Steve Allen, multitalented TV host, author, dies at 78

LOS ANGELES - Steve Allen, the droll comic who pioneered late night television with the original ''Tonight Show,'' composed more than 4,000 songs and wrote 40 books, has died at 78.

He died Monday night at the Encino home of his son, Bill Allen, the son said Tuesday.

''He said he was a little tired after dinner. He went to relax, peacefully, and never reawakened,'' Bill Allen said. His father's quiet, unexpected death followed a ''long, full and extraordinary life.''

Steve Allen's wife, actress Jayne Meadows, was ''distraught'' at the loss of her husband of 46 years, Bill Allen said. She had stayed home while her husband came to visit their son and grandchildren.

Doctors believe a heart attack was the cause of death, according to his son.

''I've known him for almost 60 years. ... He is one of the great renaissance figures of today,'' comic Art Linkletter said.

''He had a magnificent mind. He was a kind, gentle, warm man. He would be embarrassed for me now, because I can't put into words the way I felt about this man. I loved him,'' entertainer Dick Clark said.

In recent years, Allen used his celebrity to lobby against what he saw as increasing and dangerous vulgarity and violence in media. He was featured in a series of newspaper advertisements calling on viewers to demand more family friendly shows, including an ad that ran Tuesday in his hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times.

Allen's versatility made him a force in music, theater and television and more for decades.

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, wrote plays and a television series that featured guest appearances by Sigmund Freud, Clarence Darrow and Aristotle.

His skill as an ad libber became apparent in his early career as a disc jockey in Phoenix. He once interrupted the playing of records 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.''

Steve Allen came by his humor naturally; both his parents, Billy Allen and Belle Montrose, were vaudeville comedians. Their son was born in New York City on Dec. 26, 1921, during a brief respite from their travels. Steve was 18-months-old when his father died, and his mother continued touring the circuits as a single.

The boy grew up in other people's homes, mostly with his mother's family in Chicago, the Donahues. He remembered the place as ''a rooming house with the smell of cabbage cooking.''

Allen won a partial scholarship to study journalism at Drake University, but severe asthma caused him to transfer to Arizona State Teachers College in 1942. After a few months he dropped out 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 and began offering his comedy and music on local radio.

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 midnight show on KNX brought Allen 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.

In 1952, Allen was invited to a dinner party at which he 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 began dating and married in 1954. They had one son, William (Bill).

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.

''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, although the last year was on ABC.

Allen cut back his ''Tonight' duties to three nights a week when the primetime 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 Johnny Carson in 1962.

Over the years, Allen maintained a busy career, making appearances in movies and TV series, often with his wife. Her sister, the late Audrey Meadows, portrayed the long-suffering Alice to Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden on ''The Honeymooners.''

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, but decided against it.

He joined with the Parents Television Council, a nonprofit, conservative group based in Los Angeles, to speak out in a series of ads against TV content. In a speech last year, he said tabloid television talk shows such as the ''Jenny Jones'' show 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.

''He was one of the most intellectually curious men I have ever known'' and the show allowed him to explore the world, said Bill Allen in Encino, 19 miles west of downtown Los Angeles.

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.''

Besides his wife and children, Allen is survived by 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

In addition to private services, which had yet to be planned, the family intends to organize a service at which Allen's friends in the industry can share stories about him, his son said.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment