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Tom Smothers, half of the famed comedy and music duo the Smothers Brothers, dies at 86

Tom and Dick Smothers were never shy about sharing their support of civil rights and their opposition to the Vietnam War.
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Tom Smothers, half of the famed Smothers Brothers comedy and music duo that fought racism, the Vietnam War and television censors, died Tuesday from an aggressive type of cancer, his family said.

He was 86.

Smothers' passing at his home in Santa Rosa, California, was announced Wednesday by the family and the National Comedy Center.

“Tom was not only the loving older brother that everyone would want in their life, he was a one-of-a-kind creative partner," brother Dick Smothers, 84, said in a statement. "I am forever grateful to have spent a lifetime together with him, on and off stage, for over 60 years. Our relationship was like a good marriage — the longer we were together, the more we loved and respected one another. We were truly blessed.” 

Tom and Dick Smothers were never shy about using their platform to needle authority, in any way possible in staid, confrontation-averse 1960s media.

After it debuted in the fall of 1967, CBS famously pulled the plug on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in April 1969 because of their content consistently poking fun of the powerful and boosting Vietnam War critics and civil rights proponents.

At a 2019 event to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the firing, the pair still had a humorous take on their momentous roles in pop culture history.

“It’s really an honor to be honored in this way,” Tom Smothers told The Associated Press in 2019. “At least we’re both alive and not having someone speak for us. We can mumble our own way through.”

Looking back at the 1969 CBS termination, brother Dick said they believed their comedy was rather "benign" despite the backlash.

“Don’t tell a comedian not to say a certain word. For sure they’ll do it,” he said. “The funny thing is, I look back at those things. They’re so benign, but at the time they were volatile.”

The Smothers Brothers Show
Dick and Tom Smothers in 1965.CBS via Getty Images

But as recently as 2004, Tom Smothers said he wasn't sure American audiences could handle frank political discourse on prime-time TV.

Even as "dirty words are flowing, the sex is flowing and the violence," there's a dearth of social commentary, he said at the time.

Thomas Bolyn Smothers III was born on Feb. 2, 1937, on Governors Island in New York. He was the son of homemaker Ruth Remick Smothers and Army Maj. Thomas Smothers, who died in World War II as a prisoner of war of the Japanese.

After moving to suburban Los Angeles, both brothers graduated from San José State before embarking on their comedy and music career. They honed their craft at famed clubs such as San Francisco’s Purple Onion and New York’s Blue Angel.

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
Tom and Dick Smothers in 1966. CBS via Getty Images

Despite the brothers' early critical success, mainstream platforms still weren't keen on their folk music. Smothers recalled how it took a stroke of luck to get on “The Tonight Show,” then led by host Jack Paar.

“Paar kept telling our agent he didn’t like folk singers — except for Burl Ives,” Smothers said in 1964. “But one night he had a cancellation, and we went on. Everything worked right that night.”

After CBS dropped a curtain on them, the pair worked steadily for decades.

Tom Smothers played acoustic guitar in a Montreal hotel room in 1969 as John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded "Give Peace a Chance."

However, the pair never reached the kind of mass popularity they had with “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” They instead became icons for the best that comedy could be, using laughs to tackle serious topics.

“We didn’t do it intentionally," Tom Smothers said in 2019. "No guy goes to war and takes a bullet on purpose."

National Comedy Center Executive Director Journey Gunderson said shows like "Saturday Night Live" and "The Daily Show" can trace their lineage to the Smothers Brothers.

“Tom Smothers was not only an extraordinary comedic talent, who, together with his brother Dick, became the most enduring comedy duo in history, entertaining the world for over six decades — but was a true champion for freedom of speech, harnessing the power of comedy to push boundaries and our political consciousness," Gunderson said in a statement. 

In later years, when Tom Smothers wasn't stomping on the establishment with music or comedy, he was crushing grapes in the Sonoma Valley via his Remick Ridge Vineyards, named after his mother.

He eventually sold it to Arrowhead Winery, and some cabernet under the family's name is still sold today. A bottle of 2018 Smothers-Remick Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon goes for $105.

Smothers is survived by his brother, Dick; two children, Bo and Riley Rose Smothers; their mother, Marcy Carriker Smothers; a grandson, Phoenix; and sister-in-law Marie Smothers, the National Comedy Center said.