Chuck Barris has had more ups and downs than a groundhog with OCD. That volatility is graphically portrayed in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the new film based on his life that stars Sam Rockwell, George Clooney, Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts.
But the movie doesn't show Barris' lowest moment, which came during, of all things, a Flyers game. It was 1980, and the Lower Merion native - a prolific creator, producer, and sometime host of TV game shows from The Dating Game to The Gong Show and, possibly, a hit man of quite another sort - was having a very bad week.
"All my shows were canceled in one lump sum," says Barris, 73. "I made a movie called The Gong Show Movie that was a disaster. It came and went in three days. When I went to see it, the ticket-taker said to me, 'You're not going to stay for this one. ' He didn't even know who I was. But he was right - at a certain point people started to get up and leave in droves. "
On a blustery afternoon when the sleet seems to be flying sideways in Manhattan, Barris is snug in the Friars Club, a mausoleum of showbiz splendor, decorated with photos of faded entertainers such as Red Buttons, Norm Crosby, Freddie Roman and Pat Cooper. Over a ginger ale spiked with Sweet'N Low, he recalls his worst nightmare.
"That weekend I went down to Philadelphia to see the Rangers play the Flyers. I was sitting with [Flyers owner] Ed Snider, hoping this game would get my mind off things.
"In the middle of the game, Ed puts up on the scoreboard 'Give a big Spectrum welcome to the host of The Gong Show, Chuck Barris. ' And 16,000 people start booing. . . . I couldn't believe it. I was shattered. "
For Barris, who has always been hypersensitive to rejection, the South Philly serenade was devastating. He slunk back to Manhattan, checked into the Wyndham Hotel, and started to write, hoping his tattered life would make sense if he could see it on the page.
He thought the project would take a month. Two and a half years later he emerged with the manuscript for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: An Unauthorized Autobiography, and realized he'd unwittingly become the first man in history to move from California to New York via FedEx, one package at a time. ("I'd send a note to my secretary [in Los Angeles]: 'Send me socks' or 'Get me sweaters. ' ")
Barris had become low man on the pop-culture totem pole, the king of schlock TV. He thought Confessions would restore his reputation. But reviews of the 1982 book were insulting and dismissive. What made critics howl loudest was Barris' revelation that he was a CIA assassin.
You read that correctly. In his book, Barris asserts that he was recruited by the CIA in 1963 after answering a classified ad seeking "College graduate: Free to travel. " Over the years, he maintains, he killed 33 people in covert operations, performing some assignments while chaperoning Dating Game winners.
Even Barris' friends find this idea about three time zones beyond far-fetched.
"Are we supposed to believe it?" wonders Main Line investment manager Ed Antoian, who invested in Barris' company in the '70s. "How many 'unauthorized' autobiographies have you read? "
Was the creator of the $1.98 Beauty Contest really a hit man for Uncle Sam? In the film, first-time director Clooney plays it cagey, while providing an indelible vision of Roberts as a Mata Hari in vinyl go-go boots.
"The idea," says Clooney, who also plays Barris' CIA handler, was to make it "so people could take it straight if they wanted, but to leave open the possibility that maybe this guy is having a nervous breakdown. "
Barris has a policy of not commenting on his espionage sideline, but you sense that he enjoys the controversy. "A reporter recently checked with the CIA and they said, 'We never give out that information . . . but in this case we'll make an exception: Chuck Barris was not a member of the CIA,' " he says, laughing heartily.
With a life this outlandish, fact and fiction tend to blur. Barris was born in Bala in 1929, before the neighborhood incorporated with Cynwyd.
"My father was a dentist and not a very good one," he says. "My mother and father were either self-centered or indifferent. I don't remember having dinner together. I don't remember having breakfast. My mother showed me how to make an omelette and I never saw her again. That was our home life. "
Barris' personality has always run on an alternating current.
"He was shy, one of those little guys who would scuff his feet and look down," says Charles Reilly Jr., who attended Lower Merion High School with Barris. "Yet in almost a heartbeat he could move into singing and telling jokes. All the things that were the hallmark of The Gong Show, Chuck was doing that for nothing at 14. "
In 1955, after college and a short-lived sales job at U.S. Steel in Homestead, Pa., Barris heard about an elite management-training program at NBC in New York. There were 2,000 applicants, but Barris was the only one to list all of RCA Victor's board of directors as references - names he had looked up at the library. "Five guys were selected," he says. "From Penn, Columbia, Princeton, Harvard, and me, from Drexel. "
Unfortunately, the department Barris settled in - daytime sales - was eliminated. And he was back on the street, and eventually on the road as a salesman for a new TV gadget: the TelePrompTer.
"I went to practically every market in America," he says. "They fired me a year later in Las Vegas when I hadn't sold a single TelePrompTer. "
During that time he married Lynn Levy, a Philly girl his sister, Riki, introduced him to. The unemployed newlywed was living in New York, making a weekly circuit of TV networks, when misfortune smiled on him. The payola scandal had erupted and ABC was desperate to keep its American Bandstand host, Dick Clark, from being tainted.
"They bought me a suit," Barris recalls, "put me on a train with two vice presidents on either side of me, took me down to Philadelphia and said to Dick, 'This man is going to watch you like a hawk. '
"Immediately everybody at WFIL hates me. They think I'm a spy. Dick loves me. He's smart enough to know I'm his life preserver. As long as I'm there, he's working. "
Barris was a lackadaisical watchdog, recalls Clark: "He sat around doing nothing all day but drawing on a pad of paper. " Maybe he was jotting down lyrics. A song Barris wrote, "Palisades Park," became a hit for Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon in 1962.
Over time, Barris worked his way up to West Coast director of daytime TV for ABC, but quit to develop his own shows, the first being The Dating Game.
It was immediately successful - and immediately pilloried. "The headline in the Chicago Tribune read 'Daytime Television Hits All-Time Low,' " he says. "To this day I don't understand what was so horrible about one girl asking three guys for a date. "
For a decade, Barris came up with one hit game-show concept after another. "At one time I had 27 half-hours on the air, and as far as the critics were concerned, it was all bad. "
Barris' creations were simple, inexpensive and entertaining. "[The Gong Show] made people wildly happy," says Barris' sister, novelist Riki Wagman, who lives in Manhattan. "I was visiting someone in a hospital one day. They were in traction, wrapped in bandages, and they were roaring with laughter. " The problem was, no one would admit to watching.
"One time two pretty girls pulled up next to me at a light in Hollywood," Barris recalls. "The girl signals for me to roll my window down. I roll it down. She says, 'You are the stupidest host on TV. I can't stand your shows. ' Then the girls laughed and drove off. It would take me three days to get over that. "
For some reason, criticism didn't just sting Barris, it seared him. "Chuck is a complicated guy," says Sam Rockwell, who delivers an uncanny portrayal in the film, right down to the Philadelphia accent. "He's a dark dude. He's also got some joy in him and some sweetness. But he has demons. "
Faced with what he felt was relentless criticism, Barris sold his production company in 1980 and moved to St. Tropez with visions of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway in his head. He had recently remarried, to Robin "Red" Altman. (Barrymore's character in the film is a composite of Altman and two other women Barris knew. )
"Everything went well," Barris says of his French Riviera idyll, "except the writing. "
But something remarkable happened. Hollywood fell in love with Confessions, and repeatedly optioned it for a film.
"Mike Myers was going to do it," says Barris. "He walked away four weeks before production started. Johnny Depp was going to do it, Ben Stiller, John Cusack. It was never-ending. The deals kept falling apart. Sean Penn, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Ed Norton. Something would always happen. "
Finally, Clooney attached himself to the jinxed project three years ago. Barris remained skeptical: "I didn't believe it . . . until they actually start shooting. But we ended up with the best of all possible casts. "
Thanks to the movie, Barris is enjoying a renaissance. He is set to appear on Good Morning America, The Charlie Rose Show and Larry King Live this week. Confessions has been reissued in paperback and is out as an audio book.
Even his TV work is being celebrated. On Thursday, the same night he reads at Borders Books in Center City, the Game Show Network will broadcast three hours of Gong Show episodes.
Living on New York's East Side and married for a third time - to former model Mary Clagett, 43 - Barris is now finishing a sequel, More Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: Bad Grass Never Dies, about his life since 1980. (Yes, there are more CIA missions. )
And he would like to write another book. He is torn between a mystery (he already has the title: Who Killed Art Deco?) and a memoir about Della, his only child, a drug addict who died of an overdose in 1998.
For the first time in his life, Barris is enjoying a measure of serenity. "It's only in the last couple years that I stopped regretting things," he says. "It dawned on me that if none of the [bad stuff had] happened I wouldn't be experiencing the really exciting things that are happening now. There would have never been a Confessions. "
And to think, he owes it all to the boo birds of Philadelphia.