By Rosemary Ford
---- — The first time I spoke to Jay Leno, I almost hung up on him.
I was a newly minted reporter in The Eagle-Tribune’s features department. I was here working on a story late one evening when he called out of the blue — asking for the recently retired Mary Fitzgerald, the legendary lifestyle editor whose phone extension I had inherited.
When the caller told me he was Jay Leno, I didn’t believe him. I thought one of the other reporters was pranking me. It wasn’t until I called him back at a California number that I began to believe it was him.
That evening marked my first interview with Leno, which turned into a second when the paper flew me out to Burbank, Calif., to report on a pardon Jay had received for burning doughnuts with his car in 1968 outside the Andover High principal’s office.
These are some of the fondest memories of my 17-year career here at the Tribune, and one of the reasons I was so sad last night to see the Andover native bid farewell to all of us, and to “The Tonight Show.”
I had just graduated from St. Mary High in Lawrence when Jay took the reins of the show from Johnny Carson. I remember thinking how amazing it was that someone who grew up only miles from where I lived in Methuen could reach such heights in the entertainment industry.
When Leno stepped down in 2009, his exit didn’t seem final. He was, after all, still going to be on at 10 p.m. Who knew at the time what a fiasco that would become thanks to the poor planning and judgement of certain NBC executives?
This time, it does seem final — the end of an era. But it’s not the end of Jay’s career.
It’s been well reported that he plans to continue doing stand-up comedy — something he’s continued to do during his entire career on “The Tonight Show.” He may even do some TV or movie work, but nothing at this point on late night.
“I’ve always been a stand-up comedian that had a day job,” Leno told the Los Angeles Times in a recent interview. “This is my day job. I’ve always been on the road every single weekend — and the week, too — since I got this job. So I’m back on the road. We leave here on the 6th. The 7th I’m in Sarasota. The 8th I’m in Clearwater. The 9th I’m in Naples, Fla. The 10th I’m in Miami ...
“It’s what you have to do if you want to do comedy. You can’t take a year off and come back. No one’s ever taken time off as a comedian and come back and been better. It doesn’t work that way. It atrophies. You have to do it all the time.”
Jay’s comedy certainly never atrophied during his stint on “The Tonight Show,” which topped late-night ratings for most of the last 20 years.
While everyone knows about these successes, not everyone knows what Jay is like when no one is around.
When there were no cameras watching, Jay Leno was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I remember teasing him for being from hoity-toity Andover while he teased me right back for being from the Aquanet cloud formerly known as Methuen.
I saw him treat his former history teacher, David Robichaud and his wife, like royalty when he flew them out to Los Angeles. Sending drivers for them, and getting them reservations for dinner at the famed Spago in Beverly Hills.
He not only stays in touch with many friends and former teachers from his days living in Andover but also stayed in touch with their parents — just checking in because he’s a thoughtful guy.
Despite his busy schedule, he's made a point of making it back to Andover, even after the deaths of his parents and brother Patrick. He’s given thousands of dollars to community organizations, from Andover High to UMass Lowell.
Even when he hasn’t been here, his presence is always felt.
When all is said and done, millions across America will miss seeing Jay every night at 11:35.
But I suspect those of us in the Merrimack Valley haven’t see the last of Jay Leno yet.