Tom Snyder, the local TV newsman-turned-latenight host whose smoke-filled interviews were a smallscreen staple until the mid-1990s, died Sunday after a battle with leukemia. He was 71.
Snyder died in San Francisco, his longtime producer and friend Mike Horowicz said Monday.
“Tom was a fighter,” Horowicz said. “I know he had tried many different treatments.”
Snyder was unabashedly prickly, with a sweeter side he showed to those who knew him well. His chief legacy will be his numerous memorable interviews as host of NBC’s “Tomorrow,” which followed Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” show from 1973-82 (and preceded the Peacock’s “Today” show). A signature was the constant billowing of cigarette smoke around his head, as well as his catch phrase: “Fire up a colortini, sit back, relax and watch the pictures, now, as they fly through the air.”
Later shows on CNBC and CBS — the latter produced by David Letterman’s company and following his “Late Show” — ditched the smoking but retained colortinis and, more importantly, the same simple style that had made him a success.
“Tom was a true broadcaster, a rare thing,” said Peter Lassally, the executive producer of Snyder’s CBS show. “When he was on the air, he made the camera disappear. It was just you and him, in a room together, having a talk.”
Snyder’s signature style — which was so distinctive that Dan Aykroyd did a dead-on parody of him on “Saturday Night Live” — his show’s set and the original “Tomorrow” show itself marked an abrupt change at 1 a.m. from Carson’s program. Snyder might joke with the crew in the sparsely appointed studio, but he was more likely to joust with guests such as the irascible science fiction writer Harlan Ellison.
Snyder conducted John Lennon’s final televised interview (April 1975) and featured U2’s first U.S. television appearance in June 1981.
One of his most riveting interviews was with Charles Manson, who would go from a calm demeanor to acting like a wild-eyed, insanity-spouting mass murderer and back again.
Another wacky moment came when Plasmatics lead singer Wendy O. Williams blew up a TV in the studio; in another appearance, she demolished a car. Yet another time, Johnny Rotten decided he really wasn’t in the mood to be on a talkshow and acted indifferent for an excruciating 12 minutes.
In 1982, the show was canceled after a messy attempt to make it into a talk-variety show called “Tomorrow Coast to Coast.” It added a live audience and co-hostess Rona Barrett — all of which Snyder clearly disdained.
A fast-rising comic named David Letterman took over the timeslot.
After “Tomorrow” was canceled, Snyder returned to his roots as a local news anchor in Gotham and had a gig as host of his own ABC Radio gabber.
CNBC, struggling to make a mark in primetime, decided to bring Snyder back to TV for a nightly talker, which debuted in 1993. The show helped the net carve out something of an identity at night and marked the first time the cabler had aired a show that originated from Los Angeles.
Its modest success also helped convince Letterman, a longtime Snyder admirer, to bring him back to network television, creating “The Late Late Show” on CBS to follow his own program. (Subsequently, the format and hosts have changed, with Craig Kilborn and now Craig Ferguson.)
“Tom was the very thing that all broadcasters long to be — compelling,” said Letterman in a statement. “Whether he was interviewing politicians, authors, actors or musicians, Tom was always the real reason to watch. I’m honored to have known him as a colleague and as a friend.”
CBS issued a statement calling Snyder “one of the best interviewers of his time, a truly gifted conversationalist who was at ease with any guest and topic …With his passing, television has lost a true broadcaster who always respected the medium and the audience it serves.”
As highlighted by the “SNL” spoof, Snyder’s chain-smoking, black beetle brows (contrasting with his mostly gray hair), mercurial manner, digressive way of asking questions and clipped speech pattern made for a distinctive sendup.
Despite his well-known temper, Snyder was “not a curmudgeon,” said former “Late Late Show” publicist Mike Naidus, now a producer on the Ferguson show.
“He was a simple-things kind of guy,” Naidus said. “He really cared about his family, and I never saw someone love his dog so much.”
Snyder also wasn’t afraid of poking fun at himself.
A white-knuckle flyer, Snyder once had a meltdown on a flight to Italy, screaming, “We’re all doomed.” A gossip columnist found out about the incident and called Naidus seeking confirmation.
“I tracked him down and he admitted the whole thing,” Naidus said. “Six months later in the green room, there was a giant poster of Tom and underneath were the words ‘We’re all doomed.’ ”
Snyder is survived by his daughter and longtime girlfriend, who live in the Bay Area.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)