Bonnie Hunt’s life before show business tells you a lot about how she’s approaching her new weekday syndicated talk show.

Hunt – now a familiar face thanks to movie roles (“Jerry Maguire,” “Cheaper by the Dozen”), not-quite-good-enough-to-stick TV series (“Life With Bonnie” was the latest) and regular appearances as a talk show guest (she’s a David Letterman favorite) – worked as a nurse in a Chicago hospital’s oncology ward before making a break for Los Angeles.

Hunt already had established herself in Chicago’s Second City improv-comedy troupe (she’d sometimes bring her comedy colleagues back to the hospital after a show to entertain the patients). But it was words of encouragement from a dying man that actually sparked Hunt to leave her hometown and head for Hollywood.

“I had a patient before I came to California that made me promise him I would go to L.A. and try being an actress,” she said during the recent Television Critics Association press tour in Hollywood. “I said, ‘I can’t do that. I’d go there and fail and have to come back and beg for my nursing job, and I’d be all humiliated.’ And he says, ‘Bonnie, I only have a few weeks to live. One of my biggest regrets is that I feared failure, so I want you to promise me that after I’m gone, you’ll go to California and you’ll fail many times.'”

“After he passed away, I gave my notice, because I gave him my word, and I came out here, and I failed many times. I’ve learned from all of them and lived through all of them, and they’ve all made me better at what I do. That was a gift that man gave me, a real gift.”

That Hunt would now head in the direction of daytime talk is no surprise, given the premise of “Life With Bonnie,” in which she played a local-TV talk personality.

Though the character had a home life, Hunt and her longtime writing and producing partner, Don Lake, found themselves gravitating toward the talk-show sequences.

“It’s where we felt more comfortable, because of our improvisational backgrounds,” she said. “We met and started at the Second City in Chicago, and we’ve been trying to get back to that job ever since.”

Lake plays a likable sidekick role on “The Bonnie Hunt Show,” which will necessarily feature some of the celebrities-pitching-projects bookings that power other TV talk shows. But, like “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” it also revels in the real.

Last Thursday’s show featured Hillary Duff (one of Hunt’s “Cheaper by the Dozen” co-stars), but also two pals splitting kidneys. Also – and here’s the Hunt difference, one reason Letterman loves her almost as much as most TV critics – she brought on a woman who had slammed her in a pre-premiere focus group to try to turn the woman’s opinion.

“We will have regular people and then the alien life form of celebrity,” Hunt said. “We will have both.

“Whenever (Don Lake and I) drive on the (studio) lot, we always look at each other and say, ‘Oh, security didn’t stop us. What a thrill.’ We also get a thrill out of the famous people we run into on a daily basis, and we want to be able to share that. It’s really fun.'”

Jim Paratore, president of Telepictures Productions, which also makes and distributes “Ellen” and “TMZ,” said Hunt brings a natural, nurturing curiosity to the set every day.

“She’s a celebrity in her own right, but she’s also a true fan of the business,” Paratore said. “And I think that genuine enthusiasm for the business is contagious. She’s also someone who cares a lot about real people and stories and storytelling. And she will showcase real people’s stories in a way that’s very compelling.

“You have to remember that Bonnie’s more than a performer. She’s a producer, a writer, a director. When you wrap it all together, she’s a storyteller, and sometimes she tells those stories herself in the first person, and it’s funny to listen to. But she also gets inside of other people’s heads and gets the story out of them. I think that’s one of the things that attracted us to Bonnie in the first place. Not everyone who is a performer can do this. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

“When you’re out there on the set, you are writing, producing, directing all in your head in real time at that moment in time, and there are few people that have the skill set to do that, and Bonnie does.”

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