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Mary Hart:A Stellar Career as Television’sConsummate Host

As she wraps up nearly 30 years as host of the iconic entertainment news program Entertainment Tonight, Mary Hart continues to make news herself as she accepts a most deserving Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award at this year’s annual NATPE convention.

The award is particularly sweet for Hart because one of her fellow honorees is Live! With Regis and Kelly’s Regis Philbin, who is also signing off after this season. Hart starred with Philbin, one of TV’s most effortless hosts, on a short-lived show that Brandon Tartikoff ironically played a role in cancelling nearly 30 years ago.

Years earlier, Hart, a former Miss South Dakota and Miss America finalist, arrived in Hollywood and did reporting for KPIX Los Angeles’ PM Magazine, a syndicated evening show that aired in the 1970s and ’80s; she had already made a local name as a journalist on a cable-access show in Sioux Falls, S.D., and on locally produced Danny’s Day in Oklahoma City, Okla. Hart was shopping on Rodeo Drive in the fall of 1981 when she was approached by Philbin, who at the time hosted a locally successful live talk show that he planned to take to NBC to go national.

Hart knew who Philbin was, but had never met him. He came up to her on the street and declared, “You are going to be my cohost. You can’t tell anyone, but I’m going to quit doing this show and go to NBC.”

“Four months later, Regis and I are doing The Regis Philbin Show for NBC, and we were hired by Brandon Tartikoff to do it,” Hart recalls.

At the time, Tartikoff was working for Grant Tinker, who had just become chairman and CEO of NBC. The Regis Philbin Show, one of many eponymous programs Philbin has done during his long career, aired from January through April 1982 and was cancelled due to low ratings.

“That happened in days of much higher numbers,” says Hart. “I still remember that we were pulling a 3.7 [household rating]. David Letterman had a morning show on NBC that was a total disaster. We followed in that time slot and a lot of stations didn’t take the show, so we only covered 75% of the country.

“Brandon and Grant later came to each of us respectively and said that cancelling us was the biggest mistake they ever made,” Hart says.

Later, when Tartikoff was running Paramount, he would joke with Hart that “the best favor I ever did for you was to fire you,” she recalls with a laugh.

That’s because the day after The Regis Philbin Show was cancelled, a new show called Entertainment Tonight wanted to interview Hart about her show’s failure. She agreed, even though the topic of the interview wasn’t the most positive.

The next day, Hart’s agent called and told her that Entertainment Tonight wanted to meet with her, because “they may have a home for you.” She went over to the set, did an onscreen audition, read from a teleprompter and “they off ered me a job on the spot,” she says. Hart started as a correspondent for ET in June 1982, was promoted to host just weeks later and has remained there ever since.

Today, ET is television’s highest-rated entertainment magazine, but it wasn’t always so. In the show’s early days, stations weren’t sure that the program was going to succeed, so Hart spent her weekends flying to markets all over the country to charm station owners and general managers into keeping the show on the air.

“What is so important to me about getting this award at NATPE is that I grew up professionally in the local television business,” Hart says. “I have always been grateful for that experience. It’s helped me to identify with local TV audiences, and I know how important it is to have a local base of support.”

After all those years working to build the show’s foundation, Hart says she still loves it when people come up to her and ask for her autograph and tell her they watch the show. “I so appreciate that people take time out to let us come into their homes,” she says.

“Without a doubt, Mary Hart is synonymous with entertainment news,” says John Nogawski, president of CBS Television Distribution, ET’s syndicator. “There was a time when if you mentioned a hit television show, the name Brandon Tartikoff would come up. That’s how closely Mary is [now] associated with entertainment news. I think having that one familiar face has really sustained the show.”

Over the years, Hart has chalked up nearly too many memorable moments to count. She spent many hours with Michael Jackson while he was on tour and came out onstage with him in Kansas City. She flew with the Blue Angels. She cooked Cuban food with Gloria Estefan after the singer broke her back. And she recently spent an hour interviewing Paul McCartney.

“I’ve just had an endless series of wonderful experiences,” Hart says.

Last August, Hart announced she was finally going to step down from the show she’s helmed for so long. In November, ET announced that Nancy O’Dell, formerly of Access Hollywood, would become the next female cohost of ET, working alongside Mark Steines.

Hart is graciously handing the microphone she’s held for so long to her former rival. “I know Nancy is going to appreciate sitting in that chair every day because of the history of the show,” says Hart. “You can never take anything you do in this business for granted. I hope she will just be herself and enjoy her time here.”

While ET is excited about the coming transition, Mary Hart will certainly be missed.

“I thank and credit her for the success that I’ve had,” says Linda Bell Blue, ET executive producer, who has worked with Hart for 16 years and along the way became her close friend. “Being able to come in here and work with someone as talented and legendary as Mary Hart has really made my career. I wouldn’t be the same person if I hadn’t had Mary Hart working with me.”