Editor’s Note: At the end of “Free at Last: Part One,” Dunkleman was being ushered in to Ryan Seacrest’s dressing room before rehearsing for that evening’s live showing of the American Idol series finale. Dunkleman and Seacrest co-hosted the program in season one. Fourteen years later, after leaving the show, Dunkleman was finally seeing Seacrest again.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome back, Brian Dunkleman,” the stage manager joked as I walked in. There he was. All teeth and perfect hair.
It was just him and the writer in the room. He jumped up and extended his hand. What he said is a blur. “Great to see you!” “Thanks for being here!” “Hey, how are you!” It was one of the three, or something along those lines. I was too busy concentrating on what I wanted to say. I’d been rehearsing it for weeks.
I blurted it out. “I’ve just gotta get this out of the way. I’m really sorry for all the times we didn’t get along back then. I wish I could go back and change it, but I can’t. I just want you to know that I really wish nothing but the best for you and your family.”
He genuinely seemed to be taken aback. “Wow, thanks man, I really appreciate you saying that.”
I felt a huge weight come off my shoulders. Did I owe him some kind of apology? Did he owe me one? It didn’t matter. Regardless of what happened between us all those years ago, what I’d been carrying around had just gotten too heavy. I didn’t think in a million years I would ever be able to say something like that to him. But this opportunity to come back for the final show was my one chance at closure. And I needed it with him.
He said, “I saw you got married and have a son now. You have everything I don’t.”
There was such a vulnerability to the way he said it. Here was arguably the most successful television personality of his generation, someone who is perceived as being on top of the world, having it all, immediately acknowledging something he doesn’t have. The stage manager chimed in, “Well, you’re about to have some free time on your hands now!”
Our Hallmark moment abruptly segued into going over the script, making some minor adjustments, and heading off to the stage for our final run-through. Everything was going just as I’d hoped. I had just cleared a major hurdle. Rehearsal had such an ease to it, we fell back into the same old rhythm. At the end of our exchange, he opened his arms for a hug. I went with it, and then he improvised. “Hey since you’re here, why don’t you introduce the judges?”
As we exited on opposite sides of the stage he called over to me: “Should we do the hug?” I replied, “you’re goddamn right we’re doing the hug.”
The live show didn’t start for another four hours. Kim, the amazing woman who was assigned to be my handler for the day, arranged for my sister and me to have lunch in the adjoining hotel while watching the opening round of the Masters golf tournament. After eating, they let us sit there alone and watch the tournament for three hours. It was the perfect scenario. I got to calm my nerves by watching my favorite sporting event.
An hour before going live, we headed back to the theater for makeup and wardrobe. That last hour was tough. I can’t quite describe the anxiety of doing live television. The tightness in your chest builds to an almost unbearable level. You have to pee every ten minutes. Your mouth gets so dry you have to constantly drink water. Leading to more peeing.
I was taken around to the side of the stage where I’d make my entrance. I could hear the crowd’s excitement build. The warm-up guy announced “seven more minutes till we’re live!” SEVEN MINUTES. Don’t ever let any woman tell you that seven minutes isn’t an eternity.
The final countdown began. It felt like my heart was going to explode. The opening clip of President Obama rolled. The opening musical number. Then Seacrest’s intro. Then the words I hadn’t heard in almost a decade and a half. “….and Brian Dunkleman!”
As soon as I walked onto the stage, every nerve left my body. Looking out at that huge crowd felt just like it had 14 years ago – only better. Everything went exactly how I imagined it would. I took in every moment. I wouldn’t change a thing in that 1 minute and 52 seconds. It can never be taken from me.
After the show ended, I was led through the halls to say goodbye to Seacrest. He was recording interviews for his radio show. Back to work already. We said our goodbyes, and he asked, “wanna get together?” “I’d love to,” I replied.
I knew we wouldn’t.
As I headed back down the hall a woman called to me, “Brian, come on in here. We have drinks, we have food.” You had me at drinks. I entered the room, grabbed a cocktail and immediately saw another one of my old bosses – one of the higher ups at Fox, who was no longer with the network. He was with his wife and same old hot assistant from that first season. I had always really liked all three of them.
After a bit of catching up, he said to me: “You know, we were all really disappointed when that decision came down.” I asked: “By the way, exactly whose decision was it?” He said: “Do you really wanna know?” I said: “you know what? It really just doesn’t f**king matter…but yeah.” He laughed. Hard.
He explained that it simply came down to whether or not they were going to keep both of us, or just continue with one. They ultimately decided the show was better served with one host, and they went with the other guy. “But I didn’t get fired,” I interrupted. “No, you didn’t. You announced you were quitting before we could tell you. You beat us to the punch.”
The last of the weight from the enormous monkey was finally cast from my back. Did I see the writing on the wall back then? Yeah, but I never knew for sure what would’ve happened if I had waited one more week. One more day. I really didn’t know all this time what the real truth was. And now I had confirmation. As my best friend so eloquently told me, “See, you’re not an idiot, you’re just a failure.”
You know what? I can live with that. I lost out to the second coming of Dick Clark. They thought I was really funny, they thought he was a better host. Maybe I’ll forever be linked with him. Be the Garfunkel to his Simon. The Scolari to his Hanks. The whoever the other guy was in Wham! to his George Michael. All I know is that I didn’t make the biggest mistake in the history of television. I did exactly the right thing. And it didn’t matter.
Does it suck? Sure. But like Denis Leary said, “Life sucks, get a f**king helmet.”
I’ve moved on.