I was in the class of 1946.

How did you first hear about working in television?

I started working for an advertising agency, and they had a lot of radio clients. I was a messenger boy, and I would deliver scripts to 30 Rock. They were experimenting with television at NBC back then.

After I was fired from my job for delivering a package too late, I was in New York and saw a theater door open. I went in and wandered around. I met some guy who was really nice to me who explained they were rehearsing a television show for ABC. While he's talking, a booming voice comes out of the talk-back up in the ceiling and says, "Art, move that thing." I said, "Who's that?" and he said, "That's the director." And I said, "That's what I want to do."

How did your professional relationship begin with Jack Paar?

I had a friend, Bobby Quinn, who was an AD on The Tonight Show, and once in a while when the show was out of town, he would have to work with me in master control. That was a tedious job, and he hated it. I said, "Bobby, just go home. I'll do this," and he liked that so much that when he took a week off from the show, he gave them my name, so I became the AD. Bobby made the mistake of going to Jack and complaining about the director having a drinking problem, and Jack fired Bobby. He said, "What I look for in my employees is loyalty." They looked down the list of who else had done this show, and I was the last one to do it, so I became the AD on The Tonight Show. Jack had a reputation of being ... not ornery, but he didn't [suffer] fools gladly. If you made a mistake in front of him, he would let you know. So I avoided him like the plague.

Then one day I had to edit a piece of film, and they said, "Take it up to Jack and sit and make sure that it's okay." I went up and gave it to him, and we looked at it in the dark. The lights came up and he said, "You're new here, aren't you? What's your name?" I said, "My name is Harold, but I don't use it. People call me Hal, because I think [Harold's] such a wimpy name." And he says, "Yeah, my name is Harold." It was Jack Harold Paar. He said, "My father's name was Harold." He was testing me. I said, "Well, I'm sorry about that, but I guess we're both stuck with the name." He liked the fact that I didn't cringe. After that, every once in a while, if he wanted something edited, he'd say, "Give it to that Harold guy," and we got to know each other that way.

Describe directing The Tonight Show when Jack Parr hosted.

Well, first I was the AD, and then I became the director. We were in Hollywood for a show, and Jack called me in and said, "I want you to do the show tomorrow. I just canned the director." I felt bad, because the director was a friend of mine, but I also wanted to be a director, too. So I said okay. Then we go back to New York, and I'm directing. One of the differences I made to the show — and it seems so simpleminded today — was when Jack would ask somebody a question, I thought it was more interesting to see the face of the person who was being questioned, not Jack. So we did that.

How did you get involved in 1980 working with David Letterman?

I bought an old farmhouse in Connecticut, and we were fixing it up. I was in New York having lunch with some friends, and I was walking down Sixth Avenue. Jack Rollins, who I had worked with before — he was the manager of Nichols and May — stopped me. We chatted, then he said, "I'm working at NBC. I have a young fellow, David Letterman, who's just signed on with me. We're doing a morning show for NBC, and they're looking for another director. Are you available?" I said, "No, no, I don't want to work anymore." And then I said, "What kind of money are we talking about?" A couple days before, I'd been working on the house, and it needed a great big porch in the back. I thought of the show and the porch and the show and the porch ... and I decided on the porch.

I said, "All right. Who do I have to talk to?" So I meet Dave. He comes in, and we end up in a conversation all about preserving foods. At the end he says, "Why don't you come in Monday and do the show?" No talk about what the show was about. I think we just immediately liked each other.

The contributing editor for Foundation Interviews is Adrienne Faillace.

Since 1997, the Television Academy Foundation has conducted over 900 one-of-a-kind, longform interviews with industry pioneers and changemakers across multiple professions. The Foundation invites you to make a gift to the Interviews Preservation Fund to help preserve this invaluable resource for generations to come. To learn more, please contact Amani Roland, chief advancement officer, at roland@televisionacademy.com or (818) 754-2829.

Click here to see more interviews.

This article originally appeared in emmy Magazine #2, 2024.

Browser Requirements
The TelevisionAcademy.com sites look and perform best when using a modern browser.

We suggest you use the latest version of any of these browsers:


Visiting the site with Internet Explorer or other browsers may not provide the best viewing experience.

Close Window