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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Comedian Jay Leno said on Thursday he felt he had been unfairly portrayed as the bad guy in NBC's late night talk-show wars with Conan O'Brien, and would work to repair his image.
Leno told Oprah Winfrey in a television interview that "nowhere in his wildest dreams" had he expected to be asked to take back his old job as host of "The Tonight Show."
Asked by Winfrey if he thought he had been unfairly cast in the media as the villain of the story, Leno answered: "Yeah, I think it's a little unfair. And I'm going to work hard to try and rehabilitate that image."
In his first major interview since the acrimonious reshuffle, Leno said NBC had asked him to do so only after O'Brien turned down moving his own version of "The Tonight Show" show to a later start time of just past midnight.
"Nowhere in my wildest dreams did I think they would ask me to go back. It just didn't seem plausible," Leno said of NBC.
Leno said he asked to be let out of his own contract soon after NBC said it was axing his prime-time "The Jay Leno Show" because of poor ratings and pressure from local affiliates.
But he said NBC told him he was still a "valuable asset."
Leno handed over "The Tonight Show", one of the most coveted jobs in late night U.S. television, to O'Brien in June 2009 after 17 years. But ratings fell under O'Brien's brief tenure and CBS rival David Letterman stole Leno's crown as the king of late night TV.
Leno portrayed NBC's decisions as business, not personal, and said he felt he had no reason to feel guilty about O'Brien's departure.
"It's really just a matter of dollars and cents. If the numbers had been there, they wouldn't have asked me (back). And they only asked me after Conan turned down moving it back half an hour."
Leno said the whole episode was "hugely embarrassing" and acknowledged he would have to work hard to recapture his audience when he takes back "The Tonight Show" on March 1.
"I think we've got our work cut out for us. I think there's a lot of damage control that has to be done... The only way you can fix these things is to try and do good shows, not be bitter, not be angry or upset about whatever," he said.
Leno said he felt no animosity toward O'Brien, who hosted his last show last Friday and is barred from launching another TV project until September.
"I felt really bad for Conan. I think it's unfair but TV is not fair. I thought it was unfair for me....I wasn't the reason. The reason was the ratings."
Reporting by Jill Serjeant: editing by Christine Kearney