Had NBC been as brusque with Willard Scott as it was with Jane Pauley on the "Today" show, Scott says, "I would have left the next day. I want to do it to me before somebody else does it to me."
After speaking to a convention group here, the unpredictable, speed-talking "Today" weatherman Thursday broke his public silence about the much-chronicled l'affaire Pauley."I'm not the dumbest guy that ever lived," said Scott, 55. "You don't have to wave a flag in front of me to tell me something. I would have walked in to NBC and said, `Thank you very much. Obviously, I see what's happening.' I wouldn't have even negotiated with them.
"I can't work under those conditions. It's not my style. When something's over with me, it's over. If I saw they didn't want me for one minute, I would have been out the door. Some people can play that game. I can't. That's why I can't be in that studio. That's why I've got to be on the road."
Scott's aversion to the studio probably began in late February, when newspapers printed a highly critical memo from "Today" co-host Bryant Gumbel.
Ending weeks of speculation and backstage intrigue, Pauley announced Oct. 27 on "Today" that she would terminate her 13-year tenure as co-host in January. Under her extended, $1.2-million NBC contract, her main duties will be to host a new prime-time series, to debut in the summer.
The latest episode in the "Today" soap opera began in early September, when new "Today" boss Dick Ebersol forced popular news anchor John Palmer, a 26-year NBC veteran, suddenly to swap jobs with "NBC News at Sunrise's" Deborah Norville.
"I was shocked, horrified. I couldn't believe it," Scott said. "Of all the people who are non-controversial, who was a company man, who waved the flag and who always did his nine yards, it was John Palmer."
There was more to come. Norville, who had just signed a five-year deal worth $1 million a year, was given expanded duties on "Today." Unlike Palmer, she joined Pauley and co-host Gumbel on the anchor desk instead of doing the news from a separate set.
Pauley and Scott had not been informed beforehand about Norville's increased visibility on the show. Columnists immediately accused Norville of clawing after Pauley's job and NBC management of treating Pauley shabbily.
"I think Ebersol has been destroyed by this," Scott said. "He can't believe what has happened."
When did Scott see the writing on the wall for Pauley?
"It clicked in at 7:01 a.m. the first day" Norville joined "Today." Scott was getting ready to do a remote from Washington. He looked up at the monitor and saw Norville sitting next to Pauley on the set.
"My first thought was, `C'est la vie, c'est la guerre,"' Scott recalled. "I knew instantly that Deborah was more than just a swap for John Palmer, that she had another role on the program. I'm not an idiot. I was surprised. I didn't think NBC would make a change that dramatically."
Neither did Pauley. With new "Pauley-Norville catfight" stories popping up with increasing regularity in print, not to mention on "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night With David Letterman," both on NBC, Pauley finally went to NBC brass, asked off "Today" and negotiated a new contract.
"She couldn't live with the situation, any more than I could," Scott said. "So she made the best deal she could. She saw what was happening. She just couldn't do it anymore. What does she need to prove? She's proven herself beyond a shadow of a doubt. Jane is loved and adored, and that's not hype."
Not that Scott is chummy with Pauley, but they get along fine and he is a major fan. (He also spoke highly of Norville; they have the same agent.)
"I've worked with Jane for nine years, and I was on the show for a year before we said more to each other than hello in the hall," Scott said. "When you hit the big time, big money, big egos, people don't talk. You have no friends."
Scott's only real "Today" friend is film critic Gene Shalit, he said.
Then there's Gumbel.
His memo, written at the request of "Today" executive producer Marty Ryan, was taken from the NBC computer system and leaked to the press. In it, Gumbel blasted Scott, whose jokes and hokey birthday greetings he said were bad for the show.
"It was horrible," Scott remembers. "I didn't go out for a couple of months. I didn't go to church. I didn't mingle in crowds. I got sick of hearing, `How's Bryant?' It really was driving me crazy. I'm sure it drove him crazy, too. Unfortunately, he was the one who started it."
For weeks, the alleged Gumbel-Scott feud was the biggest story in town. Officially, NBC did nothing. Scott spilled his guts to a few reporters "because I wasn't getting any direction" from NBC. It wasn't until the two men "kissed and made up" on the air that the story cooled.
"I think they had their head up their sandbox at NBC," Scott said. "If they had been smart, they would have put a gun to both of our heads after the memo came out, told us to go to New York and kiss and make up at a press conference at the Rainbow Room. That would have been that. That would have shut me up."
Scott bears no grudge against Gumbel, he said. ("I pray for him every night, I swear to God.") In fact, he said the brouhaha resulting from the memo has tripled his already hefty endorsements. His speeches, at about $10,000 a pop, are booked for the next three years, he said.
Scott swears the Gumbel issue "is totally dead." Then he winces and he's off again:
Gumbel "didn't like me. Period. He didn't like what I do. Period. He didn't want me on that show. Period. Until the memo came out, we didn't have an `All-for-one, one-for-all, huggy-kissy, sleep-in-the-same-bed, Seven-Dwarfs relationship on the show, but we all had fun and liked each other.
"What I resent most about the memo was that it made me - Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. Clean, who hasn't had a public enemy in the world in 55 years - into a controversial figure. I was in the Star and National Enquirer. ... It was also unfair to the show. The show didn't deserve it.
"I still haven't seen the original memo. Bryant has never apologized to me, but maybe there's nothing to apologize for, because he obviously meant it. I would have liked to have sat down with him and have him explain it. ... The truth is, in our own weird way, we make beautiful music together. Some of the brightest stuff on the show is the repartee between us."
So after all this, is Scott unhappy at "Today," or what?
"I have the best job in the entire history of broadcasting," he said. "I'm living in my home, sleeping with my dogs and my wife - not necessarily in that order - and am able to free-lance around the country doing speeches and commercials to make an extra buck on the side.
"I'm a happy, happy man."