Rosie O'Donnell says she has 'compassion' for Ellen DeGeneres

Take it from Rosie O’Donnell, who hosted her own popular daytime talk show from 1996 to 2002, a job like that shows a person’s true colors. As she puts it, “You can’t fake your essence.”

“That’s why I have compassion for Ellen [DeGeneres], right?” O’Donnell said on Wednesday’s episode of the Busy Philipps Is Doing Her Best podcast. “I have compassion, even though, you know, I hear the stories and I understand. I think she has some social awkwardness.”

O’Donnell referred to the allegations that employees of DeGenres’s show, The Ellen DeGenres Show, made in July that her show is a “toxic work environment.” After an internal investigation, three top producers were let go earlier this month.

O’Donnell said that she’s sometimes asked why she hasn’t done Ellen, but she has a good reason, really.

“You know how Ellen surprises everyone?” O’Donnell asked. “I’ve never done that show, because I’m terrified she’s going to scare me and give me a heart attack.”

Actress Portia de Rossi and wife Ellen DeGeneres mingle with Rosie O'Donnell in 2006. (Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
Actress Portia de Rossi and wife Ellen DeGeneres mingle with Rosie O'Donnell in 2006. (Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

Most of O’Donnell’s podcast appearance focused on her own weekday talker, which was a lot like Ellen is today: packed with celebrity guests and lots of giveaways to non-celebrities. She was constantly being asked to promote things on TV, but she said she would only do it if she truly liked the product — as was the case with Tickle Me Elmo — or if the company behind the product was willing to help a good cause.

“It really did feel like Robin Hood, I have to tell you,” O’Donnell said. “When they would say give away this toy, and I would say, ‘Can you send 2,000 toys to this hospital?’ And they would.”

O’Donnell pointed to one specific moment that told her she had to leave. She had her first baby, son Parker, and she went to make the 1996 movie Harriet the Spy.

“I had to get a nanny, because I hadn’t had a nanny till then and he was like, you know, eight, nine months old. So I got my [housekeeper], Maria, to come with me to the movie set to help take care of him, and when I came home after, like, the second day of 12 hours, he wouldn’t come to me. He was staying with Maria… And I thought, I need a job where he can grow up with his cousins and his family around him, where I’m going to be there every day to take him to school.”

She remembered that right around that time she had heard Kathie Lee Gifford was planning to leave her daytime chat fest with Regis Philbin. O’Donnell called her agent and said she wanted that job, so she could work shorter days and stay in one place. While the arrangement didn’t work out — Gifford stayed in the job until 2000 — the network did want to do something with O’Donnell. By then, she had already starred in box office wins, including A League of Their Own and Sleepless in Seattle.

“I started that show because I had a son, and I left that show because I had four children under the age of 6,” she said.

O’Donnell recalled that hosting was a “very trippy experience.”

Caissie St. Onge, one of Philipps’s co-hosts and a former employee of O’Donnell’s show, backed that up. She said O’Donnell once mentioned on the show that she enjoyed Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and then was sent not a box of them but an entire machine that made them.

“It wasn’t like anything close to real life,” O’Donnell said. “You know, you get mass adulation from the multitudes every day like a shot of heroin in your arm. You get people clapping at your very existence, and then telling you how you altered their life, and it’s a lot to take in. And when I stepped away, I knew that this was all I could take.”

Eventually, painting helped O’Donnell come back to reality.

“You know, I do very large paintings, and my brother said we have them all in storage, and nobody really wants them [laughs].”

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