Jack Paar: As I Was Saying …

When a young Jack Paar turned from Hollywood and a floundering film career and decided his showbiz future lay in New York, on TV, he worried that "nobody seemed to want someone to just sit and talk, which is what I do." Latest installment in PBS' American Masters series makes amply clear that given the opportunity, the onetime actor's brand of conversation was precisely what Americans wanted. He was a true pioneer of the small-screen medium. Unfortunately, the medium has all but abandoned Paar's trailblazing path. The intelligence, wit and sense of intimacy that characterized his version of "Tonight" have hardly distinguished most American talkshows (with the notable exceptions of Carson and Cavett). Intentionally or not, "As I Was Saying ...," which focuses on Paar's 1957-62 latenight program, points up the woeful inadequacies of current "talk," which is more interested in promotion than exploration, an awkward combination of inept questioners and PR-conscious celebs; memorable, unguarded moments rarely arise. But Paar had a knack for putting his guests at ease, drawing them out, and docu offers such treats as Peter Ustinov's delicious impression of Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton's unorthodox anecdote about Winston Churchill, Judy Garland's delightfully funny dishing on Marlene Dietrich.

We also see a still visibly shattered Robert Kennedy sitting down to talk to Paar a month after his brother’s assassination. The young attorney general had approached his friend about making the appearance, feeling the need to begin reconnecting with the public. It’s a humbling sight to see the two men grappling with their own and the country’s need to heal from the recent trauma.

New interviews are intercut throughout: a still-youthful and handsome Paar, and several of the key people who worked with him. Of these interview subjects, Hugh Downs, who co-hosted Paar’s show, offers particularly incisive commentary on Paar’s gifts to television and on the sorry state of TV reportage today. One thing Paar’s colleagues agree on is that there was no line between the man and the performer, which is evident not only in his famous, emotional on-air exit from his show, but in the relaxed, eloquent and personal monologues he delivered nightly.

Sound and visual quality of clips is fine, and overall tech values are OK, although the tightly framed talking-heads segs could use a bit more ambience. Docu’s chief flaw is its consistent failure to date archival excerpts. Nonetheless, filmmakers Michael Macari Jr. and Bruce Colgate offer a compelling compilation of material that makes a solid case for Paar’s place in the TV pantheon, as well as providing a provocative cross-section of contempo pop history.

Jack Paar: As I Was Saying ...

PBS, WED. MAY 7, 9 P.M.

Production: A co-production of Thirteen/WNET and EagleVision for American Masters. Executive producer for American Masters, Susan Lacy; senior producer for American Masters, Tamar Hacker; producer-director, Michael Macari Jr.; co-producer/camera/editor, Bruce Colgate

Creative: Sound, Remo DeNardo; music, Associated Production Music; series theme, Thomas Wagner. 2 HOURS.

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