It's been more than three years since Piers Morgan was tapped to fill Larry King's suspenders … and the British journalist and TV personality has made himself right at home.
In his new book, "Shooting Straight: Guns, Gays, God, and George Clooney," the 48-year-old — who was the youngest ever editor of Rupert Murdoch's tabloid News of the World in the U.K. before making the jump to TV appearing on "America's Got Talent" and winning "Celebrity Apprentice" — talks about his new life, from dishy, behind-the-scenes negotiations to be King's replacement to finding his footing as host of "Piers Morgan Live," where he is known for his on-air activism on gun control and pressing on with his questions until he gets answers.
Morgan's tome, a breezy read in a diary format, also details his many A-list celeb interviewees, including an unnerving visit to the home of Mel Gibson, landing first guest Oprah Winfrey, his drinking buddy George Clooney, and Robert Blake, whose wild-eyed ramblings made for unforgettable TV. So the father of four shared juicy backstories about those sit-downs — and more! — with Yahoo TV.
Mel Gibson: Around the time the "Passion of the Christ" star was making headlines for his bitter battle with ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva over the custody of their daughter and audiotapes of their conversations, during which he threatened her and used racial slurs, Morgan visited the star at his Malibu home to persuade him to do an interview. While they did talk, it wasn't for the cameras.
"It was a pretty amazing couple of hours," he says of the 2011 meeting. "He was there on his own. He answered the door. Took me and my producer in and got us a couple of beers. Here’s a guy worth hundreds of millions of dollars basically living on his own. He was unshaven and had a little trickle of blood falling from his ear, where it looked like he scratched himself, probably from all the anxiety. It was sort of at the end of an afternoon and you could hear coyotes in the background in the hills where he lives there, all going off like crazy. It was all something out of a movie."
While he really wanted to land an interview, seeing Gibson's state of mind changed his course.
"I really felt for him. Mel Gibson is a very smart guy. He's been through hell and back in his personal life — having problems with his ex-wife, his kids, with the latest lady in his life — and he was just trying to keep things together. I think he was just at the end of his tether," he says. "I could see that this would be incredible television and we can get this all on camera. But at the same time, the father in me and the husband in me was like: You can’t put this guy on television. He's just not in any fit state to do this interview yet. He’s too angry, too raw, and what would be very self-serving for me, I don’t think it would be good for him.
"I’d rather interview people when they’re ready to be interviewed — not when they want to do it in that state because, I’ve been through a divorce and you could’ve interviewed me and parts of that where I sound slightly unhinged myself," he continues. "And I think that you know it’s better, it’s more humane not to do that."
That day, he and his producer left Gibson's home, looked at each other and remarked at the same time, "What the f--k was that?!" However, the next time he saw Gibson, the actor seemed more together.
"I had dinner with Mel a few weeks later, again, to follow up, and he was in a much jovial frame of mind and seemed a lot happier. But it didn’t come to anything in the end. In fact, he still hasn't done a big interview with anybody," he notes. "Here's a guy worth hundreds of millions of dollars basically living on his own. Had a young baby by this Russian girl. Had his seven kids by his ex-wife, a lot of acrimony in his private life, and I just felt for him. I felt sorry for him."
Oprah Winfrey: Morgan got creative landing the Queen of Talk for his first show in Jan. 2011, and has her bestie, Gayle King, to thank.
"I had never met Oprah — and she was incredibly difficult to get to directly," Morgan says. "By chance I happened to be living at the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Los Angeles, where the general manager, who was a friend of mine, said, 'Gayle King is here at the moment. Why don’t you try going through her?'"
Morgan fired off a charming email to King, they hit it off, and — after a lot of back and forth, which got down to the wire — she helped orchestrate the interview, which was key to his successful show launch, even though they had never met in person.
"It went from: 'You haven’t got a cat in hell's chance' to 'Well, maybe we can think about it," he recalls. "I remember this great moment when Oprah finally walked in to do the interview. It was the very first time I’ve done an interview in America with anybody. She said, 'Remind me again, Gayle, why I’m doing this? You know this guy, right?' They were both laughing and Gayle went, 'Actually, we've never met.' And Oprah went, 'You’ve never even met him?! Why am I doing this?"
However, it ended up being "a terrific interview," he says. "She gave me twice as long as she was supposed to. It got huge attention, big ratings. I couldn’t have launched the show better. And I’ll be forever grateful to Gayle and to Oprah."
Charlie Sheen: At the peak of his warlock, tiger blood, winning media blitz in Feb. 2011, Morgan landed an interview with the outspoken actor whom he wooed by reminding him of an interview they did two decades earlier. But the "Anger Management" star's eleventh hour arrival at the studio had Morgan sweating.
"I called him and said, 'Look Charlie, you’re getting trashed in the media. They’re chopping up all these interviews with you and making you look so bad," Morgan recounts. "Why don't you come in live right now with me. You’re only 15 minutes away. We’re both in L.A. Come in and just say what you want to say and I’ll be fair to you.' He said, 'OK, let's do it.'"
"Then, with five minutes to air time, there was still no sign of him. I was panicking: 'Where the hell is he?!' I could see my whole CNN career collapsing around the non-arrival of Charlie Sheen. Then this huge Maybach — a car worth a quarter of a million dollars — just swept in. This ragbag, weird entourage of people filed out. Right in the middle of it was Charlie with a cigarette in his mouth and big grin, going, 'Let’s go rock and roll.'"
The next hour was riveting and Sheen was at the top of his game, delivering some classic Sheenisms like, "I didn't take cocaine. I paid for it." He even pulled out and presented Morgan with a copy of a drug report showing he tested negative.
"After he did that, during one of the commercial breaks he signed it for me. He wrote, 'To Piers, Let’s get hammered. Love, Charlie,'" recalls an amused Morgan. Where is it now? "Framed and on the wall of my Los Angeles office."
The newsman also says you can thank him for Sheen joining Twitter.
"During another commercial break, I asked him, 'Why aren’t you on Twitter? You’d be hugely popular. It would go crazy.' He said he'd think about it. He joined the next morning and had a million followers by the end of the day, five million by the end of the following week. Now he has over 10 million. He's become a Twitter phenomenon. It was all done from me. I can claim credit for that."
George Clooney: The big screen star was a great interview — and they later shared a drunken night following the 2012 White House Correspondents' Dinner, throwing back vodka drinks, talking politics, and sharing bear hugs. That's why Clooney gets name checked in the book title.
"Apart from the fact that he's the only man in America who drank me under a table, which is detailed in the book, he's somebody who personifies the kind of magic of the '50s and '60s when it came to movie stars," Morgan says. "He's charming. He’s erudite. He’s good-looking. He’s very well dressed. He knows how to behave and conduct himself. And he’s brilliant about things he’s passionate about, like the Sudan, but also great fun, goes to parties — and I got drunk with him."
Clooney and his father, Nick, who was a journalist, appeared on the show in 2011.
"His dad’s a really charming guy too," Morgan says. "When you see the two of them interacting, you can see where George gets all his charm from — and the good looks, the sincerity, and the fascination with news. It all comes from his dad."
Clooney and his father were arrested while protesting Sudan violence in 2012. (Getty Images)
Robert Blake: The "Baretta" star, who was acquitted of murdering his wife but found liable in a civil suit, appeared on the show in 2012 and quickly spiraled out of control.
"It was a crazy, crazy hour. I mean, the most mad hour I ever had on the show because he was so unhinged and so menacing in parts. He was completely on the edge," Morgan remembers. "He also used endless curse words. I think we had 46 of them to bleep out. It was the only time I could remember the CNN security guard coming onto the studio floor because they wondered what they might do to me." Robert Blake's appearance on the show went viral. (CNN)
Robert Blake's appearance on the show went viral. (CNN)
His trick to staying cool when Blake was spiraling out? "You just have to stay calm and you just let them do their thing," he says. "He was in a world of his own for half the interview, but it was a gripping encounter. He’s never been on the stand in a criminal case. He'd never been asked directly: Did you murder your wife? So it was riveting.
"I felt quite sorry for him as well because clearly he’d lost everything. He was not found guilty in the criminal case, but he was in a civil action — but that's slightly different to a criminal action. And if he is innocent, then you can understand why he'd feel so aggrieved."
Piers Morgan's latest book, "Shooting Straight," is on sale now.
- Arts & Entertainment
- Piers Morgan
- Oprah Winfrey
- Mel Gibson
- Larry King
- George Clooney
- Charlie Sheen
- Gayle King