There are a lot of ways to tell the truth, and Chuck Barris has avoided most of them. His 1984 book Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was subtitled An Unauthorized Autobiography, and it claimed that while he was creating game shows like The Newlywed Game and The Dating Game and hosting The Gong Show, he was a contract CIA assassin--a claim he still refuses to say was untrue. The movie version, directed by George Clooney and written by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), which opens nationwide on Jan. 24, has tales the book never even imagined. "He wrote stuff out of nowhere," Barris says. "My mother never dressed me like a girl. I was never on drugs. The part about my father being a serial killer? That's Charlie. He writes such good stuff."
Barris, 73, wrote the book partly because he's a huckster: he faked a resume for NBC, peddled game shows even though he didn't like them, and God knows what he has told his three wives. But he also fabricated his life because it might have been the best way of getting at the truth. The truth was that back when he was the Jerry Springer of his day, he couldn't stomach being attacked for doing something he considered harmless. So Barris wrote a book in which his first assignment purportedly was to collect intel on Martin Luther King Jr. "People forget the point of the book," he says. "Here I was, getting crucified by critics for entertaining people and getting medals for killing them. That just didn't seem logical."
Perhaps the most truthful way to express that moral confusion is with a lie, a notion Kaufman explores not only in this script, which he wrote in 1997, but also in Adaptation. Kaufman has never met Barris and says he doesn't know if the CIA stories are true. "The first thing everybody asked me was, 'Is this true?'" Kaufman says. "That question interests me, whether in fiction or nonfiction." For the CIA's part, the only comment spokesman Paul Nowack would make was, "It's ridiculous. It's absolutely not true."
Barris is still manic, running around his Upper East Side apartment trying to document the truth of his life, displayed in the photos of him with celebrities that hang everywhere. In one picture, taken during the period when, in the book and movie, he lived in a hotel as a hermit, he lies in a well-decorated party room watching a basketball game with John Cassavetes. "Peter Falk was in the bathroom," he explains.
Barris plays the '50s pop hit he wrote and recently recorded on a CD with his band, Chuck Barris and the Hollywood Cowboys, a reunited Gong Show orchestra. "I thought with the movie coming out maybe I could sell a CD," he explains, before ruing that the Web wasn't around in 1980, when he could have sold GONG SHOW REJECT T shirts. When I tell him it's not too late, he nods. Half an hour later he says, "The website is a good idea. Maybe I'll give that a shot." Along with Hollywood mementos, the apartment is strewn with piles of books, which he reads three at a time. "I don't read nonfiction," he says. "Never liked it."