My $25,000 day with Casey Kasem

Radio and voiceover legend Casey Kasem died today after a long battle with a disease that, sadly, left him speechless the last few years of his life.

Twenty years ago I had the opportunity to work with Casey Kasem for a day. (You can see some of the segments I co-produced on my YouTube channel starting with the one you see here.)

Nineteen Ninety-Four was my first year working for Nickelodeon/Nick At Nite, and the bosses assigned me to produce Nick At Nite’s annual Classic TV Countdown. The Countdown was NAN’s version of American Top 40, the nationally syndicated radio program hosted by Shaggy himself: Casey Kasem.

Instead of hiring a Kasem soundalike, management did the right thing. They hired the real deal. Every year, Casey hosted the Classic TV Countdown reeling off introductions to classic TV moments as determined by a nation of rabid classic TV fans the writing staff at Nick At Nite.

I remember the moment that Assistant Creative Director Tom Hill told me that Casey’s day rate was $25,000. Twenty five, zero, zero, zero. In 1994. I have no idea who revived me, but after they scooped me up off the floor, I learned that they had been paying him this pile of cash for several years. Bucket List Item: work with celebrity who will earn 42% of my annual salary in one day. Check.

The NAN staff and I flew out to L.A. for our day of taping with Casey. Tom Hlll and Rick Groel had written the intros and outros to 25 different segments. We had 8 hours with Casey in a studio in West L.A.

We were staying at The Four Seasons at Beverly Hills. Swimming pools. Movie stars. And something I had never seen: telephones in the bathroom.

The wall phone seemed like a decoration until it started ringing right as I was squatting for a download. “Hi, Todd. This is Casey Kasem,” said the man who sounded like he was about to dedicate this next song, Saving All My Love for You, to yours truly. Swoon. Flush.

“What should I wear tomorrow, Todd?” he asked. Kernel panic. I didn’t have a clue. I thought there were people who worked for people whose people would take care of these details. I tried not to face plant on the Italian marble floor. (Ya gotta understand: I wasn’t used to working with a lot of celebrities. This was one of my first close encounters with famous people.)

“Hmm, I’m not sure,” I replied. “What have you got?”

“Well, I’ve got a goldenrod sweater, or I have a plum shirt that I could wear under a jacket,” he brainstormed. At some point his wife Jean got in on the conversation, and we all talked about the stuff that you would only ever see from the waist up. Finally we settled on...I have no idea. Watch the video. I don’t remember the details. I just remember talking wardrobe with Casey Kasem while sitting on the john.

Casey and his wife Jean were the nicest folks in the world with me during that conversation, but it was really weird talking to a guy on the phone whose normal, everyday voice still sounded like he was counting down to Boogie Fever, the nation’s top song, right after this commercial break.

We all arrived on the set the next day. We had hung some special foam core pieces as an abstract background for Casey to stand in front of while he did his walk and talk.

I remember being ready to shoot around 10am or so, but Tom Hill had warned me that Casey took a ridiculous amount of time to get ready. I thought Tom was crazy. What could possibly take Casey so long to prepare for?

As it turns out, Casey took a ridiculous amount of time to get ready. He would get in front of the camera, stare at the preview monitor and suddenly stop the whole production.

Maybe he didn’t like his hair dye. His dedicated makeup artist would touch up his perfect jet black hair. Then he wondered if the age lines running from the edges of his eyes back to his ears were too pronounced. More makeup. Then he would kvetch about something else. Dear God. We were going to have to break for lunch soon.

Finally he seemed happy. We were paying this guy 25 kilobucks, and he was acting like the boss. I was nervous. Pores wide open and sweating. I didn’t know how we were going to plow through all the words he had to speak.

At last we were rolling, and he easily blew through a few performances. Wow! When everything was Go, this guy shifted into gear and went! I was impres-----Lunch time! It was a union shoot, and we had to break for lunch. Wait! Casey was just getting started! I...I was powerless to control this situation. Best to just roll with it.

I remember that Casey went into his dressing room and drank a boiling cup of hot water. He said he did it to keep his throat open so that he could perform all day. In fact, he drank a cup of lava like this a few times a day to keep those vocal cords clean and clear.

When we returned from lunch, the man was a machine. I remember him nailing segment after segment. I remember that if I asked him to do a segment in 17 1/2 seconds, he could deliver it to the millisecond. He was that good. It’s what mastery looks and sounds like.

During the last hour, we got ourselves into time trouble. I remember wanting to have Casey try a few creative conceits that I had dreamed up. Casey did them, but they ate up precious minutes on the clock. We got down to the last 15 minutes and still had three segments to tape. The situation didn’t look good.

Someone (maybe Tom Hill) reminded me that it was a union shoot. If we went one minute overtime, we would have to pay the entire crew for an extra hour. Zoinks, Scooby! That was a lot of cash, and my bosses would be seriously pissed if I got us into that situation. Enter the man who was battle tested in situations like this: Casey Kasem.

We cued up the teleprompter and told Casey to read the segments in one take. We would only have time for one take and maybe one do-over. The ticking on the clock started to sound like a hammer on an anvil to me. “A-a-a-a-and action!” I called out.

The camera moved from left to right as Casey followed it and performed his lines flawlessly. Cut! Check the recording. (We shot on Betacam SP, so we always checked the tape to make sure there were no visual dropouts.) Yup, it was flawless.

We moved on to the next segment. Ten minutes left. Action! Once again, the Caseybot executed perfectly. We checked the recording. No problems.

Last segment. Five minutes until massive overtime fees would be imposed. I really felt the doom creeping into my veins. Action! For the umpteenth time, Casey delivered his lines flawlessly. Cut! Check tape! Got it? Got it? Do we have it??

Yes! One minute left. That’s it, everybody! We’re done!.

I had gotten myself into a huge time crunch and needed the country’s best DJ to get me out of it. Casey never broke a sweat. His performance that day was a masterpiece, and I’ve never forgotten it. But to him, I’m sure it was just another day in front of the prompter.

When you command a huge salary, you better deliver a command performance. For me, on that day, he proved why he was worth every dollar.

RIP, Casey Kasem. That’s a wrap.
blog comments powered by Disqus