Originally created 04/15/04

Trump to fire last contestant on 'The Apprentice' finale



NEW YORK -- If you asked Donald Trump the time, you could expect him to exaggerate it by several hours, then boast how his wrist watch is one of the greatest watches anywhere in the world.

Trump is rich with self-applied superlatives, the kind of bluster you'd usually avoid like the plague.

On the other hand, a modest man with a Timex doesn't make good television.

"The Apprentice," with Trump lording over 16 rivals for his jowly nod, has turned out to be very good television - not to mention a big hit, bringing NBC the thing it needed most (ratings juice) while giving Trump the thing he craves most (attention).

But there's more. A reported salary bump next season will fetch Trump as much as $200,000 per episode. This will make him the highest-paid person in prime time, he brags, conveniently overlooking, say, Ray Romano, whose weekly haul is a widely reported $1.8 million.

"The Apprentice" concludes at 8 p.m. Thursday on NBC (WAGT-TV, Channel 26), when finalists Bill Rancic, a Chicagoan and owner of a cigar business, and Harvard MBA Kwame Jackson of New York complete one last business task.

They began their respective projects on last week's episode, with each of them supervising a team of fired former adversaries (including four of the original eight leggy females) whose drive and even loyalty in the service of their vanquisher is highly suspect.

At the end of the live, two-hour finale, who - Rancic or Jackson? - will have made the most of his huge, pitfalls-plagued assignment? Who will hear Trump's dread words, "You're fired"? And who will get the grand prize: the $250,000 "dream job of a lifetime" running something or other for Trump for a year?

"The Apprentice" comes at a curious time. The image of business has been tarred, and thousands of Americans hurt, by scandals at such corporations as Enron and Tyco, where greed and excess reigned. Prosecutions are ongoing. Victims' wounds are fresh.

But "The Apprentice," while promoting greed and excess, isn't really about business. It's just set there. It's a boardroom game show crossed with "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," with Trump the embodiment of "champagne wishes and caviar dreams" for viewers and contestants alike.

On "The Apprentice" Trump introduces his Trump Tower apartment as "the nicest in New York City" in "one of the great buildings of the world." And Trump Tower is only a tiny piece of the $6 billion-plus fortune Trump boasts of (though Forbes magazine puts it at $2.5 billion), just one of the many holdings he says make him New York City's biggest real estate developer (a claim others dispute).

Trump's casinos are struggling, which led one financial analyst to tell CBS that if Trump were a contestant on his show, he would have to fire himself.

Indeed, some observers have long described Trump "more as a front man who, for a cut of the action, lends his name to projects backed and managed by others," to quote a recent Time magazine article.

Trump disputes that characterization. But there's no disputing that he stays busy hawking his brand.

"This is called luxury, this is Trump luxury," says Trump, giving his contenders a peek at a penthouse apartment atop another of his Trump-tagged properties. "One of the most luxurious buildings in the world ... You see why Trump is Trump."

Any fan of "The Apprentice" can see why Trump is Trump. Trump is Daddy Warbucks for the TV age, a celebrity tycoon whose business strategy calls for putting his name on lots of glitzy buildings and his face wherever else he can.

Along with Trump brand bottled water, the Trump brand Visa card and a new book, "Trump: How To Get Rich," Trump has lent his name and face to "Saturday Night Live," where a couple of weeks ago he was guest host.

Trump was a smash, making sport of his renown for grandiosity and tacky lavishness (and even his preposterous hair style), and getting big laughs. The odd thing was, when deliberately mocking himself he came across as no more of a caricature than on "The Apprentice." Just funnier.

Unscripted, Trump isn't very funny - or sometimes even decipherable.

During a conference call with reporters, Trump was asked if "The Apprentice" provides viewers with a lesson.

"Be aggressive but not overly aggressive," Trump began. "I used to think there was no such thing as being too overly aggressive, but a few of the contestants have taught me that you can actually be overly aggressive. And, you know, just be cool."

The fact that what he said doesn't make much sense doesn't matter. A basic rule of thumb on Planet Trump is: Every word of Trumpspeak is gospel. And especially so on "The Apprentice," no matter who's doing the talking: Trump the Judge or Trump the Impresario.

Intoning the words "You're hired" this week, Trump will crown the person he deems most worthy to work for him.

But Trump remains active in his other role. As an "Apprentice" co-executive producer, he has an abiding interest in the show's popularity. His choices of who gets fired have had an obvious effect on its entertainment value. He has deftly set the stage for Thursday's finale, when a Star As Businessman is born.

It's just another example of why Trump is Trump: He puts on a good show.

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