Feb. 13, 2004 -- Ellen DeGeneres has pulled off what's been called one of the great show business comebacks of all time.
Watch Elizabeth Vargas' full report on 20/20
Staffers on the successful Ellen DeGeneres Show say it's like a party every day, with A-list stars like Tom Cruise, Gwyneth Paltrow and Britney Spears taking spots on her sofa for an interview. "It's the best job in the world." DeGeneres told ABCNEWS. "I'm really having the time of my life."
The hit brings quite a change from the late 1990s when her sitcom was cancelled and her life constant tabloid fodder. Now she's back in favor with the critics and fans alike.
"These friends are saying 'you know, they have friends who are stockbrokers and these guys are watching it at the office,' " said DeGeneres. "There are people that exercise, people that dance with me while I dance, a lot of a lot of animals watch … kittens that are up against the screen, puppies that are up against the screen watching me. Babies are fascinated by the show."
This past year has been an incredible one for DeGeneres, she enjoyed a hit HBO special and best selling comedy bookand has established herself as a viable talk show host.
DeGeneres reclaimed her position in Hollywood after a tough period, starting with her bold decision to reveal her homosexuality on the sitcom Ellen. The historic television moment generated awards and bomb threats. It turned off some viewers and scared away some sponsors. A year later, ABC cancelled the show
"It destroyed me," said DeGeneres. "For somebody who makes a living trying to make people happy and trying to please everybody and wanting so desperately to be loved. That's why anybody gets into this business. You know and, to all of a sudden feel like you're not only not loved — you're hated."
The show business press pounced on the pain, and then on the pleasure when DeGeneres began dating actress Anne Heche. But while their constantly chronicled romance bloomed, their careers did not — DeGeneres failed at a new sitcom and Heche appeared in box office bombs like the remake of Psycho.
"It was bad … and it was everything at once," said DeGeneres. "It was my career; it was a very public breakup."
But she said she's learned from the experience, and is now a more compassionate individual. "I know what it feels like to lose somebody that you love," said DeGeneres. "And I know what it feels like to get fired. And I know what it feels like for people not to pay attention to you."
Swimming Back to Success With Nemo
Through the tough times, DeGeneres maintained at least one fan, the writer for the character Dory in Finding Nemo which became the most successful movie of 2003. She said Dory was created with her voice in mind.
"He just heard the rambling and heard the kind of digression of the, the rhythm of my speaking," said DeGeneres.
The scene stealing blue Tang fish resembled the actress in other ways, Dory has a short term memory problem, and DeGeneres suffers a similar condition. "I do have ADD and in real life, I'm all over the place and can hardly focus," said DeGeneres. "If we were talking for, for more than an hour or so, I'd start drifting off … I can't sit still too long."
But she did wait three years for her talk show to make it on the air. She said it was tough to find a home for the series. "That was a hard sell. I mean they really — a lot of people didn't want to buy the show," said DeGeneres.
With men as the buyers, they were apparently leery of putting DeGeneres back on the screen, said Telepictures rep Jim Paratore. "They were reacting to the controversy around her publicity. Some of them, you know, had been involved at ABC stations with some of the outcry around her show at the time, and there was just a real brick wall response," said Paratore.
When buyers wanted to see an audition, DeGeneres complied. "Her response and her attitude was always whatever it takes I'll do it. And in that particular case, she called me back the next day and she said, 'I booked Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt and Alanis Morrisette. Is that good? That'll do," said Paratore.
She passed not only the audition, but also the first critical months on the air. She recently taped the shows 100th program before an audience thrilled to be a part of the celebration.
"I knew what I could do," said DeGeneres. "And I'm really proud that the show has turned out to be what I hoped it would be."
And the star says she's enjoying riding the latest "wave" of success in her career. "I'm riding it. I'm holding on to that surfboard. You know 'cause I know what this business is. It can also go away," said DeGeneres. "Right now, I feel the love. And it's amazing."