Jim J. Bullock on working with the infamous evangelical, and his first response when the idea was floated to him: “My honest-to-Jesus reaction was ‘She’s fucking crazy.’ And he said, ‘Well, would you meet with her?’ I said, ‘Oh, my God, yes, of course.’”
Tammy Faye Bakker’s gilded world came crashing down in 1987. The perky cohost of The PTL Club, a long-running Christian program that made Bakker one of America’s most famous evangelicals, was too closely affiliated with her husband—Assemblies of God televangelist Jim Bakker—to evade the fraud scandal that landed him in federal prison. But Tammy Faye, with her cartoonish makeup and Midwestern magnetism, was always the more charismatic Bakker. In the ’90s, after remarrying and changing her last name to Messner, she made a soft comeback in the form of The Jim J. & Tammy Faye Show, a daytime talk show full of wacky segments like goat-milking contests.
You are watching: Tammy faye bakker last interview
The Jim of the title was not Messner’s incarcerated ex, but Jim J. Bullock—a comedic actor best known for the ABC sitcom Too Close for Comfort, a recurring role on ALF, and the late-’80s iteration of Hollywood Squares. As her cohost, Bullock saw Messner’s post-scandal life up close and personal in a way that few others did. In addition to Jim J. & Tammy Faye, he appeared in the 2000 documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a good primer for the new movie of the same name starring Jessica Chastain as Messner and Andrew Garfield as Bakker.
“Tammy was always a real person; what you saw is what you got,” Bullock tells Vanity Fair. “Her faith was everything to her. She was an incredibly compassionate woman and very Christlike, loving everyone. It’s hard when you get into a situation like that that spins out of control so quickly. It’s hard to know which way is up and which way is down, and she never said anything bad about Jim.”
The idea for a Messner-led series arose when she appeared on Leeza, the NBC talk show hosted by former Entertainment Tonight correspondent Leeza Gibbons. Leeza producer John Redmann had put together a 1994 episode that united three scandal-plagued women of the late-20th century: Messner, Gennifer Flowers, and Roxanne Pulitzer. Gibbons says she initially worried the concept was exploitative, but once Redmann convinced Messner to participate, the others agreed too. At the end of the episode, the trio performed “I Will Survive” together.
“Seeing her in person was like when you’re a kid and you see a character at Disneyland,” Redmann says. “You can’t believe that she’s a real person and she really exists. She was tiny but with a huge presence. She knew how to turn it on, whether on camera or off camera. She was scared people wouldn’t like her. Every time I saw her and hugged her, my shirts would have half her face imprinted on them because she wore so much makeup. I’d have orange bronzer and red lipstick marks all over.”
Gibbons describes Messner as “the quintessential talk show guest” because she was “uninhibited, vulnerable, and a visual bonanza with her eyelashes.” After the taping, Gibbons told Messner she should have her own show. Redmann suggested the idea to producer Dan Weaver, who had also worked on Donahue and The Geraldo Rivera Show. So Weaver started to develop the project, determining that Messner would be a great talker but not such a reliable emcee. She’d need a cohost to help keep the broadcast on track. Weaver, who died in 2018, also decided that cohost should be an openly gay man—a rare request circa 1994. Somehow, though, it made sense. Messner’s primary audience seemed to have two halves: conservatives who loved her parables, and gays who loved her pageantry.
Bullock was working on a little-seen sitcom in Canada when he got the call from Weaver. “My honest-to-Jesus reaction was ‘She’s fucking crazy,’” Bullock says. “That’s literally what I said to him, and he said, ‘Well, would you meet with her?’ I said, ‘Oh, my God, yes, of course.’ I didn’t know anything about Tammy, but I used to tune in, like everyone else, to PTL
Messner and Bullock clicked right away, and they soon filmed trial runs—no fancy lighting, no wardrobe, just a camera on a tripod and a set that Messner likened to the junkyard from Sanford and Son. “We were just trying to be who we were, but Regis and Kathie Lee was sort of the template, and this little show called Mike & Maty,” Bullock says. Eventually, they shot and sold a pilot to Fox, recording a peppy theme song composed by “The Nanny Named Fran” writer Ann Hampton Callaway.
“Everyone who worked on that show, including Tammy and myself, worked for pennies on the dollar because no one was going, ‘This is magic, this is gold,’” Bullock says. People were going, ‘We're taking a real chance here.’ The warm-up guy
The Jim J. & Tammy Faye Show premiered at the tail end of 1995. According to Bullock, it had a Pee-wee’s Playhouse aura. “Tammy Faye channeled Lucille Ball whenever she was seeking ‘the funny,’” producer Jan Landis says; indeed, an early episode found Messner shoving chocolate in her bra during a fondue segment. (Landis also says Bakker was “an emotional child both on and off camera and maintained a sense of entitlement that she enjoyed during her PTL days.”) The series struggled to book A-list celebrities. When asked to name an especially famous guest, Bullock cites a post–Golden Girls Estelle Getty. But there was one exception: Rosie O’Donnell, who adored Messner. O’Donnell, as Bullock recalls it, encouraged the show’s micromanaging higher-ups to let Messner and Bullock be as silly as they wanted. Those higher-ups, Bullock says, were too busy doing the opposite, attempting to reign in the hosts’ whimsy.
Throughout their time together, Bullock never saw Messner without her signature cosmetics—heavy mascara, colorful eyeshadow, lip liner, the works. “We wanted to do a makeover show,” he says. “We said, ‘Tammy, we’re just going to take it off for a minute. And we want to do your hair.’ She’d say, ‘A clown never takes off his makeup.’” Bullock says he did see the staff feed her deli turkey during commercial breaks in an effort to balance out Messner’s Diet Coke and powdered-sugar-donut consumption.
Bullock also says he never saw an ounce of judgment in her. Messner had embraced gay people on The PTL Show, compassionately interviewing an AIDS patient at a time when the virus was the source of nationwide discrimination. Bullock himself had contracted HIV in 1985, and his partner, John, would die from AIDS complications in 1996. “I would be at the studio all day shooting, and then I’d come home and John was so sick,” Bullock recalls. “So many good things and so many bad things were happening at the same time. I can remember many times Tammy knocking on my dressing-room door, coming in, and just holding me. She knew what I was going through. She loved John, and so she was right there with me as much as she could be.”
The Jim J. & Tammy Faye Show didn’t last long. Messner was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1996 and left to seek treatment. Bullock and the producers attempted to move forward without her, auditioning a handful of female replacements, including KTLA Morning News reporter Gayle Anderson and a relatively unknown Kris Jenner. But the producers settled on Ann Abernathy, who had cohosted alongside Regis Philbin before Kathie Lee Gifford entered the picture. The Jim J. & Ann Show didn’t survive the year. “Ann was a lovely woman and a total pro,” Bullock says. “But they changed the theme song, and everything just became diluted.”
Once the show disbanded, Bullock and Messner didn’t see much of each other, as they didn’t run in the same social circles. Messner later frequented gay-pride parades, did a season of the reality series The Surreal Life, and published a memoir called I Will Survive…and You Will, Too. Bullock says they had coffee together before Messner died in 2007, when Bullock was appearing in Hairspray on Broadway.
“There was a real sweetness to Tammy Faye,” Redmann, the Leeza producer, says. “She was incredibly kind and funny. She loved to joke and make people laugh, even at her own expense. But there was a sadness under the surface. I remember going to visit her in Rancho Mirage, just laughing and having a good time. She would call me and check in on how I was doing. I know she was happy to be back on television.”
The fact that both hosts had experienced the rise and fall of fame contributed to their loose, lawless approach on The Jim J. & Tammy Faye Show. They were thrilled just to show up and have fun. In the midst of a decade overflowing with talk shows hoping to be the next Oprah or Jerry Springer, Bullock and Messner offered an unpolished camp that set them apart from their daytime competitors, even if they never became a sensation.
“That’s why Tammy and I were so good together, I think,” Bullock says. “We both had joyous spirits.”
— Unhappy Little Trees: The Dark Legacy of Bob Ross— The True Story of a Hollywood Partnership Built and Destroyed by Money, Sex, and Celebrity— Ted Lasso’s Roy Kent on Why the Show Isn’t “Warm and Fuzzy”— Caftans, Goyard, and Elvis: Inside The White Lotus’s Costumes— The Chair Is Like an Academic Game of Thrones— The Best Movies and Shows Streaming on Netflix This Month— Rachael Leigh Cook on Reclaiming She’s All That— Watch Kristen Stewart Channel Princess Di in Spencer’s Official Trailer— From the Archive: Jeffrey Epstein and Hollywood’s Omnipresent Publicist— Sign up for the “HWD Daily” newsletter for must-read industry and awards coverage—plus a special weekly edition of “Awards Insider.”
From the awards race to the box office, with everything in between: get the entertainment industry”s must-read newsletter.