UPDATE: The final podcast episode has aired. Simmons did not speak with narrator/host Dan Taberski, but Simmons’ manager and a police detective who have talked to him say he is fine.
A celebrity is missing. Not any celebrity. The most loquacious, high-energy, whiz-bang, emotionally peripatetic celebrity we’ve got. Richard Simmons has not been seen since Feb. 15, 2014, when he stopped showing up to his Slimmons classes and cut off communication with friends. This is a guy who was a regular on Stern and Letterman, who used to run out of his Hollywood Hills home to say hi to celebrity bus tours, who never stopped exercising with fans, always punctuating his presence with cackles and shouts. The fitness guru known the world over has retreated in the most uncharacteristic manner possible: silently.
Which is what makes the Missing Richard Simmons podcast so compelling. Why did Simmons cut ties with his friends? Why did he stop teaching his beloved class? Did he disappear of his own volition? If so, how long does he plan to keep himself isolated? Are there nefarious players involved? Is he—we all really want to know—OK? We’re now three episodes into Missing Richard Simmons, and we still don’t have the answers. Nationwide curiosity has propelled it to No. 1 on iTunes.
Dan Taberski is the show’s narrator. He’s a former producer with The Daily Show who had been talking to Simmons about a documentary on the Slimmons class. The two were friendly. He had dinner at Simmons’ home. They spoke regularly. When Simmons disappeared, Taberski felt like he’d lost someone in his life. Mysteriously. Hence, this show.
Like many listeners I have questions about the show, but unlike many listeners I work for a magazine, so here we go.
I’m sure you’re not the only person who has tried to find Richard. What convinced you this was fair game for a podcast?
At first I thought he just wasn’t returning my calls. I was like, ‘That sucks, I guess there goes that.’ Then I realized it was everybody. I couldn’t let it go. He was a guy I knew. I knew people from his class. I knew other people around him. I was in an unusual situation where I was close to a story, and it was something I could tell, so I just started. I had a lot of cups of coffee with people. It just grew and grew. It just grew.
The show also re-introduces Richard to the public.
Part of being a famous person, and a niche famous person, which Richard is, you just become really one-dimensional. That’s the guy from Letterman. That’s the guy from Howard Stern. People forgot that he changed fitness. He was one of the first real, true originals who became famous just because of the person that they were. Because they were so unusual and so magnetic and so different. There are things people don’t know, like that he could call, 20, 30, 40 people a day in the middle of nowhere, for free, without publicizing it, to help them because they needed help. Those were relationships that were not one-time calls. He built relationships that went on for years, sometimes decades. There are multiple sides of him that got lost over the years that I thought was a story worth telling.
But the main thing is you want to talk to him.
If your friend did this, you’d be concerned, too. We weren’t best friends, but you know the guy. You care about him. The instinct (for others) was to say, ‘His publicist says to leave him alone, so leave him alone.’ I’m not saying to bother him or harass or do anything like that. There is a point where it’s OK to push past the Hollywood gatekeeper type thing, which I think is bullshit. I didn’t know him through his publicist. I knew him through him.
Richard talked to Savannah Guthrie last spring.
That wasn’t enough to assuage concerns?
It was a weird, concerning phone call. It was weird that it was a phone call and not an in-person thing. It sort of raises the question of why was he hiding? Not in a negative way. I don’t think he’s doing anything wrong. I think it just made people more concerned. That phone call was super-quick. Something is not being acknowledged. There’s a gap between what his team says is happening. Saying, ‘Oh, he’s retiring. He’s just taking time off.’ There is a gap between that and what is actually happening. This is someone who has cut off every friend he ever knew, and that’s saying a lot for someone whom people meant an incredible amount.
Were you afraid in the reporting of this you might discover something Richard would not want revealed?
This is an important point. I know Richard’s manager, Michael Catalano. I’ve known him since I was interested in Richard. I like him. He’s a nice guy. At the beginning of this whole process he knew I was doing this. I said, ‘Look, you need to tell me off the record, is this something really grim? If this is something really serious, and I just need to let it be.’ He didn’t do that. He said, ‘No, Richard is fine.’ I take him at his word. I hope, I hope, I hope that he is not sick, but I believe he is not sick. I believe it is not that, from everything I can tell.
Of course I want him to live the life he wants to live. Nobody wants anything different for him. I don’t want to drag him back. I do want to know that he’s OK, and I want him to know what he means to people. I have this nagging feeling he doesn’t know what he means to people. I think a lot of people have that feeling.
He seems to be a man of extremes. He’d run out to tour buses. Now he won’t talk to anyone.
He’s gone all in. How do you get out of that? After three years, what if you decided, ‘I don’t want to do that anymore.’ Is there even a way out of that? Maybe this will create the space for him. He can come back. He can do whatever he wants.
Is the plan still to do six episodes?
We’re doing six episodes, unless something bigger happens.
Have you talked to him yet?
No. I have not. There has been some activity, but not what you’re talking about.
Wired says you’re using Richard to create a name for yourself.
I mean, look. People can have dual motives. Richard Simmons is a multimillionaire many, many times over. It’s because he helped so many people lose weight. That doesn’t take away from the fact that he saved hundreds of lives and changed tens of thousands of lives. All that goodness isn’t changed by the fact that he made money doing it. Hopefully, dual motives—I’m allowed that same thing as well. I’m interested in telling a story for sure, but that doesn’t take away from the core motive, which is to reach Richard and let him know that he’s loved. I’ve known Richard since 2012, and I’ve been thinking about him since then. I’m not making a lot of money on this. Podcasts are not big moneymakers.
What has the reaction from Richard’s fans been like?
Everything. It’s overwhelming a little bit. The responses have been wonderful. Some people will see it, and some won’t. I hope they see my intentions are good. I don’t think they see me in the podcast. They see Richard, and they think he’s wonderful. I think telling that story is kind of incredible. I’m still dazzled by him. I’ve made a lot of comedy shows. Game shows. Kids shows. Hearing the responses, the lives he’s affected directly, it shows you the power of that un-ironic kindness that he has. There’s a lesson for me in that. It’s not my usual M.O. That empathy and kindness is just incredible. It changed my life to witness it.
Joe Donatelli is the Senior Writer at Los Angeles magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @joedonatelli and Facebook. He wrote The Story Behind the Most Inescapable Billboard in L.A..