Steve Jobs and Noah Wyle’s moment of truth

It’s ancient history now, but some of you may remember the 1999 TBS production called Pirates of Silicon Valley. The movie was about the early days of Apple and Microsoft, and the evolution of the relationship between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Excellent subject matter, but clearly “made for TV” quality.

When the project got the green light, Steve was clearly excited. He shared the news with us at one of our regular marketing meetings. He was especially thrilled that Noah Wyle had been cast to play the part of Steve Jobs. At the time, Noah was flying high as one of the stars of the hit show ER.

As one might expect, the movie didn’t make Steve out to be the world’s nicest guy. One particularly bad moment was based on a story that’s floated around for years. The scene took place one day, in the early days of Apple, when Steve walked into a room where a job candidate was being interviewed. Steve immediately pegged him as an IBM-type and then, for whatever reason, blindsided him with the question, “Are you a virgin?” Even worse, he kept pounding away at it, making the candidate more and more uncomfortable. At least this was the way it played out in the movie.

A few months later, preparations were underway for the next Macworld show, which was to be held in the NY Javits Center. One night, Steve called and told me he had a great idea for a way to open the show. He was going to get Noah Wyle to walk on stage and pretend to be him.

Steve had the physical part all figured out — he’d give Noah the black turtleneck, gray New Balances, even duplicate glasses from his personal eyeglass-maker. What he wanted from me was a script. What exactly should Noah say when he walks onstage? How would Steve join in?

I sent a script to Steve the following day. He liked it all, but he was especially fond of my ending. For a finale, Steve would thank Noah for coming to Macworld, Noah would walk off stage to applause, but then stop as if he were suddenly remembering something. He’d then turn back to Steve to ask one final question: “Oh, Steve. Are you still a virgin?”

Steve bought the rest of the script word for word, but he had one question about that last line: should it be “Are you a virgin” or “Are you still a virgin”?

I was a perplexed. “I don’t know, you’re the one who said it! What exactly did you say?” I asked.

Steve’s response surprised me. “That’s just it, I never said anything! This never happened — it’s all made up.” He thought it was funny that they included this “imaginary” scene in the movie and loved the idea of echoing it at the upcoming Macworld.

So there you have it. It was all a lie. Granted, Steve wasn’t exactly under oath when he offered this testimony, but he did deny it emphatically. Maybe one day we’ll get a rebuttal from an eyewitness to the event.

Epilogue: We ended up going with “Are you still a virgin,” even though it didn’t exactly match the movie version. And one thing we learned by watching Steve’s performance — although the man was a genuine visionary, his acting skills left a bit to be desired.

Update 4/22/2012: Andy Herzfeld was “in the room” back in 1981 when the infamous interview took place. He directly contradicts Steve’s claim in his article, Gobble, Gobble, Gobble. Assuming that Andy has no reason to make this up, it looks like I enjoyed a personal voyage into the heart of the Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field.