By LYNN ELBER
LOS ANGELES – Steve Allen, the bespectacled, droll comedian who pioneered late night television with the original “Tonight Show” and wrote more than 4,000 songs and 40 books, has died at 78.
He died Monday night of an apparent heart attack at the Encino home of his son, Bill Allen, relatives said today.
“He said he was a little tired after dinner,” Bill Allen said. “He went to relax, peacefully, and never reawakened.”
In addition to starting the “Tonight Show,” Allen starred as the King of Swing in the 1956 movie “The Benny Goodman Story.” He appeared in Broadway shows, on soap operas, wrote newspaper columns, commented on wrestling broadcasts, made 40 record albums, and wrote plays and a television series that featured “guest appearances” by Sigmund Freud, Clarence Darrow and Aristotle.
His ad libbing skills became apparent in his early career as a disc jockey. He once interrupted the music to announce: “Sports fans, I have the final score for you on the big game between Harvard and William &Mary. It is: Harvard 14, William 12, Mary 6.”
Allen’s most enduring achievement came with the introduction of “The Tonight Show” in 1953. The show began as “Tonight” on the New York NBC station WNBT, then moved to the network on Sept. 27, 1954.
Amid the formality of early TV, “Tonight” was a breath of fresh air. The show began with Allen noodling at the piano, playing some of his compositions and commenting wittily on events of the day. He moved to a desk, chatted with guests, taking part in sketches, doing zany man-in-the street interviews.
Among his routines: parodying juvenile rock ‘n’ roll lyrics by reading them as if they were sublime poetry, and “The Question Man,” in which someone would give him an answer and he would guess the question – forerunner to Johnny Carson’s “Karnac.”
“It was tremendous fun to sit there night after night reading questions from the audience and trying to think up funny answers to them; reading angry letters to the editor; introducing the greats of comedy, jazz, Broadway and Hollywood; welcoming new comedians like Shelley Berman, Jonathan Winters, Mort Sahl and Don Adams,” he once said.
Allen’s popularity led NBC in 1956 to schedule “The Steve Allen Show” on Sunday evenings opposite “The Ed Sullivan Show” on CBS.
A variation of “Tonight,” the prime-time show was notable for its “Man in the Street Interview” featuring new comics Louis Nye (“Hi-ho, Steverino”), Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Pat Harrington and Bill Dana. The show lasted through 1961, the last year was on ABC.
Allen cut back his “Tonight’ duties to three nights a week when the prime-time show started. He left even that in 1956. He was replaced for a season by Ernie Kovacs, then NBC tried a new format in 1957, “Tonight! America after Dark.” It failed, and “Tonight” resumed with Jack Paar, followed by Carson in 1962.
Over the years, Allen maintained a busy career, making appearances in movies and TV series, often with wife Jayne Meadows, sister of the late “Honeymooners” star Audrey Meadows.
He wrote great quantities of songs, and several were recorded by pop vocalists. His most popular song was “This May Be the Start of Something Big.”
A self-styled advocate of “radical middle-of-the-roadism,” Allen often spoke out on political matters such as capital punishment, nuclear policy and freedom of expression. He once considered running for Congress as a Democrat.
Toward the end of his life, he spoke out against the increase of sexual content on television. In a speech last year, he said tabloid television talk shows have “taken television to the garbage dump.”
“There are moral failures in the marketplace,” he said.
Allen was proudest of his “Meeting of Minds” series, which appeared on PBS from 1976 to 1979. He moderated a panel of actors impersonating historic figures such as Galileo, Emily Dickinson, Cleopatra (played by Jayne Meadows), Charles Darwin and Attila the Hun, who explained their diverse philosophies.
Steve Allen came by his humor naturally; both his parents, Billy Allen and Belle Montrose, were vaudeville comedians. Steve was 18 months old when his father died, and his mother continued touring the circuits as a single.
Allen won a partial scholarship to study journalism but dropped out of college to work as a disc jockey and entertainer at radio station KOY in Phoenix.
Drafted in 1943, he was soon released because of asthma. He returned to KOY, and married his college sweetheart, Dorothy Goodman. They had three sons, Steve Jr., David and Brian, and divorced in 1952.
Allen moved to Los Angeles, where a midnight show on KNX brought him a small but enthusiastic audience and attracted national attention in 1950 when it was carried on the CBS network as a summer replacement for “Our Miss Brooks.” The networks were converting to television and he was invited to New York for “The Steve Allen Show,” which appeared five evenings a week on CBS.
At a dinner party in 1952, Allen was seated next to the beautiful actress Jayne Meadows. Uncharacteristically, he was speechless.
At the end of the evening, she turned to him and said: “Mr. Allen, you’re either the rudest man I ever met or the shyest.” His reddened face indicated the latter. They married in 1954.
When an interviewer asked Allen in 1985 how he managed to do so many creative things, he replied:
“I never asked myself that question. It would be like asking how my hair grows. The mystery of creativity is just that: it is a mystery, and particularly mysterious to me about myself.”
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