'The Apprentice' Creators Look Back

Oct 5, 2017
Originally published on November 13, 2017 7:28 am
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Donald Trump's reality TV show "The Apprentice" first aired in 2004.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My name's Donald Trump, and I'm the largest real estate developer in New York.

SIEGEL: He left the show last year during his presidential campaign. And though Trump has exaggerated the ratings for "The Apprentice," it was a hit, especially in its first season. For her podcast Embedded, our co-host Kelly McEvers introduces us to a few people who had a lot to do with the show's initial success. Whether they feel good about it is another thing.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The first sense that "The Apprentice" was going to be a big hit was back in 2003 at the first casting call in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York. Rob LaPlante was the casting director.

ROB LAPLANTE: The first thing that I noticed that morning which blew my mind was the line wrapped around Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue and then all the way down 56th Street for blocks. There were a thousand people in line to try out for a show that no one had ever even known or heard of to this point. And that was my first introduction to the fact that this guy, Donald Trump, is something more than just a celebrity and a businessman. He has got a bit of a cult following.

MCEVERS: LaPlante was like, wow, maybe this show's going to do really well, and we're all going to make a lot of money...

(SOUNDBITE OF THE O'JAYS SONG, "FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY")

MCEVERS: ...Because those contestants - LaPlante says they were stand-ins for all of us. If they wanted to be Donald Trump, that means tons of people watching wanted to be him, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY")

THE O'JAYS: (Singing) Money, money, money, money...

MCEVERS: And you can see this on the show. This song plays at the beginning of each episode. And the contestants have to go out and do things like sell lemonade on Wall Street. And then the team that sells the most gets to do stuff like go see Donald Trump's apartment.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Words can't describe how beautiful it was. Everything you saw was breathtaking. And we got to meet his girlfriend, Melania, who is amazing as well.

Hi.

MELANIA TRUMP: Hi. I'm Melania.

MCEVERS: In other words, to win meant to live Donald Trump's life if even for just a little while. Troy McClain was one of those people who was a stand-in for the viewers. Troy grew up in Idaho and Montana, and he had a pretty tough childhood. But then he read Donald Trump's book "The Art Of The Deal." His senior quote in his yearbook was Donald Trump, I'm coming. Fourteen years later, he sees an ad on TV to try out for "The Apprentice." He makes an audition tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TROY MCCLAIN: I develop real estate property just like you, Donald. Let me show you...

MCEVERS: And he gets on the show where they play up the whole country kid comes to the city thing. At one point, he pitches a celebrity auction to Russell Simmons of Def Jam records, and Simmons is surprised when he first hears Troy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

RUSSELL SIMMONS: You're not self-conscious about your accent, are you?

MCCLAIN: You can make fun of me with my accent (laughter). That's all right.

MCEVERS: Getting made fun of for where he's from is something that really bothers Troy. And this has a lot to do with how he felt about Donald Trump back then and how he feels about him now.

MCCLAIN: We always felt like the social elite, even though we didn't know who they were - the social elite was holding us down.

MCEVERS: But Troy didn't see Donald Trump as the social elite. He saw him as an outsider who made it in.

MCCLAIN: He had the arrogance and the cockiness, and he also had that stick-it-to-the-man attitude.

MCEVERS: This is stuff we heard a lot during the election and after. But Troy was thinking this way for a long time. And if Troy was thinking this way, so were lots of people who were watching him on "The Apprentice."

MCCLAIN: I bet those 20 million Americans a week that were watching it - the majority of them weren't the Ivy Leagues or the Harvard grads or the politicians. They were the ones that were looking to see if somebody like myself can make it.

MCEVERS: By the time of the finale, 28 million people watched "The Apprentice." And the next year after that first season, Donald Trump had his highest Gallup poll approval ratings ever. So if the contestants were a way for all of us to get closer to Donald Trump, the producers were the way to shape who Donald Trump appeared to be on the show. One of the main producers on "The Apprentice" was a guy named Bill Pruitt, and he says it was fun making the show mainly because Donald Trump was a natural talent, like the second time he fired someone.

BILL PRUITT: And Trump threw in what we called the cobra, where he threw out his fingers, thrust them at the guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE APPRENTICE")

D. TRUMP: Jason, Jason, this is a tough one. You're fired.

PRUITT: And I remember, in the control room, watching, it was visceral. It was like he shot him. Everyone in the room went, oh, whoa, wow, whoa. So the cobra became sort of a trademark move that he did beyond you're fired.

MCEVERS: But then Bill Pruitt says Donald Trump started saying inappropriate things on the set. You might remember; Bill Pruitt is the guy who tweeted about all this right after the release of the "Access Hollywood" tape last October of Trump saying grab women by the you-know. Pruitt tweeted, I assure you, when it comes to the hashtag #TrumpTapes, there are far worse. And now is the first time Bill Pruitt has talked about what's on those tapes, though he can't go into too much detail. He did sign a non-disclosure agreement. He says it happened when Trump and the producers would talk about who to fire.

Was it just about women...

PRUITT: No.

MCEVERS: ...Mostly about women.

PRUITT: Very much a racist issue.

MCEVERS: It was about race...

PRUITT: Yeah.

MCEVERS: ...About African-Americans, Jewish people, all of the above.

PRUITT: Yep. When you heard these things, there's the audible gasp that is quickly followed by a cough, kind of like (gasping), you know, and then (coughing) - yes, anyway, you know? And then you just sort of carry on.

MCEVERS: Is there ever a time when you think, I wish I would have told him not to say things like that?

PRUITT: That's a really good question. It was not my place to be, hey, TV star, you know, reason we're all here, shut your [expletive] damn mouth, and don't ever, ever repeat what you just said. Of course, you know, you think that. You go back to your hotel room or your apartment that they put you up in. And you know, you do some soul-searching.

MCEVERS: But he did not say anything. We should say we reached out to the White House, and an official called Bill's story, quote, "the same recycled and false attacks." Bill Pruitt says he also feels bad about the fact that the story they were telling on "The Apprentice," this thing about Trump as this successful billionaire, wasn't exactly true. Bill Pruitt says he saw that up close at Trump's Taj Mahal casino.

PRUITT: You walk in there, and you see, you know, neons falling. It was the Ta Mahal (ph) or something, you know? There was no J 'cause the neons were out, you know? (Laughter) They just hadn't had the opportunity to replace it yet. It wasn't a priority 'cause the carpets were already rotting. And it just stinked to high heaven.

MCEVERS: But that's not the way you made it look...

PRUITT: Not at all.

MCEVERS: ...In that opening sequence.

PRUITT: Exactly. I mean everything we said about him was truthful. It's what we didn't say about him. Do you know what I mean? It was a convenient vacation of the truth.

MCEVERS: At the time of "The Apprentice," Donald Trump's companies had already been through four bankruptcies, and there were two more to come, including the Taj Mahal. Airbrushing all this out is what Bill Pruitt says he feels most guilty about now. He says he was a good con artist, and his con helped take Donald Trump all the way to the White House.

PRUITT: We told a story. We went with beginnings and middles and ends and villains and protagonists, and we went about the business of putting music and picture and sound together. And now all of a sudden we're here. A cultural icon emerged because we weren't necessarily truthful about our portrayal.

MCEVERS: Bill Pruitt only worked on "The Apprentice" for two seasons, but he kept working in reality TV. He put two kids through college that way. Now he works on documentaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS")

D. TRUMP: Donald Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Money.

SIEGEL: That's Kelly McEvers. And this is music from the DVD box set of "The Apprentice."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS")

D. TRUMP: Move faster. Work harder. Move faster, harder. Be paranoid. Stay focused. Don't blow it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.