Tavis Smiley has what could be deemed the perfect talk show host name — upbeat and amiable — but growing up, he was often the butt of belittling schoolyard jokes.
“When I was a kid, I hated my name,” says the Midwesterner whose childhood pipedream was to play first base for the Cincinnati Reds. “Tavis Smiley. I got teased so much. It was Travis, Tayvis and Smiley became Smelly and ‘Oh, you’re Tavis Smelly.’ So I hated it as a kid. But, lo and behold, years later you’re a TV guy and it works.”
Indeed it does. Hatched in 2004, Smiley’s eponymous PBS talker kickstarted its 11th season in January. The show, recipient of four NAACP Image Awards, has featured a wide and varied swath of high-profile guests, from Maya Angelou to Cornel West, from Ethan Hawke to James Taylor. “The first time we met, we just hit it off magically,” says Smiley of the Grammy winning singer-songwriter. “There are very few guests I can say this about, but James and I actually became friends.”
But it was a desire to serve the public in a deep and meaningful way — “My whole career track at that point was to become an elected official,” he says — and not hobnob with celebrities that, in 1996, pushed Smiley, who is receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame today, to pen “Hard Left: Straight Talk about the Wrongs of the Right,” a book that worked like a karate chop on conservatives, took note of Democratic Party shortcomings and issued a political call to action.
“1996 was a seminal year in my career,” says Smiley, whose the Smiley Group Inc. headquarters are inconspicuously perched adjacent to a closed-down burger joint in the artsy Leimert Park section of South Central Los Angeles. “Within months of writing my book I was in the White House as a guest of Bill Clinton and then as a regular on Tom Joyner’s radio show on NPR. So now I’m talking to 10 million people every day around the country. A couple of months after that, BET gave me my own latenight show. At that point I realized, well, maybe the political campaign thing of mine is done.”
In 2002 Smiley became the first “person of color” in the history of the United States to have his own daily show on NPR, and then, in 2004, become the first African-American to have his own daily show on PBS. That same year, he became the first and only American — “forget my color,” he notes with a quick flick of the wrist — to host daily talkers on both PBS and NPR.
“The whole thing was always about public service for me, and I saw delivering commentary on issues affecting people as a means to provide that service. My goal has always been to empower people with information that can help them live better lives.”