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In his Midwestern modesty and reserve, Letterman recalls no one so much as the man he publicly idolizes, Johnny Carson. Like Carson, much of Letterman's appeal comes from the counterpoint between his heartland Wasp looks and his edgy irreverence. The two have become closer since Carson retired, Letterman says. "I'm more at ease around him now." Letterman had dinner at Carson's house in April, along with former Tonight producer (and now Letterman executive producer) Peter Lassally. Carson served meat loaf and mashed potatoes and talked about his recent African safari. "He had learned Swahili," says Letterman. "I'm thinking, Is this a dream? I'm here in Johnny Carson's dining room, and he's speaking Swahili."
After flirting with a movie career (he signed a development deal with Disney several years ago, but it came to nothing), Letterman seems determined, for now, to continue doing what he does best. The move to Carson's old 11:30 slot means the sort of mainstream acceptance he could never achieve as host of a fringe-period talk show -- "entertaining prisoners and college students," as he once put it. Says Markoe: "Dave is the most competitive person I have ever spent a lot of time with. It really matters to him to win everything he goes into. Dave has taken a new time slot because he wants to win."
And if he wins, then what? "I'm not going to be around as long as Carson was around," Letterman vows. "After a period of time with this, I will leave and go on. I'll probably never be on television again, on any kind of regular basis. This will be my new and final project."
A pause for the old self-doubt to surface. "You can hear America breathing a sigh of relief."