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Former ‘Tonight’ host Jack Paar dies at 85

Late-night pioneer starred on NBC show from 1957-62
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jack Paar, the smart-alec comic who pioneered late-night talk on “The Tonight Show” in the 1950s and paved the way for Johnny Carson and others before walking away from television while still in his prime, died Tuesday. He was 85.

Paar died at his home in Greenwich, Conn., as a result of a long illness, said his son-in-law, Stephen Wells. Paar had suffered a stroke last year.

“The Tonight Show” became a talk show everybody talked about almost from Paar’s first night as host in 1957. After a young comic named Johnny Carson became host in 1962, Paar had a hugely popular prime-time talk show for three more seasons, then abruptly retired in 1965.

“Jack invented the talk show format as we know it: the ability to sit down and make small talk big. I will miss him terribly,” Merv Griffin said. “Not only was he a great friend, he was my beginning, just as he was everyone else’s.”

Carson said he was “very saddened” to hear of Paar’s death. “He was a unique personality who brought a new dimension to late night television.”

It was in July 1957 that Paar took over the flagging NBC late-night slot, some months after Steve Allen left with his variety show.

Late-night talk pioneer
“Like being chosen as a kamikaze pilot,” Paar wrote in “I Kid You Not,” a memoir. “But I felt sure that people would enjoy good, frank and amusing talk.”

They did. Viewers loved this cherubic wiseguy, someone once referred to as “like Peter Pan, if Peter Pan had been written by Mickey Spillane.”

Soon, everyone was staying up to watch Paar, then talking about his show the next day. Even youngsters sent to bed before Paar’s show parroted his jaunty catch phrase, “I kid you not,” with which he regularly certified his flow of self-revealing stories.

Just why Paar walked away from TV at age 47 would become an enduring source of conjecture, possibly even for Paar. He offered the explanation that he was tired and ready to do other things, and he stayed true to his word, other than a brief return in 1975 as one of several hosts on a rotating late-night roster at ABC.

Paar had kept mostly out of the public eye since the mid-1960s, engaging in business ventures and indulging his passion for travel.

Off the air, as on, Paar never stopped doing the thing he did best: talk.

“The only time I’m nervous or scared is when I’m NOT talking,” he told The Associated Press in 1997. “When I’m talking, I know that I do it well.”

From punch to pickled
Paar played host to Muhammad Ali when he was still known as Cassius Clay, to a pleasantly pickled Judy Garland, and to the outrageous pianist-composer Oscar Levant. Entertainers Paar championed included Jonathan Winters, Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby.

Paar’s circle of guests also included leading politicians, including Richard Nixon, who played the piano.

During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy made a triumphant appearance — so much so, that a few days after the election, Paar got a letter from Joseph P. Kennedy, the proud father, gushing, “I don’t know anybody who did more, indirectly, to have Jack elected than your own good self.”

A man of boundless curiosity and interests, Paar was charming, gracious and famously sentimental: He could shed tears, as he put it, just from “taking the Coca-Cola bottles back to the A&P.”

He could also be volatile, pettish and confounding. And never so much as in February 1960, when, in a headline-making outburst, he emotionally told his thunderstruck audience that he was leaving his show. It was the night after a skittish NBC executive had judged obscene, and edited out, a story by Paar where the initials “W.C.” were mistaken for “wayside chapel” instead of “water closet.”

A month later, the network managed to lure Paar back, and he was greeted with generous applause as he stepped before the cameras. Then he began his monologue on a typically cheeky note: “As I was saying, before I was interrupted ... "

Born to entertainBorn in Canton, Ohio, in 1918, Jack Harold Paar left school at 16 for a job as a radio announcer, and soon found success on various stations as a comic-disc jockey.

In the U.S. Army special services during World War II, he entertained troops in the South Pacific as a standup comedian. His specialty was poking fun at officers for an appreciative audience of enlisted men. (“I don’t care what you think of the colonel,” he would chide, “stop using your thumbs when you salute.”)

In 1947, a magazine poll chose him as “the most promising star of tomorrow,” but as the 1950s wore on, he had scored only as a temporary replacement on radio for Jack Benny and Arthur Godfrey, as a failed B-movie actor and a shortlived daytime TV personality.

Then, within weeks of his “Tonight” debut, he was being hailed as “one of America’s most popular indoor pastimes.”

The talkfest came to an end in 1965. By then Paar had traded in his “Tonight Show” desk for a Friday prime-time hour. But he had made no secret that his third season of “The Jack Paar Program” would be his last. With little fanfare and — against all odds — no tears, he signed off with his June 25 show.

“I have been — forgive me — I have been a success,” Paar summed up three decades later, still exhibiting his blend of modesty and brashness. Then he added puckishly, “I’m as amazed as you are.”

Paar’s survivors include his wife of more than 60 years, Miriam, and daughter, Randy, whom TV viewers came to know as a youngster thanks to Paar’s family-oriented tales and globe-spanning “home movies.”