Billy's almost famous overnight
© St. Petersburg Times
Just ask Billy Norris, 14-year-old movie reviewer for the St. Petersburg Times' Xpress section and, occasionally, CBS affiliate WTSP-Ch. 10.
On Thursday, the Seminole Middle School eighth-grader was attending classes and preparing for his school jazz band's upcoming performance at the Festival of States. That evening, producers from NBC's The Tonight Show With Jay Leno called: They had seen his work on the Times' Web site and wanted to see videotapes of Billy's TV reviews, with an eye toward bringing the budding critic on their program.
A Tonight Show staffer called Billy's editor at the Times to get his phone number. Lifestyles editor Gretchen Letterman told her how thrilled she was for Billy and then shared a laugh about the irony of the situation: Her brother, David, is Leno's chief competitor.
The next day, sister and brother were chatting on the phone, and she mentioned that her protege might be appearing on the Leno show.
While the Tonight Show waited for videotapes, The Late Show With David Letterman booked Billy for Wednesday's show. Today, the boy and his parents, Sandy and Bill Norris, are flying to New York City for his first appearance before a nationwide TV audience.
"I was completely blown away by it all," said Billy, who downplays the brief competition for his time between the two late-night TV powerhouses. "I don't think it will all sink in until after I go on."
A producer at Letterman's program acknowledged competition between The Late Show and Leno's Tonight Show, particularly for "human interest" guests with heartwarming stories to tell.
"In some ways, those kind of guests are much harder to find . . . especially people that have a genuine niceness to them," said Jude Brennan, a vice president at Letterman's Worldwide Pants production company in charge of the Late Show. "(And) right away, we thought it was pretty cool . . . a 14-year-old movie critic."
An NBC spokeswoman declined to comment on the situation. But Leno's show still might consider booking Billy in the future, particularly if he does well on Letterman.
Billy has written for the St. Petersburg Times since 1998, when he was selected for the newspaper's X-Team -- a cadre of young writers who craft stories for Xpress, a youth-oriented features section inside Mondays' Floridian. In 1999, editor Letterman offered Billy his dream job: film critic for Xpress.
Since then, he has analyzed movies ranging from X-Men and Fantasia 2000 to The Rookie (interviewing star Dennis Quaid) and Stuart Little. Last year, he began occasional appearances with Times chief film critic Steve Persall for reviews televised on WTSP. In a memorable Harry Potter segment, both critics vanished before viewers' eyes.
Billy remains modest about his accomplishments. "I've learned . . . don't wait until the last minute to do your stories," he said, laughing. "Sometimes, it's fun to really pan a movie. It's been a really great experience."
His parents can only marvel at the opportunities coming their son's way.
"He's had a remarkable life . . . done some amazing things already," said Mrs. Norris about her only child. "His dad and I are freaking out that he gets to do such amazing things. But I don't think he realizes yet how amazing this all is."
Brennan said Letterman's show often features young guests -- capitalizing on the host's chemistry with them. "They're not jaded, they're not overly sophisticated . . . and he never talks down to them," she added. "There's something genuine about them that Dave responds to."
Billy, a multi-instrumentalist still leaning toward a career in music, said Monday he hadn't yet decided what he'll say on Letterman's show. "I'm ready for him to razz me about the Devil Rays," he said, still uncertain whether he would go for laughs or play it straight. "If he does, we'll just play around on that."
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