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'Celebrity Apprentice' recap: Marlee Matlin's million-dollar — er, $986,000 — night

April 4, 2011 |  7:45 am

NUP_143138_0094 I'm glad I'm not friends with any of the cast members on "Celebrity Apprentice."

I would have been broke by week two. No matter how lucrative you may think this Show Tracker blogger gig might be, it certainly doesn't pay enough to satisfy the continuous calls coming out from celebrities vying for Trump's approval as they compete for charity. First, $40,000 pizzas. And now, some sucker paid $470,000 for a bedazzled guitar, only for the team (and charity) he was supporting to lose. 

I have to say, I don't like this kind of episode. I prefer watching the now-fired Dionne Warwick struggling to operate a credit-card machine, or former teen idol David Cassidy sweating in a pizza kitchen. Or, in what seems to be a constant image of the season, Star Jones hunched over a laptop, fretting about the printed materials — the woman cares about her fliers! 

Then comes the telethon. Sure, they raise huge sums of money — this week, the contestants stunningly pulled in more than $1.5 million — which will be passed along to deserving charities. But it becomes an I-have-so-many-rich-friends-a-thon. The means lead to a good end, but it's just kind of disturbing to know that Meat Loaf blowing up at Gary Busey, or John Rich demanding his people bring in money like a callous sales manager somehow contributes to the greater good. 

But that's not what the game's about. It's a game. It's meant to be won. 

The ever-classy Richard Hatch reminded us of that after Jose Canseco departed the show, because, he said, his ill father had taken a turn for the worse. Hatch wondered aloud if Canseco actually left because he couldn't bring enough funds to appease the hard-driving Rich. 

On Sunday, Donald Trump assigned his contestants to make art and decorate hats to raise money for the project manager's charities. Rich, whose charity was St. Jude's Children's Hospital, led the men; Matlin, supporting the Starkey Hearing Foundation, led the women.

Both project managers pushed hard to bring in big bucks, and they brought it in. Rich, who has proved to be one of the most clever of the season, called up his Nashville connections and brought in some impressive donations — with a seemingly constant flow of $50,000 check after $50,000 check. At the end of the night, the men managed to bring in more than a whopping $600,000. And they were clearly confident as they entered the board room. They proffered a pact from Trump that whichever team won would get the other team's earnings too.

But, believe it or not, they didn't bring in enough to trump the women. The women were just $14,000 shy of hitting the million-dollar mark (a gap that Trump closed for them). An impressive sum that La Toya Jackson contributed to by offering a rare T-shirt of her brother's, Michael Jackson, which raised $99,000. (Yet if John Rich's guitar could get nearly half a million dollars, I would think a rare piece of Michael Jackson memorabilia could get more.)

Trump was in an awfully generous mood last night. He made another deal: Considering the unforeseen departure of Jose Canseco, would the women be willing the let the men skip the ax tonight?

Another sign that competition tops charity, the ever-shrewd Matlin made the call that the men should still have to face the chopping block. After the "hell" of the three firings in three weeks, she said, it's only fair that the men have to deal with a loss of their own. 

Trump's generosity continued — he asked the women to stay and help him make a decision (it was a first, he said, but it's not every day a team yanks in nearly a million bucks). Then the players' competitiveness continued too: The women said that Richard Hatch should go. He had brought in, by far, the least of the night. Rich, his project manager, had little sympathy for him too. It doesn't matter that he's a mere reality television star from what is a light year ago in reality TV years, or that he spent more than three years in prison for tax evasion. 

But the men thought the one to go should be Busey, an apparent wild man with a gnat's attention span and who offers mostly platitudes or an acronym for any occasion. (After Meat Loaf apologized after his blow up in the art studio, Busey said that Loaf "excelled to a level of dancing on a rainbow with no fear and no doubt." Beautifully said, whatever it means.) They said he didn't have the focus and lacked the drive that would be essential as the team gets winnowed down. 

Matlin offered a stirring defense of Busey. She said he was smarter than everyone knew, and was mysterious and waiting in the wings to pounce. But a cynic like myself could also see something much more calculated at play. The one who stayed was the wild card who can't be kept in check. The one shown the door was a man who's unscrupulous and knows what it takes to outwit, outlast, outplay.

Richard Hatch ought to know better than anyone what "The Apprentice" is, no matter how much money is raised for good charities. This isn't the Jerry Lewis telethon. This is "Survivor."

***

What do you think? Who had the best art? Would you pay $5,000 for Gary Busey's painting of a buffalo — or for a bottle finger-painted by Lil' Jon? Should it have been Busey going home instead of Richard Hatch, or was it wrong for the women to allow anyone to get the ax? Speak up!

— Rick Rojas

Photo: John Rich and Marlee Matlin sit down with Donald Trump in the boardroom on "Celebrity Apprentice." Credit: Douglas Gorenstein/NBC 

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