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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 said.

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 liberalism.

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 is."

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 Mr. Allen's.

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":

Zhivago! Zhivago!

Whenever I'm sick

Zhivago! Zhivago!

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 the 1970's.

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.

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