Monday, May 20, 2013 | 12:01 p.m.
Penn Jillette had his reservations about returning to Donald Trump’s boardroom on “Celebrity Apprentice.” After being treated to an ignominious firing by Trump last year during Season 5, in which he finished seventh, Jillette was biting in his criticism of the show and Trump.
But Jillette returned this season for the first “All-Star Celebrity Apprentice,” joining Trump’s wide-ranging cast of characters. Was it worth it? Measuring the experience in dollars, it was worth $$698,655, the amount Jillette raised this season for Las Vegas charity Opportunity Village.
Add that to the $300,000 Jillette raised during his first appearance on the show, and the speaking half of the great Penn & Teller show at The Rio has amassed nearly $1 million for the foundation that supports those with intellectual disabilities.
Jillette fell just a single step short of winning the “All-Star” version of the show. In Sunday night’s live season finale from New York, Trump selected country music superstar Trace Adkins as the champion.
The two went head-to-head to develop, market and sell a new signature ice cream flavor in the Walgreens Good & DeLish line. Each created a 60-second promotional video clip and were required to sell up to 50 tickets to a VIP event they organized at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.
The event was a wildly eclectic performance drawing Penn’s partner, Teller; Mr. Las Vegas Wayne Newton; Paris Las Vegas headliner Taylor Hicks; driving star Tony Stewart; and NFL quarterback Tim Tebow.
In the end, Jillette sold more of his flavor of ice cream, Vanilla & Chocolate Magic Swirtle, at Walgreens and Duane Reade (a drugstore subsidiary of Walgreens) across the country. But Trump also judged the pair on flavor, brand messaging, creativity of the marketing strategy, overall presentation and money raised through ticket sales of the event.
Adkins raised $1.5 million for the American Red Cross, his chosen charity, a figure that counts the $250,000 prize for winning the show’s championship. Lil Jon, one of the four finalists, was awarded $100,000 as one of the show’s fan favorites. That money went to the rap star’s chosen charity, the American Diabetes Association.
Through the competition, Adkins and Jillette became good friends who shared a clear mutual respect. Jillette even watched Adkins’ kids in New York on Saturday night, as Adkins was performing in Atlantic City and Penn & Teller were booked at MGM Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut.
“I feel really close to Trace, and it’s nutty because in past years, there was some real animosity,” he says. “That’s including with Trace. He and Piers (Morgan) hated each other and still hate each other. Annie Duke and Joan Rivers didn’t get along.”
Jillette was not familiar with everyone on the all-star cast when it was named last fall. Others he knew but grew to appreciate on a deeper level through the competition.
“Lisa Rinna, who I could not have picked out in a room, did not recognize the name as far as I knew, never seen her before, has become a very close friend. Both her and (her husband) Harry Hamlin are close friends now,” he said. “Gary Busey, I was thrilled to be around. I’ve known Gary for 20 years, but it was nice to be around him that much. You just can’t believe how much filterless stuff just flows out of Gary Busey.”
An unlikely bond was forged between Jillette and Stephen Baldwin.
“There are just people I have enjoyed talking to, and he is one of them,” Jillette says of Baldwin, who has crisscrossed the country giving motivational presentations at churches, including Central Christian Church in Las Vegas. “We are so deeply different but both very aware of the Bible. So the atheist and fundamentalist sat around talking scripture a lot of the time, which was pretty great.”
Unlike his first pass on the show, in which he termed the contest a “fake” competition, Jillette came away from his second spin with the show saying it remains true to the competition and the personalities of its star contestants.
“The first year, I was hesitant about how the story would be told. I didn’t really know how honest they were. And the shock of it is, ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ is the most honest reality show on TV,” he said. “Mr. Trump really does make the decision. I don’t know any example of an egregious creative editing. There are quibbles, but they are just quibbles.”
Raising money and awareness for a charity largely unknown to those living outside Las Vegas did make the effort worthwhile. Jillette, who is inarguably brilliant and strong-minded, softens when talking of his effort to support Opportunity Village. The workers there even made a special, Elvis-styled scarf for him to wear on Sunday’s finale.
“It’s wonderful to see the clients of Opportunity Village have been on TV so much. People recognize them, and they are thrilled,” Jillette says. “When I think of that, and what it means, it’s so hard for me not to cry.”