[Unable to display image]
Steve Allen, Comedian Who Pioneered Late-Night TV Talk Shows, Is Dead at 78
By RICHARD SEVERO/The New York Times
Steve Allen, the versatile entertainer who created the "Tonight" show for NBC
in 1953 and was widely regarded as a founding father of the late-night talk
show, died on Monday at the home of his son Bill in Los Angeles. He was 78
and lived in Los Angeles. The cause was apparently a heart attack, his family
In more than 50 years in show business, Mr. Allen demonstrated his talents in
many areas. An accomplished pianist who never learned to read music, he
composed more than 5,000 songs, some of them hits. Among them were "This
Could Be the Start of Something Big," "Impossible" and "Gravy Waltz." He
wrote the lyrics for some movie music, including ballads heard in "Picnic,"
"Houseboat" and "On the Beach."
He also wrote more than 50 books, all of them dictated into a small tape
recorder that he always carried. They ranged from poetry and novels to social
criticism, music, foreign affairs and, of course, humor. A new book, "Steve
Allen's Private Joke File," is to be published in December.
Mr. Allen was keenly interested in social justice and wrote pamphlets on a
variety of issues, including the problems facing migrant workers, as well as
capital punishment and nuclear proliferation. (He was opposed to both.) He
once considered running for Congress from California, calling his politics
"middle-of-the-road radicalism," which was his way of describing mid- century
He acted in several movies, among them "The Benny Goodman Story" (1955), in
which he played the title role, and was a master of ceremonies or a guest on
many television programs, including several versions of "The Steve Allen
Show" as well as "I've Got a Secret" and "What's My Line?"
But he was probably best known for the humor that seemed to tumble
effortlessly from his lips in television appearances, accompanied by a
high-pitched giggle. Mr. Allen believed that everyone had a "silly center"
and that no one should try to suppress it.
So when he was told that he had colon cancer in 1986, he said he would list
his condition as critical: "critical of nurses, critical of doctors, critical
of the food, critical of the prices." When the hospital listed his condition
as stable, Mr. Allen said, "You know what the condition of the average stable
In his heyday on the "Tonight" show, from 1954 to 1956, Mr. Allen once
delighted his fans by going out on the street dressed as a New York City
policeman, hailing a taxi, hurling a huge salami into the back seat and
ordering the driver to "take this to Grand Central Station." He read an
assortment of things to the studio audience, finding much humor in the
letters to the editor of The Daily News. He was especially fond of letters
with signatures like "Disgusted, from the Bronx."
He loved practical jokes. On one occasion he put out a record album of piano
music called "The Discovery of Buck Hammer." The cover featured a photograph
of a pianist whose talent was said to have been discovered posthumously.
Critics loved the album, only to learn later that all the playing had been
He would invite his studio audience to suggest song titles and then devise a
lyric instantly. Once someone shouted the name of the best seller of the day
"Dr. Zhivago," which led Mr. Allen to sit down at the piano and sing to the
tune of "Chicago":
Whenever I'm sick
You cure me real quick.
Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen was born on Dec. 26, 1921, in New
York to parents who were part of a vaudeville team. His father, Carroll,
worked under the name Billy Allen and was straight man to his mother, the
former Isabelle Donohue, whose stage name was Belle Montrose. His father died
when he was 18 months old.
Mr. Allen spent his formative years in Chicago, living with his mother's
family, whom he later described as "sarcastic, volatile, sometimes
disparaging, but very, very funny." In 1941 he briefly attended Drake
University in Des Moines on a journalism scholarship and then Arizona State
Teachers College. He was drafted into the Army but was discharged after five
months because of recurring attacks of asthma.
After his discharge, he started working in radio, first in Phoenix, then in
Los Angeles. In 1947 he was hired by KNX, the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles,
to be a disc jockey. Fans were greatly attracted to his chatter, and he soon
spent more time talking than he did playing records. As many as a thousand
people would visit his studio broadcast each Saturday night, and Mr. Allen
would interview them as well as celebrity guests.
He made a bet with Frankie Laine, the singer, that he could write 50 songs a
day for a week. He remained in the window of a Hollywood music store and did
it, winning $1,000 from Mr. Laine. One of the songs, "Let's Go to Church Next
Sunday," was recorded by both Perry Como and Margaret Whiting.
CBS invited him to Manhattan and gave him his own half-hour television show
from 1950 to 1952. He moved to NBC in 1953 as host of "Tonight." The
predecessor of what would become Johnny Carson's long-running "Tonight," it
began as a local program on WNBT, which was then the New York outlet for NBC.
It moved to the network 15 months later.
In the beginning the show's regulars included Gene Rayburn, the announcer,
and Skitch Henderson, the orchestra leader. Somewhat later, Mr. Allen
discovered and promoted the singing talents of Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme
and Andy Williams. There were many stunts; he had his hair cut on one show,
sold hot dogs on another and tried out weight-reducing equipment on still
another. He frequently took his microphone into the audience.
Mr. Allen cut back his "Tonight" schedule in the summer of 1956 to begin "The
Steve Allen Show," which NBC offered as a prime- time Sunday night competitor
to "The Ed Sullivan Show" on CBS and "Maverick" on ABC, and left late-night
television for good in January 1957.
Among the comedians whose careers flourished on "The Steve Allen Show" were
Don Knotts, who played a terminally nervous individual named Mr. Morrison;
Bill Dana, who appeared as a Latin astronaut named José Jiménez; Pat
Harrington, who was Guido Panzini, an Italian golfer; Tom Poston, the very
forgetful man; and Louis Nye, who played the always effete advertising
executive Gordon Hathaway and always called Mr. Allen "Steverino." The show
ran through the 1959-60 season and was in syndication throughout the 1960's.
"The Steve Allen Comedy Hour," with some of the "Tonight" regulars, ran on
CBS during the summer of 1967, and Mr. Allen was host of a similar variety
show on NBC in 1980 and 1981.
Besides performing, Mr. Allen generated many ideas for programs. One,
"Meeting of the Minds," offered imagined conversations between figures of the
past, among them Emily Dickinson, Galileo, Charles Darwin and Attila the Hun.
Mr. Allen acted as moderator. The program was seen on public television in
He also wrote the music and lyrics for "Sophie," a Broadway musical based on
the life of Sophie Tucker, which ran for only eight performances in 1963; the
book, music and lyrics for "Seymour Glick Is Alive but Sick," a revue
produced in 1982; and music and lyrics for songs in "Alice in Wonderland," a
musical produced on CBS in 1985.
Mr. Allen never stopped performing, making personal appearances and doing
radio broadcasts. In January 1995 he played the title role in a production of
"The Mikado" by the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players. In recent years he
began speaking out against what he saw as a rising tide of smut on
television, condemning shows that he felt had "taken television to the
garbage dump." At the time of his death he was completing a book on the
subject, "Vulgarians at the Gate."
Mr. Allen's first marriage, to Dorothy Goodman, ended in divorce. In 1954 he
married Jayne Meadows, the actress and sister of Audrey Meadows. In addition
to their son, Bill, he is survived by 3 sons from his first marriage, Stephen
Jr., Brian and David; 11 grandchildren; and 3 great-grandchildren.
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company
Syosset Home Page