Sharon Osbourne, John Walsh | Michael Jackson | The Dells | Kirk Douglas | Richard Belzer | Cyndi Lauper

Talk Show Chaos: 'Sharon Osbourne' Lays Off 20; 'John Walsh' Over?

The TV talk show world is having some big problems tonight.

"The Sharon Osbourne Show," according to my sources, is in trouble. They laid off twenty staffers Friday afternoon. The show tapes in Los Angeles and has been plagued by low ratings and inconsistent programming.

When I called to confirm the firings, a show source snapped: "Why don't you call NBC and ask them when they're firing everyone from 'The John Walsh Show'? It's being cancelled next week."

In fact, the Walsh show is on its last legs. "There are just rumors," said an NBC source ominously. "It hasn't been announced officially. You know rumors." A spokesman for the Walsh show, however, said that it will not be cancelled.

Trouble at both of these talk shows is indicative of the volatile nature of the competitive business of chitchat. It's one reason perhaps why Oprah Winfrey widened her arena this year and started doing her own take on “personal tragedy,” a subject area she avoided in the past.

The Osbourne show has also been hobbled by bad station placements and time periods. On the other hand, another talk show produced by Warner Telepictures, "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," looks like it has the makings of a hit.

During the summer I wrote in this space that Osbourne was headed possibly toward a Jenny Jones-type effort with lots of salacious stories. Warner Telepictures said that wasn't true and indeed Osbourne abandoned that quickly. "Now they just do B-level celebrities," said a source.

Monday's show, for example, right in the middle of November sweeps, featured such lackluster guests as comedian Andy Dick, the Wau Wau Sisters, TV actress Sherri Shepherd, and the stars of MTV's "Rich Girls."

"The John Walsh Show" is the latest offering from TV personality Walsh, who hosted "America's Most Wanted" and caught a lot of fugitives because of his broadcasts. Walsh rose to fame years ago when his young son Adam was tragically kidnapped and found dead.

Jacko's Bail Thanks to Reputed Mobster?

Michael Jackson's finances are a little better than we thought. That may be because Miami loan king Al Malnik is on his side.

I am told that Malnik was instrumental in a recent restructuring of Jackson's finances — no mean feat considering his tumultuous history. I am also told that Jackson's ability to pay his $3 million bail and multimillion legal bills may come from Malnik's largesse and interest in his career.

On the new "Greatest Hits" album, Malnik's name is one of the few who are mentioned under "special thanks" from the singer.

Malnik was the lawyer for late mobster Meyer Lansky, and when Lansky died in 1983, Reader's Digest called Malnik the mobster's "heir apparent," a moniker that has been repeated frequently.

Malnik has become very close to Jackson in recent years. And according to my sources, he's loaned Jackson money — lots of it.

The 69-year-old lawyer is the owner of a famous restaurant called The Forge in Miami. But his real business is loaning money — just what Jackson needs right now.

Malnik's firm, Title Loans of America, is a national chain of loan stores that makes money from the interest charged on quick cash offered to people who need it fast, according to The Palm Beach Post.

The New York Times reported in 2000 that Malnik was cited by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission in 1980 and 1992 as "a person of unsuitable character."

Malnik is popular on the Miami social scene with his new wife Nancy, and he has always denied mob ties. He was arrested and tried in April 1969 for income-tax evasion, but was subsequently acquitted, according to The Miami Herald.

Calls to Malnik at The Forge went unreturned.

At Last! The Dells Enter the Rock Hall of Fame

It was very nice to get a call from Suzan Evans, head of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, yesterday morning. She knew that I was particularly interested in making sure the Dells, the longest-running R&B group with original members, were finally inducted. It had been a major point of our lunch last month.

"Good news," she said. Marvin Junior — the magnificently gifted, 70-year-old lead singer — finally gets his due along with the rest of the group. I can only hope they perform "Stay in My Corner" at the ceremony on March 15, 2004.

The rest of the inductees include some whom I applaud, others I might question. There are still no women on the list. But Traffic, a very important group, finally made it. "John Barleycorn Must Die" was a watershed album, as was "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys." It's about time.

Of course George Harrison was voted in. ZZ Top and Jackson Browne are of considerably less interest to me, but the others are good enough that I won't mind.

The Rock Hall, Evans said, is indeed actively interested in giving financial help to rock artists who are in need of medical and living expenses. I have already contacted the friends of Mike Smith, lead singer of the Dave Clark Five, and advised them to call Evans immediately.

If there are other musicians out there from any and all acts in the rock era who need help or information, you can contact this column or Evans directly through Wenner Media or Atlantic Records in New York.

Don't be shy; they have a lot of money to give away if the request is substantiated.

And no, Michael Jackson's legal bills cannot be reimbursed by the Foundation.

Kirk Douglas, After Midnight

Nothing stops legendary actor Kirk Douglas. Well past 80, and survivor of a massive stroke, Douglas continues to astound.

He visited Elaine's last night with his wife Ann and publicist Bobby Zarem. He was still there after midnight, meeting and greeting Bravo's James Lipton, The New York Times' Elvis Mitchell, mother-daughter mystery writers Mary and Carole Higgins Clark, Chris Noth, Alec Baldwin, John Savage, Brian Rooney, Rolling Stone writer Touré, director James Toback and so on and so forth. Not bad for a windy Thursday night!

Richard Belzer in 'Law and Order': Shopping

On Wednesday night, the Creative Coalition got a $10,000 donation thanks to Danny Rodriguez, New York City's Singing Cop. At the Coalition's very creative Spotlight Awards gala, Rodriguez handed construction mogul Steven Fisher a check for 10K, which Fisher promptly turned over to the Coalition as a donation.

We're still not sure who gets the tax deduction, but the story behind the check is what matters. Rodriguez's career as an opera singer took off after September 11, mostly due to Fisher.

When Placido Domingo offered Rodriguez a chance to study with him, it meant taking a leave from the police department without pay. Enter Fisher — the guy also behind the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum — who wrote the cop a $10,000 check so he and his wife could eat something besides cat food while he studied.

Now Rodriguez has a big career with albums and lots of concert appearances around the world.

You can imagine there wasn't a dry eye in the house when this story was told, especially since Fisher and his wife dedicate their charitable work to their 12-year-old son, whom they lost this year.

But the Coalition event wasn't all tears. The awards ceremony was preceded by two hours of upscale shopping.

Rather than have the usual dinner gala with rubber chicken and a gift bag, the coalition got really creative. They set up the highest-end duty-free indoor mall in history, put out huge Kenneth Cole satchels for the patrons and then gave them point tickets to exchange for goodies.

So there were the Coalition's movie-star co-president Tony Goldwyn (he shares the job with Joey Pantoliano, but he's in L.A. shooting "The Handler"), Richard Belzer of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and his beautiful wife Harlee McBride as well as "Knots Landing" alum Michele Lee, Showtime chief Matt Blank, former governor-in-the-running Andrew Cuomo, Silvercup Studios owner Stuart Suna and a lot of well-heeled people doing their own version of "Supermarket Sweep."

The stuff was pretty good: 400-thread-count sheets from Wamsutta, Wusthof steak knives, Paul Mitchell hair products, delicious varieties from The All Natural Peanut Butter Co., products from L'Occitane en Provence, Elini Watches, Godiva, Clifford and Harry Potter books from Scholastic, electric Zenvy scooters and Camacho cigars.

The shopping was so intense that it was nearly impossible to direct the crowd to the actual Spotlight Awards ceremony. But once we got seated, the heroic and impossibly cheerful Christopher Reeve presented Phil Donahue with a First Amendment Award.

Fisher, John Paul DeJoria and AmeriCares each got their Spotlight Awards.

As for Rodriguez, the Singing Cop is no longer walking the beat.

"I'm completely vested," he reported, which means his retirement transfer to full-time performer means he'll get a pension.

Weekend: Having Fun With Cyndi Lauper

Cyndi Lauper still just wants to have fun, but when you hear her "At Last" album, you will too.

Early reports during the week from SoundScan indicate that Lauper will have her biggest hit in 15 years when the numbers are tallied on Monday.

Jerry Stiller was at the Actors Fund dinner this week, along with Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson, but guess who works the most? Stiller, who's been a celebrity with his wife and partner Anne Meara for 40 years, is a regular on CBS's "King of Queens" and a cult figure from "Seinfeld."

He's more popular now than even when Stiller and Meara were "Ed Sullivan" regulars.

"It keeps the capillaries going," he quipped about the effect of so much work. On "Queens," by the way, he gets two weeks on and two weeks off so he can come home to New York. In all their years working in Hollywood, Stiller and Meara have never had an apartment there...

Finally: Did anyone hear David Gest do a telephone interview on Fox News Channel about Michael Jackson? He sounded clear and coherent, with none of the so-called brain damage he supposedly suffered at Liza Minnelli's hands.

I hear he's producing a Doobie Brothers New Year's Eve concert in Hawaii, and has managed to fast-talk the group into playing for free. You gotta love this guy's endless chutzpah!