Memoirs -- fact and fiction, photography, San Miguel de Allende, Writings

Jay, Jim, me and 10 bags of chips

Jay Leno autographs bags of chips in 1987 at his Beverly Hills home. I’m the terrorist-looking guy behind him. Photos by Jim Skovmand.

Recently, my old friend and colleague Jim Skovmand was searching for some papers on his computer when he came up with these photos, which he sent to me on Tuesday. What a great way to unlock a memory!

Jim and I joined the Copley Press organization around the same time, he in the photography pool and I with The (San Diego) Evening Tribune. The photo pool then was more like a deep lake – more than 50 photographers, editors, managers, and lab staff serving the Tribune and the rival morning paper, The San Diego Union.

As Jim recently pointed out, it took five years before we had an assignment together – that’s how big the new-gathering organization was in those days.

This was the assignment we shared and it was a doozie. 

With the photos, Jim sent along his own excellent recollections, which, with his permission, I’d like to repost here. (My own version follows!)


It was not the first time I was sent to a photo assignment where I had never met the reporter before, and I’d been on the U-T photo staff for about five years. 

Sometimes, I’d show up and the reporter had already been interviewing the subject for a while. If the reporter was just using a tape recorder, sometimes I’d have to listen for a while to figure out which one of them was the subject. If one was taking notes, it was easy to tell which one was the reporter and which one was the subject. 

On this day in 1987, it was easy. Even though I’d never met this “Bob Hawkins” guy, I did know what Jay Leno looked like.

The assignment was to drive up to Leno’s house in Beverly Hills and take photos of Leno to go with Hawkins’ story about the, then, rapidly rising comedian and TV personality. Leno had just been named the permanent guest host of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and he had just inked a deal to be a spokesman for Doritos. 

Since things were going so good for Leno, the gambling term “In the chips” came to mind. So, I went to a store and bought about 10 bags of Doritos, and tossed them in the photo car with some large cardboard pieces and a card table. The idea was to have the cardboard around Leno’s waist and completely cover it with Doritos, so it looked like he was waist-deep in the things. He’d hold a chip like he was about to take a bite, and there he’d be, In the Chips!

Jay had been in his garage and was wearing a dark blue coverall suit. After shooting some interview stuff for a while, I asked him if he’d go for the portrait I had in mind.

He wouldn’t do it. He didn’t even take us to see any of the cars in his garage. So when we got done and I realized I was going to have far less success than I’d hoped for, I told him, “Well, if you don’t do the chips photo, I can’t expense the ten bags of Doritos, so you’re going to have to autograph them for me.” And that’s what he’s doing in these two photos. His autograph was a squiggly signature with a quick, simple cartoon of his face with a long chin.

I had the chips for a while. Gave them away to friends and finally emptied the last one out, keeping the empty plastic bag with his signature. It met its demise several years ago.

Then, tonight I‘d been looking for the sales contract for the motorhome we bought a year ago, so we can write off the sales tax we paid for it at our tax prep appointment tomorrow. We just moved from Alpine to Oceanside, and I can’t find the receipt I need, but I did find these photos, and a refreshed memory. Now if I could only remember where I put that damned sales contract.

Thanks, Jim!

Now, as Paul Harvey (WHO???) used to say, “Here’s the rest of the story …”


Shortly after Jay Leno was named permanent guest host on the “Tonight Show” in 1987, I was invited up to his house in Beverly Hills to interview him. Comics would kill other comics to sit in for Johnny Carson. This was a big, big deal. As we now know, the gig made Leno heir to Carson’s kingdom.

It was a twofer: Jay was also doing an amphitheater show in San Diego. Not that they needed help with sales in those days. He was a red-hot ticket.

The photographer, Jim Skovmand, and I drove up in separate cars and I got there a little early. Jay had a decent size (for Beverly Hills) English Tudor-and-stone house with a large parking lot and a garage that dropped three stories down a steep slope. It had an elevator for moving his car collection up and down the levels.

I knocked on the front door and found it was open. Nobody answered when I timidly called out “Jay?” so I started around back until the dull rev of an engine drew me into the garage.

A guy in blue coveralls was tuning a motorcycle but his face was obscured by the bike.

I asked if Jay Leno was around.

Jay popped up his head and with that enormous grin said, “That would be me.”

As he wiped the grease off his hands he gave me a quick tour of the first floor — so many old cars and bikes and two more floors of the same below!

Jim pulled up as we were walking toward the house.

As he pointed out to me today, we’d started work at the newspaper within a couple weeks of each other but in five years, we’d never worked together. That’s how big the papers were in those days – there were two, The Union and The Tribune. Another reason was that in those days, I was mostly reviewing concerts and interviewing movie actors in Hollywood and New York when I wasn’t editing copy. Leno was hot enough copy to send Jim to LA.

Jim had a brainstorm on the way up – Jay Leno not only won the prized jewel in nighttime TV, he’d also earned a lucrative contract promoting Dorito corn chips.

“In the chips!” he thought. “Jay is in the chips.”

So he stopped and bought ten big bags of Doritos and found a piece of cardboard big enough to insert Jay in the middle. He wanted to surround (or drown) Jay in bags of chips and have him eating out of one of them.

In retrospect, it would have made a cool picture, but Jay was keen to stay on message – and that was all about “The Tonight Show” and the upcoming comedy show in San Diego. Besides, every time he held up a bag of Dorito chips, he got paid thousands of dollars. 

I don’t think he wanted to dilute his brand.

It was a pleasant afternoon in Jay’s kitchen, sipping iced tea and chatting more than interviewing. I am, after all, 18 days older than Jay. We’d sorta been through all the same stuff. We might even become friends!

But by then, the publicists had worked over his life story and coached him into telling it flawlessly, over and over. That’s what happens when people become celebrities. Nobody wants an off-the-cuff remark that might become a regrettable problem down the road.

So we covered the usual ground of the struggling comic sleeping in his car between gigs, the first Carson show, and his love for old cars and motorcycles. (My wife, Rose Alcantara, and Jay Leno were once regulars at the annual antique car fest Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance – of course, she knows him better than I do!)

Chips or no chips, Jim got some great shots of Leno in his home. As we were leaving, Jim asked Jay to autograph his bags of chips. They made cool presents for friends later that year. He gave me one which I eventually donated to a school auction along with some movie memorabilia.

I don’t recall much about the story that came out of the interview, except how I got my lead. It came just as I was leaving  …

I had been so nervous that everything go off without a hitch that I accidentally backed my car bumper up onto the newly installed pressed-asphalt curb around Jay’s driveway. 

With a look of horror, he ran around the back of the car and lifted it up as I eased off the curb. 

No damage. We laughed a little and I left, sheepishly.

Jay went back to this motorcycle and on to bigger and better things.


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2 thoughts on “Jay, Jim, me and 10 bags of chips

    • Thanks, Jeff. I know he caught some flack for returning to the Tonight Show and forcing Conan O’Brien out but that didn’t happen without the approval of NBC management. Besides, Conan as dying on air. I used to watch “Last Man Standing” once in a while but before Leno arrived I guess. Rose knew him socially during all those years at the Concorse d’Elegance in Pebble Beach. Car buffs and all.


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