Richard Simmons has not been seen in public in a long time. Here is my memory of our friendship with the hope he is doing well.
It was the fall of 1983 in Indianapolis, and I remember doing the classic comedy double-take, snapping my head to the side as I looked incredulously at the cover of The Globe newspaper, one of several trashy tabloids at supermarket check-outs.
In the top left corner of the publication was a photo of exercise guru Richard Simmons, donning a sporty jogging outfit while running in Central Park. Next to him was me, at the time the new host of a morning talk show in New York, but not well-known enough to merit being identified. The caption read: “Jog with a Lover.” This was pre-Seinfeld’s “. . . not that there’s anything wrong with that,” but there was something inaccurate about it. Yes, we were friends, which is why reports of his absence from the public have been so troubling to me.
At the time, Richard was a cultural icon, dedicated to helping people battle obesity as he once had. I first met him in the ’70s in Columbus, Ohio, early in his career. On my evening talk show, he chose people from the audience and counseled them on stage. My wife, Mary Ellen, admitted later that at first she was a bit skeptical of his sincerity (was it all show biz?), but at the end of the evening she witnessed Richard, off camera, consoling an overweight teen. Both Richard and the young lady were in tears.
Two years later in the Big Apple, where I hosted an evening show called New York People, I was walking with Richard to one of his favorite eateries to tape an interview. As we strode along Fifth Avenue, a woman stopped us and told Richard that her mother had a terminal illness and that Richard had always been an inspiration to her. With that, he hailed a cab and sped off to the hospital to pay his fan a visit, leaving me alone on the sidewalk with an entire production crew.
In 1991 I began my 27-year stretch at WISH-TV as a morning feature reporter. That gig included what I consider to be my funniest three minutes of unscripted live TV. Richard was making an appearance at a local mall, his plane set to land very early in the morning. Because my segment was live, I had no way to ensure his on-time arrival during the broadcast. In my greatest stroke of luck, his limo pulled up while I sat on my front step interviewing a professional clown and a very overweight chef, both of whom had wanted to meet Richard.
When Simmons exited the car, we all broke into an exercise routine at 5:30 in the morning. Anchor David Barras completely lost his composure back in the studio, despite having several serious news stories still to report. Weeks later, I received a note from Richard: “And there we were in front of your house at 6:00 a.m. A clown, a chef and a baby beagle. Nobody would believe this.” (Believe it. You can find it on Youtube at: WISHTV Daybreak-Laughing)
A few years back Richard agreed to write a blurb for my book of humor columns. “You’ll laugh your buns off,” he characteristically wrote. That’s the last I’ve heard from him.
I hope Richard is safe and happy. Will all the people whose lives he has touched ever forget him? I'd say the chances are slim.