Moving target

He'd tell you more, but then maybe he'd have to kill you. Ex-game show host Chuck Barris merrily dodges questions on his 'CIA hit man' past.

January 25, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

WASHINGTON - Chuck Barris won't talk about it.

Not that he won't talk at all. Nah, he's glad to do that. Seated comfortably in his room at Georgetown's Four Seasons hotel, looking considerably younger than his 73 years in a black turtleneck, blue jeans and white tennis shoes, he animatedly chats about all sorts of things:

His career as a game-show producer (The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game). His years as a game-show host (The Gong Show). His life as a runt from Philly whose first break came in 1962, when he wrote a song called "Palisades Park" that became a big hit for Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon. His 1984 "unauthorized autobiography," Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, a minor seller that is now a major movie, starring Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts and George Clooney (who also directed).

But the CIA? Nope, that he won't talk about.

Of course, that's what everyone wants to hear about. It's understandable, since in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Barris claims to have been a CIA assassin, one who put bullets through the brains of Russian spies even as he chaperoned Dating Game contestants all over Europe.

Barris, in Washington last week to promote the movie, understands his claims strain credulity (a nice way of saying he's been accused of either lying or being wildly delusional). So he's not surprised when reporters ask about his life as a game-show host-cum-spook. They want him to defend his book, to tell a few tales that ended up on the cutting-room floor or at least express some righteous indignation at the nay-sayers who insist it's all a big scam.

But Barris isn't biting. It's all there in the book (and on the screen), he says. Believe it or don't believe it as you will. Just don't ask him to talk about it.

"Sure, I'm being constantly questioned," Barris says, half-smiling at the memory of dozens of reporters and interviewers (including David Letterman, who last week said he wouldn't ask, then went ahead and did anyway) who have resorted to end-run after end-run, to get him to elaborate on his claims of spy-game superstardom.

"No, it doesn't bother me, not at all. I can't get that point across strongly enough. I expect it, I'm not surprised in the slightest. I also don't have any qualms with somebody totally not believing it. Where it gets to be a little sticky is when somebody doesn't believe it and gets angry about it.

"I've done radio interviews where the guys become very angry when I won't talk about the company," he says, employing a euphemism for the CIA used by those who work there. "I tell them I'm sorry, I'll talk to you about anything else."

It's very amusing, this Obfuscation Tour 2003 embarked upon by Barris. And it has led to some amusing denials from CIA headquarters. As agency spokesman Mark Mansfield says: "The notion that he was an assassin for the agency is ridiculous." He then speculated that Barris may have spent too much time standing close to his gong. And he noted that standard CIA prodedure is never to comment on whether someone works for the CIA or not, but in this case, he'd make an exception.

Unfazed, Barris insists that to ask whether what he writes is true or not is to miss the point.

"I never thought it was anybody's business to know," says Barris, taking what is assuredly a strange stand for someone who's written two books about himself (the second, The Game Show King, was published in 1993 and makes no claims to CIA involvement). "All I'm really concerned about is whether the book is a good read or the film is a good film."

That's also a strange sentiment for a man who says criticism of his television career threw him into deep depression for much of the 1980s. As Barris writes, a critic once complained to a roomful of network executives, "If giving valuable air time and exposure to the Chuck Barrises of the world is the best you can do, then you've all failed, and failed miserably."

That hurt, Barris says. And while he may have developed a thicker skin - a hide toughened both by time and real tragedies as his bout with lung cancer and the drug-related death of his daughter - he remains fiercely proud of his contributions to TV land.

Take The Dating Game, a '60s game show in which a bachelorette asked questions of three bachelors hidden behind a partition, then chose one for a romantic encounter in a far-off corner of the world (it was while chaperoning these dates, Barris writes, that he performed many of his CIA hits).

The show, he says, was the beginning of reality television. "The difference between The Dating Game and anything that came before it was that there was no correct answer, there weren't any right or wrong answers. They were spontaneous. And that show spawned all that stuff that came afterward."

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