DATE: Wednesday, March 19, 1997             TAG: 9703190049


TYPE: Column 

SOURCE: By Larry Bonko, Television Writer

DATELINE: NEW YORK                          LENGTH:  104 lines


SURE ENOUGH, it was Mujibur of Mujibur and Sirajul, standing behind the counter of a cramped gift store on Broadway, selling I-love-New-York ceramic mugs and other kitsch irresistible to tourists.

Frankly, I was surprised to see him there, as were Josh Craig, 21, and Philip Lapar, 19, a couple of college kids from North Carolina State U. who were checking out New York City on spring break.

I mean, we all assumed that Mujibur Rahman and Sirajul Islam had gone on to bigger and better things since David Letterman in 1993 discovered them working next door to the theater in which he does the ``Late Show'' for CBS. Lettermen put the men on camera briefly on Sept. 14, 1993 during a ``Let's Meet the Neighbors'' segment when they cheerfully agreed to pose for passport photos.

Mujibur and Sirajul connected with Letterman's viewers. Two stars were born. Before long, Letterman was packing them off to Niagara Falls to begin a 12-city coast-to-coast tour as official goodwill ambassadors of the ``Late Show.''

Dressed in dark suits and ties, they spread goodwill in Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, at Mount Rushmore. Dave to M&S: ``How did you guys like Niagara Falls?'' M&S: ``Very nice.''

They acquired an agent who helped them secure parts in three films and several TV commercials. Mujibur and Sirajul still work for Letterman. It appears that they are on their way to the fame and fortune that only America's pop culture can bestow on the unsuspecting.

So, why have they kept their day jobs behind the counter of K&L's Rock America Inc., home of New York City's rockingest T-shirts and gift items? (You can order the Mujibur and Sirajul ``Late Show'' tour T-shirts for $16.95, plus $5 shipping, by writing to 1705 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10019).

They keep their day jobs because they are wise, well-educated men who know their opportunities in show business could evaporate whenever Letterman's writers, Letterman himself or casting directors grow tired of seeing their smiling faces.

A career in show biz?

``I don't want that,'' said Mujibur. Remembering that he came to the United States, to Astoria in the borough of Queens, in 1984 with very little money, Mujibur is reluctant to give up the steady paycheck at Rock America for the caprice of films or TV.

``I've known ups and downs,'' he said.

For the moment, his life is up. It took a little dip in 1995 when Letterman was criticized by a Bangladeshi group for exploiting Mujibur and Sirajul - for making fun of immigrants from that country.

Nonsense, said Mujibur.

Of Letterman's critics, he says, ``Those guys jealous.'' He tends to omit verbs from his sentences.

While Letterman's writers do not call on their neighbors as much as they did in the past - could that be why the ``Late Show'' ratings are slipping? - Mujibur and Sirajul still pop up in skits and walk-ons.

Letterman included them in his third prime-time special last month. When the ``Late Show'' packed off to San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and London, he brought Mujibur and Sirajul along with him.

Ever wonder about these two? Allow me to fill you in. Mujibur is 41, married, the father of three. He has two degrees including a master's in political science. His fraternity: Sigma Chi Alpha Beta.

His hobbies? ``My hobby is to help people,'' he told author Michael Cader (``Dave's World: The Unofficial Guide to the Late Show''). ``I respect and love people of all ages from the beginning of my life.''

Sirajul, 38, is also married and a father. One daughter. He has a master's degree in literature.

Mujibur is pleasant and patient, a man who never tires of hearing the same questions from the customers who walk Rock America's narrow aisles. Lapar and Craig, in the Big Apple from Raleigh, N.C., fired off the question that is most often asked of Mujibur and Sirajul.

What's Dave really like?

``Dave very nice guy. Great man.'' Lapar and Craig drove to New York City in the hope of seeing Letterman in the flesh in the Ed Sullivan Theater, which is three doors down from Rock America. They should have checked first. He was on vacation last week.

The only bit of entertainment they found at 5:30 p.m. at 53rd and Broadway, when Letterman tapes his show, was Harv from Ranch 1 Chicken, singing about the menu.

``Best grilled-chicken sandwich anywhere on Broadway.''

With Dave out of town, they had to settle for a minor dose of Lettermania - a few minutes with Mujibur (Sirajul was off an errand) and a stroll around Mr. Letterman's neighborhood. The musical, ``Miss Saigon,'' is playing a block away. Right around the corner from the theater is Rupert Jee's Hello Deli.

Like Mujibur and Sirajul, Jee needs no introduction to the ``Late Night'' crowd. He won their hearts when he stormed Regis Philbin's office, claiming ``the little weasel owes me money.'' (Dave put him up to it).

He's not in the cast, not really on the CBS payroll, and yet we think of Jee as one of Dave's regulars - the same way we think of Sparky Mortimer, the 9-year-old who's covered the World Series and Super Bowl for the ``Late Show.'' And Manny, the Haight-Asbury hippie movie critic (he rates films as ``dank,'' ``schwag'' or ``diggity dank'').

They are like, well, family, and by now we see Mujibur and Sirajul as distant cousins from another land who can't stop raving about the fishing in Montana. ``Very nice.'' Or the size of the Grand Canyon. Also, ``very nice.''

It's been almost four years since sudden fame picked up Mujibur and Sirajul like some giant wave and swept them into our consciousness. Mujibur is still stunned by TV's impact, still amazed that people from 50 states and foreign countries comes to the gift store to find him and ask to be photographed with him.

``I cannot believe it. Only in America,'' said one of Letterman's goodwill ambassadors. It's a very nice thing that has happened to him. Very nice. ILLUSTRATION: [Color photos]

Mujibur Rahman and Sirajul Islam aren't awed by fame.

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