Interview: Leno “got a face full of gas” before being burned


Jay Leno is brushing off what would be a life-changing event for most of us. In interviews with People and NBC’s The Today Show Wednesday, Leno passed off the crisis as little more than a head cold. Despite suffering second-and third-degree burns to his face and his arms and hands, he joked through both interviews: “I had to catch on fire to get on The Today Show!”, he said.

For the first time, we know exactly what happened. Leno, who writes a column here at Hagerty, was working on his 1907 White steam car when disaster struck. The White uses gasoline to heat the burners to make steam, and the fuel line was clogged. Leno was underneath the car, examining the system when he told his friend to blow some air through the line to clear it. “And then poof, I got a face full of gas, and the pilot light jumped, and my face caught on fire.”

Fortunately Dave Killackey, the comedian’s longtime dear friend, was there to help. “You couldn’t even see his face,” Killackey told The Today Show. “He downplays it, but his face was engulfed. It was a wall of fire.”

Killackey bent down and grabbed Leno, pulling him in, and smothering the flames. “It was horrific,” he said, becoming more visibly emotional than Leno.

“I thought it was a bad Tinder date,” Leno joked. “I thought, ‘What’s going on here?’ He clutched me to his bosom.”

“It was horrible,” Killackey said. “In fact, he asked me, ‘How do I look?’ and I think I said, ‘Not good. I think this is going to be a bad thing.’ When the first two layers are peeling off right now, you know this is a real issue.”

Then, The Today Show said, “Leno then stunningly saw the doctor but drove home because he didn’t want his wife, Mavis, to worry. She took one look at him and said he had to go to the doctor the next morning, which ultimately resulted in a nine-day stay at the Grossman Burn Center in Los Angeles.

“Doctors had to scrape away layers of burned skin, but they said Leno never complained and was more worried about cheering up other patients.” Leno took one condolence call after another, including one from President Joe Biden, who had recently been on Leno’s “Jay Leno’s Garage” TV series.

One thing we learned: Leno is as humble as he appears to be on TV. “I don’t want to be one of those people, ‘Oh, I have all these cars (204, plus 168 motorcycles) and a beautiful house and look what happened to me!‘” Leno said. “People would be like, ‘Shut up!'”

Leno was back performing two weeks after the incident (“We’ll have two kinds of comedy tonight—regular and extra crispy!”), but looking at his schedule, he won’t be on the road for his formal concert series until January 7 at the Cerritos Center in Cerritos, California, then two days later, a show in Alabama. But he is scheduled to do his weekly show at the Comedy and Magic Club December 18 and 31, where he performed after his release from the burn center.

Leno, 72, is still a workhorse. Perhaps that’s because of a deal he and wife Mavis reportedly worked out years ago: Money Leno makes on TV goes into the bank, and money he makes from standup goes into his car collection.

As far as the way he now looks—amazingly normal, which suggests the Grossman Burn Center knows what they’re doing with those hyperbaric chambers—he was never concerned. “When you look like me, you don’t really worry about what you look like,” he said. “Look, if I’m George Clooney it’s going to be a huge problem, but they said it would be all right, so my attitude is I trust people who are the best to do what they do.”


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    Glad to hear that Jay is okay, doing well and was not seriously injured…I enjoy his car videos, he seems like a really nice, decent guy and he is one of the very few celebrities that I would actually like to meet…

    Chuck you are right. Jay is awesome and a true star. Glad he is bouncing back. Hope to see him or his car collection some day.

    I was lucky enough to have a motorcycle featured on Jay’s Garage, and in the course of one morning – and the lunch that he invited me to – I got to spend some time in conversation with Jay. He was open, warm, casual, and vastly knowledgeable. Every good thing you’ve heard about him is true. Jay, I’m glad to hear that you’re back in the garage. And I’ve gotta say: I like my comedy extra crispy.

    Not to speak ill… but I’ve had sunburns that left more damage… and as a Nurse… never seen “third degree” burns heal like this. But he’s my hero car wise….. love his videos and attitude. You Go Jay!!!

    Everyone in the car community has a special feeling for Jay. He is the “car guy”!
    I am sure his injuries were worse than he will ever admit, but that’s Jay. Just glad he is doing well.

    More true of Jay than you may know from personal experience. Back in the early 90’s, I was riding my 72 Kawasaki H2 with an acquaintance who also had a 72. We dropped down off of old Topanga Canyon Bl onto Mulholland Highway on a trip to the Rock Store when my buddy’s H2 just quit. We pulled over to make a fix and a rider who was traveling the other direction started to stop and make a U-Turn to assist us. For his trouble, he got T-Boned by a rider behind him. The rider doing the T-Boning was on a rat case old Honda. The guy who got T-Boned was on an immaculate Vincent Rapide. We both ran out to assist the downed rider. My buddy picked the rider up. I pick up the bike and (aside from the obvious injury to the rider), was heart broken that for his trouble, such a beautiful bike was dented up as well. We got the rider’s helmet off and who do you think it was? It was Jay. He was more worried about his bike than his banged up leg (cast and all on the Tonight Show for a month). He told the guy who popped him that it was okay and he could simply leave. I thought that extraordinarily generous but again, that’s Jay for you. The ambulance finally came and my acquaintance who fancied himself an amateur comic said to Jay “thanks for stopping”. Without missing a beat, Jay looked up and said “glad I could help”.
    As a MC rider, I’ve seen him many times at the Rock Store, The Queen’s English Car Show and the Hansen Dam ride. One of the nicest guys I’ve had the privilege to know…………………………

    We dont see much US TV in South Africa but we watch all the U tube coverage we can get of Jays Garage I really enjoyed the Merlin start up feature. We are all so happy that he is back in the saddle again.
    Regards from South Africa.

    Jay thinking of his wife and going home to get her is definitely something that shocked me. I would have probably asked a friend to pick my wife up and stayed at the hospital.

    So sorry he was unable to get the “George Clooney” model but I’m sure he’ll do all right anyway. :^)

    I had the opportunity to meet Jay and spend some time speaking with him when my ‘02 Thunderbird was featured on his show several years ago. He truly is a warm and friendly guy; no pretense and genuinely interested in meeting people and learning their story. So glad that he’s doing well.

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