1921 - 2000
The death of entertainer Steve Allen has sent shockwaves through the US entertainment industry. And for good reason. Allen (who died Monday night of an apparent heart attack at his son's Encino, California home at the age of 78) was many things. Trailblazer. Songwriter. Comic. Author. Advocate. And most of all, just plain funny.
Allen (born Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen) was kicking around radio and local television, until he won his big break in 1953. NBC's New York station hired Allen as the host of a variety show after the late-night news. And it was a hit. So much so, the network took The Tonight Show national the following year. Allen simply did it all. He interviewed everyone from scientists to sous-chefs, sang, ad-libbed and carried an hour-long show, live, five days a week. In fact, most television historians credited Steve Allen with inventing the modern talk show format (the one his successors Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno use today. Another talk show host has always credited Allen with many of the stunts he uses on his own show today: David Letterman.)
In 1956, NBC gave Allen his own prime-time variety series. Though he usually lost the ratings battle against CBS' venerable Ed Sullivan, Allen's talent and stable of fresh comic newcomers (including Tom Poston, Don Knotts, Pat Harrington and Louis Nye) won him a large and loyal audience.
Overworked with doing two shows, Allen quit the "Tonight Show" in late 1956. The prime time series lasted until 1960 on NBC, and another year on ABC. Allen then hosted a syndicated series, but eventually left TV on a regular basis. He kept busy, however, with frequent TV and movie appearances, writing many books, ranging in topics from show business to social issues and fiction. He also was a prolific songwriter, with over 4000 songs to his name, including his theme This Could Be The Start Of Something Big. Allen also won acclaim for a public broadcasting series called Meeting of the Minds, which featured Allen interviewing costumed figures of history. It aired in the late 1970s and frequently featured his second wife, actress Jayne Meadows (sister of Audrey Meadows, the most-famous Alice Kramden of Honeymooners fame).
In recent years, the politically liberal Allen joined with conservative groups who complained about the amount of sex and violence on US television. When a reporter asked Steve Allen about his creative genius, he simply replied "The mystery of creativity is just that, a mystery." And like any good mystery, we enjoyed the exploits and genius of Steve Allen, right to the final chapter.
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