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Letterman's Long Absence Is Starting to Worry Fans

Late Show viewers are being held hostage!

Fourteen guest hosts (counting Luke Wilson last night) have subbed for David Letterman since he took ill with a bad case of shingles in late February. And they've generally done a good job for people with no experience hosting a late-night show.

But this week, after sitting through a passable Paul Shaffer on Monday and an oddly disconcerting Bill Cosby on Tuesday, the guest-host thing is getting old.

And on Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards, some of Dave's fans are beginning to wonder if their hero intends to return at all. Undoubtedly adding to their uncertainty is the fact that they have heard nothing from Dave himself.

The intensely private Late Show host isn't given to issuing public statements even at the best of times. And this time around, he has chosen to maintain total silence since he took ill. The few statements that have come out on his behalf have come only from his publicists or his doctor.

Yesterday marked four weeks since Bruce Willis stepped in at the last minute Feb. 26 as the first sub.

If Dave's absence stretches to five weeks, it will just about equal the time he was absent for emergency quintuple bypass surgery in January and February 2000.

But insiders say he's anxious to come back, although an exact date for his return is impossible to determine just now.

"Dave will be back -- we just don't know when," said a spokesman for Letterman.

And the medical books confirm that shingles around the eyes can be a stubborn condition that can take weeks to throw off.

Quite likely, according to the medical texts, it's the pain and discomfort associated with a condition like Dave's that is preventing him from returning to work just yet.

"Obviously, we want him back in the chair as soon as he's ready, but his health comes first," a CBS spokesman said yesterday.