Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Hot Hero Sandwich — In Conversation with Dr. Tom Cottle

by G. Jack Urso 

Dr. Tom Cottle on Hot Hero Sandwich.

After reviewing some of the celebrity interviews Dr. Tom Cottle conducted for the show, one of the NBC executives expressed their collective doubt at discussing some of these topics on television to a teen audience. According to Dr. Cottle:

“Don't you think that a lot of this stuff is over the heads of these children?” one of the suits said. And Bruce said, “Yeah, it may.” The suits said, “Well, how are you going to deal with this?”

And Bruce Hart said right to these NBC guys that are paying his salary and underwriting the show, “Well, we’ll just have the kids stand up and then it won't be over their heads.”

The Doctor Is In

I tracked down Dr. Tom Cottle and dashed off an email to his account as professor emeritus at Boston University. As a longtime adjunct faculty member of several colleges myself, I knew that it was hit or miss whether an email to a now-retired professor would ever get read. Other emails I sent off in regards to the Hot Hero Project have gone unanswered and given that Dr. Cottle had long since retired, and this was a cold-call email, I doubted I would get a response.

About ten minutes later I hear an email notification. It’s Dr. Cottle and he agreed — the doctor is in!

Tom and I had a long, detailed conversation on the beginnings of his involvement with Bruce and Carole Hart, negotiations with the networks, and interviewing the celebrities, including what happened with the Robert Blake interview that never aired. Along the way we learn more about the fine art of interviewing and a deeper appreciation for some of our favorite Hot Hero celebrities.

To give an example how Dr. Cottle's interviews were used in the show, posted throughout the article are all the interview clips from Episode 5.


Hart to Hart

Discussing growing up, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pam Dawber, 
Robert Guillaume, and Michael Learned.

Ae13U: How did you meet Bruce and Carole Hart?

Dr. Tom Cottle: I know that I met Carole [Hart] when she came to Boston. She had heard that I had been riding the buses with the children in the school integration project here in Boston. And there were there were, you know, people taking all sides and a couple of us, a bunch of us actually got on the buses with the kids and protected them . . . we put them on the floor and then them no one would get a stone through the window . . .

[Dr. Cottle is referring to the Boston School Desegregation Busing Protests of the early-mid 1970s.]

So, we walk in one day to a sea of blue denim . . . Carole and her crew were doing either an audio tape or I think a film strip about busing, and they wanted to talk to me. And she did the interviews at that point, and it was in my study here in the house where I'm talking right now. And I was really knocked out by this woman because she was so damn smart.

And if I had listed the questions that I would have asked me, she asked them, so it was terrific. And that was that.

And then I was in England for a couple of years and when I came back . . . I got a message that that somebody called and I had no idea who this person was. My mother or my wife gave me the message and it was all screwed up. It said, “You got a call from Carole Bruce.”

I had not met Bruce, but I eventually did decide to call her and what she was starting to tell me was that we want to talk to you about this project that we're doing and I I thought, “Oh my God, that's fabulous! Of course I'll do it.”

Ae13U: That’s some very interesting background about the school integration project. I was young, but just old enough to remember it.

Dr. Tom Cottle: There were a lot of important connections to that I made from that. Actually, one was with the great journalist Tony Lukas, Anthony Lucas of the [New York] Times, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book [Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, 1975, about the Boston school integration project. It was Lucas’ second Pulitzer Prize].

I too wrote a book on that project, but you know it hardly sold 17 copies [laughter], but Tony became a wonderful friend. Tragically, he took his life years later as the man that lived with terrible depression, but a brilliant, brilliant guy. He did a wonderful book.

But that’s how I met Carole.

Ae13U: Where you living on the West Coast at the time of recording or did they have you go out there for the filming?

Dr. Tom Cottle: There was a meeting in New York and that's when I met Bruce and two nicer people [Brice and Carole] never existed and brilliant. You know about Bruce and how his role in and Sesame Street . . .  he created . . .  Oscar the Grouch [along with Jim Henson and Jon Stone] and whatever Oscar the Grouch was exactly what Bruce was not. They were just fabulous, fabulous people.

Ae13U: Several months on the West Coast . . . it was an exciting opportunity, but a long time away from your family. Any concerns?

Dr. Tom Cottle: I remember coming back from that meeting and getting all settled with the idea that I was going to be traveling to California to do that work . . . maybe they [Bruce and Carole Hart] lived in Central Park West . . . and I came out of that building and I saw a man walking out of Central Park with his kid and they were obviously engaged in a very loving conversation. And I said, “I'm making a mistake. I shouldn't be doing this. I shouldn't be taking myself away from the family.”

But I went ahead and did it, and fortunately some of the trips there my wife and my kids joined me.

Interview Logistics

On fathers, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pam Dawber and Michael Learned.

Ae13U:  Was the filming in Los Angeles or elsewhere?

Dr. Tom Cottle: The first trip was to LA. NBC made all these fabulous arrangements. I thought I was King of the World with all the travel arrangements . . . and I'm in the hotel, I think in Universal City, and there was an earthquake, a minor earthquake that night and I said, “Oh my God, this is God's doing. You should not be doing this!” [laughter] And fast forward about two hours I'm with Carole and Bruce in the car and we're in the home of Leonard Nimoy.

Ae13U: I am so trying not to be the massive the Star Trek geek that I am right now. . .

Dr. Tom Cottle: This was the first night. There was a damn earthquake and I've never been in LA. I had no idea where the hell we were going [laughter]. I think they lived in Brentwood [Nimoy and his then wife Sandi] but I'm not really sure, and I met Leonard and his and his wife at the time. I think eventually the got a divorce [in 1987]. It was wonderful meeting him and he told extraordinary stories.

So, then then we interviewed a bunch of people in LA, but I think the very first interviews we did were . . . south of Soho, the beautiful flat that they had rented, and because I think that Kareem Abdul Jabbar was one of the very first ones.

And I was with my kids, and our littlest one Sonya, she went up to Kareem Abdul Jabbar and he was so tall, she came up to his knee . . . It was a marvelous moment.

Ae13U: So, a flat was used in New York and a home in LA. Was a studio ever used?

Dr. Tom Cottle: We never interviewed anybody in the studio. They rented a house in Toluca Lake [In California] the first trip to do a batch of people . . . they brought in one celebrity in the morning and one celebrity in the afternoon.

Ae13U: When were the interviews done? The series itself was filmed in the Summer of 1979, so I’m guessing the interviews were done in the Spring of 79. Does that sound right?

Dr. Tom Cottle: Yeah, I think that I think that would make sense because the weather was beautiful in New York I remember. The efforts that they made to get people where “this person there and that person there,” Loretta Lynn, was in Reno, NV, appearing and after that interview I just love that woman. Oh yeah, that was that was a good interview. You know . . . I’m thinking, “We got to make a special trip . . . to fly to Reno for Loretta Lynn?” But after that interview I just loved that woman.

Ae13U: Really? How so?

Dr. Tom Cottle: Well, for example, Loretta Lynn, before we started talking, before we did the interview — and you want to talk about an extraordinary wonderful woman — she said “Can I talk to you for a second?” And she took me aside.

This is the great Loretta Lynn who had to go down the back elevator, obviously because people would just throng her, she said to me, ”Could I ask a favor of you?” And I just knew she was going to ask me not to ask any questions about her husband or her family [which are typical celebrity interview requests] and she said, “Please don't use any big words that I might not know the meaning of.”

My heart broke. My heart, my heart just broke. And she was, you know, it was a phenomenal, phenomenal interview. Margaret Kaplan said the secret of a great interview is to have a fabulous person to talk with, and when you have a fabulous person like Loretta Lynn, anyone can interview her.

And then Chris Reeve [Superman] was in Mackinac Island at that fabulous hotel where he was filming with Jane Seymour [Somewhere in Time, released 1980], and we went all the way from Los Angeles. through Chicago, through Detroit, three puddle jumpers with me “loving to fly” [laughter] and finally to Mackinac Island and and we filmed him, not in that hotel where they were filming, but in some other little place . . . and it was about 175 degrees outside. It was awful.

Ae13U: And here I am thinking you were in some air conditioned studio in LA.

Dr. Tom Cottle: Never, never. Always renting people's homes or flats. I remember Marlo Thomas was interviewed downtown near Wall Street someplace, in a different flat than where Kareem was [interviewed].

In Conversation with . . .

On racism, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Guillaume.

Ae13U: That story about Loretta Lynn was incredibly touching. Are there any off-camera stories of the interview you can share?

Dr. Tom Cottle: I remember the one morning it was Ron Howard and he said who I was going to interview in the afternoon, and I said Henry Fonda and he [Howard] said, “Oh, my God, he's wonderful.” [Howard co-starred as Fonda’s son in the TV series The Smith Family, 1971-1972]

I said, “Well, what do you call him?” He [Howard] said, “You call him Hank.”

[I’m thinking] “You call Henry Fonda, Hank?”

So, in walks Henry Fonda and he says, “Hello Tom,” and I say “Hi Ha . . . Henry Fonda!” [laughing].

Everybody called him Hank, but I'm not going to call him Hank!

Ae13U: Did the Harts give you prompts for specific questions to ask the celebrities?

Dr. Tom Cottle:  Oh, sure . . . There was an interview with McLean Stevenson and I remembered that they [Bruce and Carole Hart] probably said, “Can you get some nicknames and see what these people were called because we're trying to get into bulling [as a show topic]. “Did they call you names that upset you?” That sort of thing.

They [the Harts] might say to ask about their first sexual experience and I asked Robert Guillaume [Soap, Benson] about that.

The celebrities were really open and fabulous because they had never been interviewed this way before. They’re always getting questions about pushing their films, their wives, and that question women get asked all the time, “How do you balance your kids and your career?” I’ll never ask that question.

I used to joke around with Carole that I would never ask that that question because the answer is “Nannies!” [laughter]

The big issues were “Can you ask the women about when they were girls and had first menstrual periods and the guys about masturbation,” and stuff like that. But a lot of it was just let's see who they are, and a lot of family issues.

There’s the story of story of LaVar Burton, for example, being abandoned by his father [HHS Episode 10] and then he comes back and he really wants to be of contact with him when he’s become the, you know, America's most famous face [following Roots in 1977].

Dr. Tom Cottle in a caricature by staff writer Sherry Coben, summer 1979.

Ae13U: I think those kinds of stories really connected with fans because it showed the celebrities dealt with similar issues as a child. LaVar was 22 at the time of broadcast. Another guest, Jimmy McNichol, was 19. I'm wondering if the discussion ever came up to include minor age celebrities among the interview subjects.

Dr. Tom Cottle: I don’t recall there ever being a discussion about doing it or what are the pros and cons. I really had no say in that. They asked me all the time about what I was thinking. I didn’t have any say over who they picked for a very simple reason — I didn’t know a lot of these celebrities. I had no idea who a lot of them were. I didn’t watch these shows!

As far as asking kids [child celebrities] it just didn’t come up.

Ae13U: What happened with the interview with Robert Blake that never aired? I understand he was upset discussing his childhood. Did he shut down interview and walk out?

Dr. Tom Cottle: I don’t remember that. The interview with Robert Blake was horrifically painful. It was awful. What he was talking about was awful . . . He talked about a father that beat the crap out of him, again and again and again . . . He was the kind of the father that came home after being away for a week and his wife would say, Robert did this and he would go in there and whack him. There was some stuff that he was sexually abused.

One of the most painful scenes was being in a movie with John Garfield, whose real name was Jack Garfinkel, and it was a scene where he [Blake] had to cry and he couldn't cry. And, as he told the story, Garfield threw everybody out of the studio and talk to him about why he had to cry and Garfield said, “Just think about something in your own experience which made you cry,” and he [Blake] . . . he started to cry. We made the connection that he knew that if he ever started crying, he'd never stopped crying over all the things. This poor guy had everything in his experience.

Ae13U: Were there any discussions are continuing the interviews for a second season, and would you would you have done so if asked?

Dr. Tom Cottle: If Bruce and Carole Hart told me jump off the Brooklyn Bridge and stay under water for an hour and half. I would say, “Crazy idea, but if they want it I’ll do it!” [laughter] They were that impressive.

Tough Negotiators

Feeling unique, with Kareem Abdul- Jabbar and Pam Dawber.

Ae13U: Trying to get the show on the air must have been a tough sell to NBC. Did Bruce and Carole ever discuss any of that with you?

Dr. Tom Cottle:  I can give you two stories about Bruce Hart which tell you what kind of a guy he was. When they finally started to air sections of these shows to the NBC suits and the lights came up after this, this viewing and they used a lot of the interview stuff because that's the powerhouse stuff in which they were they were hoping to get the adults to watch with them [the children].

And one of the suits said, “Don't you think that a lot of this stuff is over the heads of these children?” Which is that typical patronizing, underestimating [of children] like we're having now, like “You’re going to upset kids if they read Anne Frank.”

And Bruce said, “Yeah, it may.” The suits said, “Well, how are you going to deal with this?”

And Bruce Hart said right to these NBC guys that are paying his salary and underwriting the show, “Well, we’ll just have the kids stand up and then it won't be over their heads.”

“It was fabulous. In retrospect, we talked about the fact that NBC put them in a position where NBC wasn’t going to be ambivalent about them. They didn't grovel. They knew that their interests were the well-being of kids, which is on Free to be You and Me, and their work on Sesame Street etc., etc., they weren’t going to grovel.

So, another occasion soon after . . . maybe walking home from that very event, it could well been . . . Bruce and I are walking down 5th Avenue, and we’re practically at the spot where that Big Apple Store is now on 5th Avenue, and I said to him, “When would you find . . . the ideal time to air the show?” It seems to be too sophisticated for Saturday mornings. It's no Saturday morning cartoon show. You got some of the sophistication of an SNL.

He [Bruce Hart] said, “Oh, the ideal time would be Sunday night.”

I said, “Yeah, fabulous. Sunday nights at 7:00 o'clock. Now, you're going up against 60 Minutes. You're going to go up against that! And this is what Bruce Hart said, and this is almost verbatim. “If I die, I want to die in the main arena.” They [Bruce and Carole] would never sell out.

Ae13U: Tell me a little about Carole Hart.

Dr. Tom Cottle: Carole was a tough negotiator. She was a softy, a loving person, a caring person, but she was a business person. She was the best that people could be. Bruce and I couldn't do that. But Carole, Carole had no qualms. She was fabulous at this.

But . . . they ran into a snag because [President] Jimmy Carter banned the United States from competing in the Olympics [1980]. That meant that NBC lost a cash cow big time so they were in a financial shape and not feeling particularly great. There was a tough negotiation [at the time] with a company in California that was doing all the visual stuff, stuff that was rare then in TV, it's now done probably every control room in America. For example, you see a face of Henry Fonda, the face blows up and when the pieces come back together its Jane Fonda or something. Now, it's nothing kids can’t do, but then . . .  I think there was only one house in Los Angeles and with a strike looming there was a real feeling they had to be a little careful, coupled with the fact that these two people . . . were principled people who were not going to bow and do everything you want, so I think it [NBC’s programming Hot Hero Sandwich on Saturday mornings] was punishment frankly.

Ae13U: I think Sherry Coben, Patrick McMahon, and some of the other Hot Hero alumni may agree.

Dr. Tom Cottle: Yeah, I think they were punished for it. They were. They [NBC] were in a difficult financial — slash — political position, and I think they were uncomfortable. The show was so different on the one hand, and the Harts . . . had a vision and that was that.

Ae13U: Well, we’re still talking about Hot Hero Sandwich and who knows who the suit was . . . well, it was probably Fred Silverman.

Dr. Tom Cottle: It had to come from Fred Silverman, but I was not party to any of those meetings. I was just an employee.

Professional Courtesy

Childhood memories, with Michael Learned and Pam Dawber.

Ae13U: Did you get any feedback from your colleagues in higher education or the psychology/counseling field about the show?

Dr. Tom Cottle: None that I remember . . .  maybe a couple. The major thing was when I started doing television I never again was sent a patient by any colleague.

Ae13U: Really? Why would that be?

Dr. Tom Cottle: Because [they felt] “You want to be famous. You want to be a movie star. You sold out. You can't be a therapist and do that.” And I never stopped my practice. I would take days off, but I never stopped my practice.

Ae13U: Professional jealousy?

Dr. Tom Cottle: You know, some people say, “Oh, they were just jealous.”  I don't know that they were jealous, but it was really more of a feeling of you're kind of persona non grata.

Now, did I pay a big price? No, I didn't pay a big price given the big prices that people pay for their principles. But no, very, very few people talked about it. Non-professional people, friends, they were always interested in what was going on, but let's put it this way . . . it was not good.

I thought the sell out for the guys . . . and the women . . . was everybody who wanted do therapy on television. They would want me to do therapy on television and I would say no, it can't [be done] because it's fundamentally a show and it's [therapy] done in privacy. But no, I did not get positive feedback though.

Ae13U: It’s ironic because as a 15-year-old watching the show and watching celebrities I considered superheroes like Christopher Reeve and Kareem Abdul Jabbar discuss issues I could relate to, made the celebrities more human and the problems not quite so big. It made me think, “If they could survive that, so could I.” That’s one of the lessons I remember taking away from those interviews.

Dr. Tom Cottle: The great Indian novelist Naipaul once said that, “A great novel both enlightens and evokes” The evocation piece is dropped out of academic work . . . the academics only have to enlighten us, not evoke, but the novel does both. We were learning about the experience of being human.

When it's just to evoke, that's the schmaltzy part. That's where the critics say that just plays on sentimentality . . . and those interviews, I thought, because of these men and women — and a lot of them were just absolutely sensational — I thought they [the interviews] were utterly enlightening and that kids could learn something from another person's experience. They could feel the feelings of that person, and thereby they feel their own feelings.

Ae13U: Well, that's that was exactly the lesson and the impression I took away from them when I watched them as a teenager.  After Hot Hero Sandwich, did you ever work with Bruce and Carole Hart in a professional capacity again?

Dr. Tom Cottle: I consulted with them. They did other projects that they never place for me, but I consulted with them all the time and talked to them fairly often. I really saw them as great friends.

Ae13U: Well, I think that wraps up our interview Tom. I want to thank you for your time. You know, I have to say, by now I’ve had the chance to communicate with a number of the cast, crew, and writers from the show and everyone has been so kind to me, it’s like they’re still treating me with the same kind regard as if I was still a 15-year-old fan.

Dr. Tom Cottle: I don’t think Bruce and Carole Hart tolerated unkind, un-nice people. You wanted professional people. They didn’t want to deal with rude people. I think they treat you nice because these people were kind and nice people. That’s who they were.


Concluding Thoughts

Bullies and crushes (the romantic kind), with Michael Learned, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 
Robert Guillaume and Pam Dawber. Also, some short film and sketch segments. 

It was disheartening to hear of the reaction of the psychotherapy community to Cottle’s interviews. Unlike the television personality parade today that exploits the dysfunction of damaged people, Cottle’s interviews provided positive and empathetic responses by individuals the audience knew and admired. This destigmatized the issues and gave the child confidence to deal with it themselves.

Cottle is, in fact, often not even seen on-screen, instead providing short guiding questions off-screen and giving the celebrity room to respond. At the very least, the opposition represents an entrenched conservative approach that did not see the value of providing a platform to model emotionally healthy responses on sensitive personal issues. In this way, the interviews were more guided educational discussions rather than on-air therapeutic sessions, which Cottle would not attempt in any event. One wonders if his colleagues even watched the show before dismissing it. Cottle’s methodology is the very approach that should be adapted for such similar efforts. 

As for his former colleagues, well, as much of a contribution they may have made to their profession, four decades later I'm not interviewing or writing about them, am I?

When the phrase, “the doctor is in,” comes to mind, we think of access and availability. Someone we trust and rely on for advice and empathy. On all counts, when it comes to Tom Cottle, this doctor is definitely in.


  1. I love this. Well done Jack and Tom. So many memories. I watched and edited all the interviews and always thought the should be expanded into shows of their own. There was so much wonderful material that was left out because the format of the show didn't have room for it. Thanks you for this.

    1. Knowing you saw all that footage means a lot, a very many thanks! Of course, as Tom said quoting Margaret Kaplan, the secret of a great interview is to have a fabulous person to talk with, and Tom was that fabulous.

    2. The Loretta Lynn story is moving and inspiring. What insignt into the humanity of a person.

  2. Hats off to HHS - the Harts, Tom Cottle, and all. What a gem. Hats off too to Aeolus for reawakening our memories to the effort and work, to the importance of HHS. Well done.

    1. Equally moving and revealing into the humanity of a person is the info on Robert Blake.

  3. After the recent passing of Loretta Lynn, the addition of her segment in this interview is memorable.