LOS ANGELES — Did fate decree that Arsenio Hall would return to late night after two decades’ absence?
If so, he’s answering that comeback call on Sept. 9 with the premiere of “The Arsenio Hall Show” (syndicated; check local listings for time and channel).
And he’s itching to get going.
“You know how certain things make you nervous?” he said recently. “I don’t like to fly, but once I’m on the plane and we’re over the Rockies and I’m watching a movie, I’m fine.
“Right now I feel like I do when I’m in the airport.”
It was in 1987 that a then-unknown Hall, briefly stepping in for Joan Rivers’ short-lived Fox talk show, took flight as the cool, hip alternative to NBC’s “Tonight Show” titan Johnny Carson.
Then, in January 1989, he debuted with his own syndicated late-night show against Carson. He proved a formidable rival with his party atmosphere (the “Dog Pound” audience greeted him with “woofs” and other animal sounds as well as applause) and a wide range of guests, including presidential candidate Bill Clinton (sporting shades and wailing “Heartbreak Hotel” on his sax) and basketball great Magic Johnson shortly after announcing he was HIV positive.
But by 1994, Hall was facing new competition from “Tonight” host Jay Leno and David Letterman on CBS. With ratings slipping, he announced he was leaving the late-night arena, and, gracefully, he did.
In the years that followed, he kept a low profile. A sitcom came and went. He hosted “Star Search” for a season. He co-starred on a CBS drama “Martial Law” for a couple of years. Did standup.
He also devoted himself to his son, Arsenio Jr., now 13, whose mother is Hall’s ex, former manager and down-the-street neighbor Cheryl Bonacci.
“I love being a dad,” he said. “When kids got together at Chuck E. Cheese, there were a lot of mothers — and me.”
But Hall yearned to return to late night. In June 2012 he announced it was happening.
“People say, ‘How did you know when to do it?’ Several times before I had tried!”
False starts included a meeting with studio bigwigs he skipped because his son was sick. Or the nail in a piece of sushi that broke his tooth the night before an all-important guest-hosting gig.
“Signs like that,” Hall said, “seemed to mean I wasn’t ready yet.”
Now he’s sure he’s ready, whatever skeptics may say.
“I hear all the long-shot talk: ‘This is an impossible thing to do after all this time. The field is so crowded.’ But I still have to pursue my dream!”
Meeting with a reporter at a rehearsal space in a rawboned section of North Hollywood while his new house band was tuning up, Hall radiated the charm and high energy that made him a hit with viewers so long ago. At 58, he comes across much the same as ever — lanky, boyish, wide-open grin. The biggest difference: his mustache is long gone. “It had too much gray in it,” he confided.
As part of his strategy to reintroduce himself, Hall became a contestant on “The Celebrity Apprentice” early in 2012 — and ended up not only gaining the exposure he sought, but also winning the competition.
Even so, do enough viewers know who he is — or remember him — to get his new show off the ground?
“When people ask that, I’m like, ‘Well, NO ONE knew me the FIRST time!’ I used to joke that people thought Arsenio Hall was a dorm at UCLA. So don’t I have a better shot THIS time?”
A quarter-century ago, he broke the late-night color barrier, but in many ways his show was refreshingly color-blind. Inclusiveness is his goal again.
“I became ‘the black show’ before because the other shows were really, really not,” he said. “But now (ABC late-night host Jimmy) Kimmel’s MUCH blacker than me: He is juiced in to everybody from Kobe (Bryant) to (rapper) Rick Ross.”
Besides, talk shows traffic in many of the same guests, Hall observed. What distinguishes one show from the next is its host and how he interacts with those guests.
With opening night just around the corner, Hall will be receiving his first guests soon and staking his new claim in late night.
“I don’t even know if I can live through that first minute,” he said excitedly. “You come out there, back after a billion years, there’s gonna be all kind of animal noises and people screaming. What do you say? ‘It was a long doggone hiatus’?”
But he used a stronger word than “doggone,” then burst into laughter.