Composer, Talk Show Pioneer Steve Allen dies at 78
Original 'Tonight Show' host's influence still seen in modern era
October 31, 2000

By Richard Natale

Steve Allen, the original host of "The Tonight Show" who is credited with writing 50 books and 3,000 songs, died of a heart attack Monday night in Encino, Calif., at the home of his youngest son. He was 78.

The prolific comic personality was a playwright and performed on radio, stage and films, but he is best known for his TV work.

In the 1950s Allen was a strong, frequent presence on TV, hosting his own shows and appearing on others. His style did not evolve greatly, but his ease with the ad-lib and his amiable, quirky sense of humor was widely appealing.

In the '50s, he also championed such renegade talents as Lenny Bruce and Jack Kerouac when they were taboo to most other broadcasters.

His inventive, wry, cerebral style of comedy influenced performers of this generation, most prominently Steve Martin and David Letterman.

Letterman on Tuesday said, "Steve Allen was an enormous influence on television. His early work is really the foundation for what latenight shows have become."

He and his wife, actress Jayne Meadows, were familiar faces on the Hollywood social scene and Allen also worked in national and Screen Actors Guild politics. At the time of his death, he was running for a SAG board seat; on Tuesday, Allen placed a full-page newspaper ad urging people to alert sponsors that "TV is leading children down a moral sewer."

The day before his death, Allen performed a one-man music and comedy concert before a sold-out crowd at Victor Valley Community College in Victorville, Calif.

His one big movie was the title role in "The Benny Goodman Story." He wrote such songs as "This Could Be the Start of Something Big" as well as the lyrics for film themes such as "Picnic," "Houseboat" and "Bell, Book and Candle."

Allen authored the short-lived Broadway musical "Sophie" based on the life of Sophie Tucker, a musical TV version of "Alice in Wonderland" and last year debuted a musical stage version of "A Christmas Carol" in Los Angeles, in which he played Scrooge.

Born in New York City on Dec. 26, 1921, Allen was the son of vaudeville performers. His father died when he was 18 months old and his mother, Isabelle (whose stage name was Belle Montrose), left him with her parents in Chicago while she toured.

The late Richard Kiley, a childhood friend, once said that Allen was raised in genteel poverty.

Later, Allen was moved around in a number of foster homes, attending more than a dozen different schools before graduating from high school in Phoenix. Suffering from asthma, he had to drop out of Drake U., where he had enrolled to study journalism.

He took a job at a local radio station, KOY, in Phoenix in 1942 and a year later was drafted into the Army but discharged after five months because of his asthma. He met and married Dorothy Goodman in 1943. They had three sons and divorced in 1952.

Allen and Wendell Noble, another KOY announcer, formed a comedy team. Both moved to Los Angeles and, in 1945, debuted a radio comedy show "Smile Time," which soon went national and lasted two years. In 1946, Allen printed the first of several volumes of verse, "Windfall."

His ease of improvisation came in handy when in 1948, he was hired by KNX radio to be a midnight deejay. His patter proved more interesting than the platters he played, and soon he was interviewing celebrities, playing piano and talking to his studio audience -- a format that formed the basis of what he would later do on TV.

By the late '40s his musical compositions were being recorded by Nat King Cole, Margaret Whiting and Perry Como. In 1949 he made his film debut as a deejay in the Fox musical "I'll Get By."

In 1950 CBS moved him to New York to transfer his radio program to TV. Making its debut on Christmas Day, the show ran Monday through Friday in the early evening. He soon added chores hosting "Songs for Sale," a weekly CBS amateur songwriting show and the 1953 show "Talent Patrol."

His brief Broadway career consisted of the lead in "The Pink Elephant," which debuted in April 1953 and closed after five performances. That same year he met performer Jayne Meadows. They were married in 1954 and had one son.

Local NBC station WNBT gave Allen a chance to host a latenight talkshow called "Tonight" and network executive Pat Weaver soon took the show national.

It introduced many of the conventions of the format, including an announcer (Gene Rayburn), a live band (led by Bobby Byrne and then Skitch Henderson), sketch comedies with members of his regular cast and musical and comedy discoveries such as Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Andy Williams, Shelly Berman, Jonathan Winters and Mort Sahl. While he was filming "The Benny Goodman Story," "Tonight" moved briefly to Los Angeles.

"The Steve Allen Show" debuted on NBC in June 1956 on Sunday nights opposite two popular series, CBS' "The Ed Sullivan Show" and ABC's "Maverick."

One of the show's most enduring clips occurred in July, when Elvis Presley appeared on the show and Allen, notorious for his anti-rock 'n' roll stance, had him sing to a real Bassett hound.

Though no real match for "Sullivan," Allen held his own. The primetime show introduced several versatile comedians, including Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Louis Nye, Bill Dana and Pat Harrington.

NBC dropped the show in 1960 and it was briefly picked up by ABC. Under the name "The Steve Allen Playhouse," Allen took the show into firstrun syndication, where it ran until 1964. For the next three years he presided over the gameshow "I've Got a Secret" on CBS and revived his latenight talkshow in syndication.

Allen became a prolific writer of fiction (short stories and novels) and nonfiction (addressing subjects like humor and politics). He transferred one novel, "The Wake," to the stage. "Sophie" debuted in 1963 and quickly closed.

Allen also appeared in several movies, such as "College Confidential," "The Big Circus" and "Warning Shot." He played himself in film such as "The Comic," "Heart Beat," "The Funny Farm," "Amazon Women on the Moon," "Great Balls of Fire," "The Player" and "Casino."

Allen considered running for Congress. He wrote tracts such as "Dialogues in Americanism," "Letter to a Conservative," and defended Bruce when the standup ran up against the law and censorship.

For four seasons beginning in 1977, the Public Broadcasting System ran Allen's series "Meeting of the Minds," which featured imagined debates with famous personages from the past, such as Charles Darwin and Attila the Hun.

And he continued to be a staple on comedy and variety shows, including a brief series on NBC in 1980. He also appeared on a brief series in syndication in 1989 called "Host to Host."

He is survived by Meadows; three sons from his first marriage, Stephen Jr., Brian and David; William Christopher, his son from his marriage to Meadows; 11 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.