In 1991 I met Casey Kasem when I was working on a documentary about the radio industry called ”Radio In America: The Jockumentary.”
It was great fun. A high school friend of mine had recently graduated from USC film school, and we traveled the country interviewing some of the top radio personalities in the U.S. at the time. Rush Limbaugh, Mancow Muller, Kidd Kraddick, Scott Shannon and scores of other radio guys had agreed to be a part of the film I was making.
Someone had Casey Kasem’s phone number and I gave him a call, not really expecting a response. Within 15 minutes I got a call, and on the line was that incredibly familiar voice: “Hello, Rusty. This is Casey.”
We had an extremely pleasant conversation. He could not have been any nicer, and agreed to be a part of my video if I came out to Hollywood. You have to understand that even before I worked as a radio personality, for most of my life I was a fan and student of the art form of broadcasting. I couldn’t have been more excited by the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with one of the all-time greats.
I was a radio guy, not a film guy, so a video interview was a new experience for me. This also was the first major project my friend had done. We were young and hungry for this great adventure.
We arrived at Casey’s studio in Hollywood at the scheduled time … and that’s when things got a bit odd.
My photographer got his camera set up and shot a bit of “white balance.” That’s where you show the camera what white is, to help it record colors better. Immediately, a producer comes out of nowhere screaming at the top of his lungs to delete what we had recorded.
“Uhhh, OK … it was just the white on the bare wall,” we explained.
“I don’t care and if you do anything like that again, I’ll cancel the interview!” he shouted.
I was young and now intimidated, but still eager to meet the legendary CASEY KASEM. He came out of the studio and the first thing he said was, “Are you going to shoot my pants?”
“Your pants? I don’t think so,” I said.
“Well, I think I’ll go change my pants,” he declared, and walked down the hallway to go change.
About 10 minutes later he retuned and asked, “Where’s the makeup artist and lighting crew?”
To be honest, I hadn’t even thought about those things. I just wanted to ask a few questions, get him on film, and move on to the next subject for my documentary.
When I told him we didn’t have a makeup team or lighting crew, he grew quite annoyed but agreed to continue. After about five minutes of a very uncomfortable interview, I tried to change to mood in the room.
“Casey, I’m not here to make you look bad … Dude, you’re CASEY KASEM! You did the voice of SHAGGY on ‘Scooby-Doo!’ I’m a fan,” I gushed.
We had a good laugh, and he loosened up. After about 20 minutes of great material, I was left with one tough question I had to ask him. I knew it was dicey going in, but if I didn’t ask him about it, I would always regret it.
Knowing he was cautious, I asked my cameraman to turn off the camera, and turn it around to face the wall. I wanted Casey to know that what we were about to talk about was NOT on the record. He seemed nervous.
“Casey,” I said, “I want to ask you about the tape.” That’s all I had to say, and he knew exactly what I meant.
A few years earlier, a bootleg copy of a tape had surfaced in the radio community of Casey Kasem doing a long distance dedication about a dog … and in the tape he LOST it! I mean, profanity flowed out of his mouth with the skill and grace of a prima ballerina. This guy let everyone around him have it with both barrels blazing. It was caught on tape and leaked out for every DJ in America to play bits and pieces on the radio.
I knew that had to be embarrassing, and I wanted to see what his reaction would be. He said, “I’ve never talked about the tape.”
When I explained that the guys who would be watching this video are the same guys who still play it on the radio, he said, “I told Oprah I wouldn’t talk about the tape on her show, but for you, Rusty … I’ll do it.”
He then told the story of how in the ’80s, as music became more rock-oriented, he would ask his producers to avoid having him read sad dedications that would end up sandwiched between hard-driving rock songs — a very reasonable request. But as often as he would remind them, they kept doing it, and one day he just lost his marbles.
It was brilliant, the way he told it: the emotional honesty, the graceful storytelling. It was why Casey Kasem is one of the greatest broadcasters of all time.
We finished the interview, and I gave him the standard release form, which everyone has to sign when participating in such a video. He said he would give it to his attorney, and thus ended a great day with a great man.
The next day Casey called me and said, “Hello, Rusty. This is Casey. I just got off the phone with my attorney, who told me if I sign your release I’m out of my F’n mind! So, you make the video, send it to me and if I like it, I’ll sign it.”
It was a bit of a bummer that I had to go though some extra steps, but it was Casey Kasem, and he had just given me video GOLD, so I wasn’t worried at all about him liking what we did.
Fast forward nine months …
The video was done, and it looked great. I had interviewed most of the biggest names in radio at the time. I had just sent the artwork to the printer, and had a copy of the tape prepared for Casey. He called me the day after I sent it to him. I was proud, ready to take my bow, ready for Casey Kasem to tell me I should be his heir apparent!
“Hello, Rusty. This is Casey. Rusty, I saw the video … It looks great … but you can’t use me.”
My heart dropped into the pit of my stomach, and the blood rushed out of my face. The video boxes were already at the printers.
“Uhhhh, Casey, what didn’t you like?” I asked.
“How many lighting crews did you get for Rush Limbaugh?! What did you spend on his makeup?!” he yelled.
“Casey, we used the same thing on Rush as we did you. To be honest, I’m just learning this video stuff,” I said.
He then calmed down and said something I still can’t believe to this day. “All right, here’s what we’ll do, I’ll pay to fly you and your cameraman back to Hollywood. I’ll get my makeup person and light crew, and we’ll do it again at my house. How does that sound?”
My jaw dropped and I tried to not take such an extravagant gift. After we talked for about 10 minutes, it sounded like he really wanted to do it, so I agreed.
That weekend, we traveled to his house. Waiting for me was a $5,000 check, a makeup artist, and a lighting crew. To be honest, we looked better but I thought the original interview was more interesting. His Bel-Air home featured a big swimming pool, a golf course and a tennis court, but he told me he didn’t swim, golf or play tennis. We talked politics a bit and didn’t agree on anything.
However, in the five hours I spent in his home, I came to understand why he wanted to re-shoot that interview. It wasn’t that he had a big ego, and it wasn’t that, as a liberal, he wanted to tell people what to do. Casey Kasem cared. Not in the way those “limousine liberals” do, where they just write checks and move on. Casey put his money where his mouth was. He wanted his portion of my video to be perfect. Those weekly long-distance dedications he recorded were perfect. He loved it when sick children came to his home, so he made everything perfect for them. Perfection was his life’s goal, and while no one can achieve perfection, Casey Kasem proved that a life that strives for it can be one of great joy, passion and prosperity.
I don’t know what happened at the end of his life, with the battles between his children and their stepmother over the quality of his care. All I know is that during the time I spent at Casey’s home, Jean Kasem made it a point not to be welcoming and Casey seemed to be walking on eggshells around her. I have met Casey’s daughter Kerri on a number of occasions in the radio business, and have found her to be fun, funny, incredibly beautiful, hard-working, and very concerned for everyone around her.
Casey Kasem’s message — “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars” — inspired two generations of music lovers. When I think of the man, what I understand him to be saying was: “Always do your best, and when you think you’ve done your best, try to find a way to do it a little better.”
Casey Kasem did make the world a little better with his voice and his positive messages. He leaves a great legacy and one I hope to follow.
To watch clips of my 1991 interview with Casey Kasem click on the video link above. “Casey Kasem talks about Life, Shaggy and THE TAPE.”
Until our next briefing, this is The Rusty Humphries Rebellion.