Clinton could have future in Hollywood, producer says
Perhaps the most surreal moment came when President Clinton asked, "What do I look at?"
"And I told him, 'You look at the little paper bird you just made,' " said Phil Rosenthal, the sitcom producer better known lately for directing and co-writing Mr. Clinton's acclaimed mini-comedy.
Titled The Final Days, the 5-minute, 45-second film received a standing ovation at its premier Saturday night during the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner. It then opened in wide release on hundreds of national and local news programs. Mr. Rosenthal, who produces the comedy series Everybody Loves Raymond for CBS, is amazed and gratified by all the continuing buzz. And thrilled to have worked with a "top-notch comic actor," namely the president.
"You know why we were able to do this?" he asked in a telephone interview. "Because the president is fantastic. Ninety percent of his scenes were done in just one take."
Mr. Clinton introduced The Final Days at the dinner by saying that a film crew "has been following me around the White House, documenting my remaining time there."
His varied activities included origami, mowing the lawn, trimming the hedges, washing the presidential limousine, watching clothes dry, riding a bicycle through the White House, buying smoked hams on eBay, enjoying ice cream sandwiches pilfered from a defective vending machine and fixing a sack lunch for his wife, only to see her drive off without it.
A handful of commentators since have questioned whether Mr. Clinton's comedy capers were properly "presidential," let alone a proper use of his time.
"I've heard a little of that," Mr. Rosenthal said. "But my question is, 'Who does it hurt?' When a president of the United States is funny, it's a very humanizing trait and it connects him to us. So whether you like the man's politics or not, he becomes one of the people he represents. It made most people feel pretty good, because his true spirit and personality came through."
Mr. Rosenthal first met Mr. Clinton two years ago, when Raymond star Ray Romano hosted the White House correspondents dinner. The producer also is a friend of speechwriter Mark Katz, whom the president usually calls upon during the spring "humor season" of official Washington dinners, Mr. Rosenthal said.
"Since it was his last year, they wanted to do something special," Mr. Rosenthal said. "So we had the full cooperation of the White House staff."
Mr. Clinton initially agreed to spend just a half-hour shooting his scenes for the film.
"Then we got another half-hour, and everybody seemed to enjoy how it was going," Mr. Rosenthal said. "But I told them the film was still going to be too short."
On the day of the dinner, the president agreed to give Mr. Rosenthal a third half-hour. It was just time enough to film Mr. Clinton making an Oscar acceptance speech before this year's real best-actor winner, Kevin Spacey, took the statue away from him. Then things got frantic.
An editing computer crashed late Saturday afternoon, "and the film was stuck in there for a while," Mr. Rosenthal said. "The president is asking, 'Where's the tape?' And we didn't have it. An hour before the dinner we literally raced over to the White House."
Mr. Rosenthal and his brother, Richard, who helped out as a cameraman, first used a White House bathroom to "change like maniacs into our tuxedos." Then it was on to the Oval Office, where they anxiously awaited the only review that mattered.
"I'm sitting next to the president, and at first he is not laughing," Mr. Rosenthal said. "And I'm thinking, 'Well, he hates it. I have humiliated the man and the office.' And then there was a chuckle. And a bigger chuckle. And he started really rolling. And of course, everybody else in the room is waiting for him to laugh before they can laugh. It was like we were in a dream."
He still hasn't snapped out of it.
"I'm now going to book myself around the world," Mr. Rosenthal joked, "helping people like [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela make comedy videos.
Saddam Hussein could use some help, too."
As for Mr. Clinton, he has a standing offer once he leaves office.
"I gave him my card," Mr. Rosenthal said. "I told him I'm always looking for actors on our show."