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February 18, 2014 8:13 am

LAWRENCE AT LARGE: Jay Leno: A nice guy to the finish

Written by Tom Lawrence

I can’t help but think Jay Leno got a raw deal.

Despite his statements in interviews and on his final shows as host of “The Tonight Show” that it’s time to go and he wishes Jimmy Fallon well, I think his jokes may have revealed his true feelings about being forced out when he was still No. 1 in the ratings.

“I don’t like goodbyes. NBC does,” Leno said in his final show. “I don’t care for them.”

In a reference to the botched switch from him to Conan O’Brien in 2009-10, he added another barbed comment.

“I don’t need to get fired three times,” Leno said. “I get the hint. I get the hint.”

When Johnny Carson exited the show in 1992, the country paid rapt attention, and Johnny landed on the cover of Time magazine. Leno, on the other hand, was shuffled off the stage in a very low-profile manner.

The critics have never been his biggest fans. Leno wasn’t edgy enough, they said. He was, well, too nice.

After meeting Leno twice, I’d have to agree. And I wouldn’t call that a bad thing.

I first met Leno in 1984 when I dealt 21 at Harrah’s Reno. Leno wasn’t a big star then; he was playing in the lounge, not the main room. There was a two-drink minimum, but as employees, we got in for free.

My friend Roger wanted to see Leno, whom we knew from his stand-up appearances on “The Tonight Show,” which then starred Johnny Carson, and his wildly funny moments with David Letterman on the “Late Night” show.

I finished a game of pool — I was winning for once — and we strolled over to catch the show. Leno was funny, cutting and very hip. A bit on then-first lady Nancy Reagan was particularly hilarious. It was a memorable show.

When we left the room we ran into Leno, who was standing on a stairway chatting with a typically leggy showgirl. We interrupted them to tell him how funny he was and he shook our hands and talked with us.

Nice guy, we said to each other.

I next ran into Leno in 1990 when I was a sports editor in suburban Portland, Ore. The Trail Blazers were hosting an outdoors event at the downtown minor-league baseball park that featured a basketball game, fireworks, skydivers and Leno.

His star was rising fast and he was Carson’s primary backup. I ended up backstage and Leno gave me 15 minutes. He was funny, gracious and, again, nice. When some official tried to get me to leave, Jay stuck up for me.

“Leave him alone. He’s all right,” he said, showing he didn’t know me that well.

The official slunk away and I stayed for the next 45 minutes. Leno greeted high-profile Blazer fans and posed for photos with them. He shook hands and joked around like a politician.

In 1992, when Leno edged out Letterman to replace Carson, a lot was made of Leno’s willingness to meet the public. What’s truly interesting is the fact that he seems to like it.

A quick aside on Letterman: I think he is brilliant and very funny, but I am also convinced he is tortured and deeply unhappy in many ways. What is very interesting is that Jay and Dave have known each other for almost 40 years, were friendly for years, and were great together when Leno was a guest on Letterman’s old show on NBC.

I hope we see them together again soon, and think we will. Maybe Jay can substitute host for his old buddy.

Back to Leno. I had contact with “The Tonight Show” in the 1990s when I did a story on the graduating class of Henry, S.D. Both of them. The story was well-received and I did a few follow-ups that got national attention.

“The Tonight Show” picked up on it and flew the small-town kids out for a moment in the spotlight. The kids — a girl and a boy — told me Leno treated them well on and off camera and gave them a memorable trip.

While I’m a longtime Letterman fan, I will always hope for the best for the long-jawed, friendly comic I met 30 years ago. He is just, well, a nice guy.

It’s just too bad Leno had to finish before he was ready. Even though his final words on his last show were directed to his wife Mavis — “I’m coming home, honey,” — I think we will see him around.

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