Bill Zehme, Biographer and Rolling Stone Writer, Dead at 64

·2 min read
"Carson" Documentary Premiere - Credit: FilmMagic
"Carson" Documentary Premiere - Credit: FilmMagic

Bill Zehme — the last person to interview Johnny Carson, a biographer of Frank Sinatra and Andy Kaufman, and author of many Rolling Stone celebrity cover stories — died Sunday after a long battle with cancer, Chicago Sun-Times reports. He was 64.

Zehme, who grew up in South Holland, Illinois and graduated from Chicago’s Loyola University in 1980, was known for his Midwestern charm, a trait that no doubt played a big part in him being granted interviews with the difficult-to-land celebrities whom he got to open up. While at Rolling Stone, he interviewed a wide range of stars, from Madonna and Sharon Stone to Eddie Murphy and Warren Beatty.

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He also pulled back the curtain on the celebrity veil, as he did with Beatty, who as they conversed injected long pauses, ones that Zehme found himself dreaming about. “Now let me say this: Actors for the most part are not terribly interesting,” Zehme wrote later. “They are paid to not be themselves, which would limit any of us, if you think about it. But most actors are not Warren Beatty.”

A certain candor developed during their interview. In reading between those paused lines, insight into who Beatty was outside of his acting, was revealed. “And so he has talked. And talked. For days, I have listened to him talk. I have listened to him listen to himself talk. I have probed and pelted and listened some more. For days. He speaks slowly, fearfully, cautiously, editing every syllable, slicing off personal color and spontaneous wit, steering away from opinion, introspection, humanness. He is mostly evasive. His pauses are elephantine,” Zehme wrote. “Broadway musicals could be mounted during his pauses. He works at this. Ultimately, he renders himself blank. In Dick Tracy, he battles a mysterious foe called the Blank. In life, he is the Blank doing battle with himself. It is a fascinating showdown, exhilarating to behold.

To interview Warren Beatty is to want to kill him.”

Zehme wrote for a number of lauded magazines beyond Rolling Stone, including Esquire, Vanity Fair, and Playboy. In 2004, he won a National Magazine Award for Profile Writing.

In addition to his countless profiles, he wrote biographies on Sinatra, Kaufman, Jay Leno, Hugh Hefner, and others, and also penned Intimate Strangers: Comic Profiles and Indiscretions of the Very Famous.

“He was able to remind me of things I’d almost forgotten and then shape and structure them,” Leno said in Leading With My Chin, his autobiography, which was co-written with Zehme.

“He is, of course, the King of the First Sentence,” Cameron Crowe wrote in his introduction to Intimate Strangers. “Like a great tour guide, he beckons you into the inner sanctum, whispering in your ear with a comic and sometimes poignant voice that says this is just between us.”

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