Talkshow host Paar ‘set the bar very high’

Emmy-winning pioneer molded 'Tonight,' yakkers

This article was updated at 7:39 p.m.

Jack Paar, the mercurial raconteur who invented the modern talkshow format as host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” from 1957 to 1962, died Tuesday at his home in Greenwich, Conn., after a long illness. He was 85.

He had multiple bypass surgery in 1999 and had a stroke in early 2003. His wife and daughter were by his side when he died, according to son-in-law Stephen Wells.

Nominated for five Emmys, Paar was one of the best-known names in entertainment during his latenight years. Witty, sardonic, intense and unabashedly sentimental, Paar shaped “The Tonight Show” in his own image.

“Unpredictable, spontaneous, and endlessly entertaining, Jack Paar brought a unique flair to the small screen,” said NBC chairman-CEO Bob Wright. “His success at ‘The Tonight Show’ helped establish latenight talkshows as an important part of American television. As a host, Jack perfected the model for all those who follow in his footsteps.”

During his stint behind the host’s desk, “Tonight” was known for intelligent, emotional conversation and the electricity between Paar and his wide range of guests.

But Paar was very much the center of the show, riveting auds even when he talked about himself. “I’m against psychiatry — for me, anyway,” he told viewers. “I haven’t got any troubles I can’t tell standing up.”

He was famous for his feuds with public figures. He battled gossip columnists Walter Winchell and Dorothy Kilgallen and fought a war for talent with CBS’ Ed Sullivan.

He also liked to push the envelope of network TV standards: In February 1960 he tearfully quit the show on camera after NBC censored a joke that used the term “water closet,” telling viewers, “There must be a better way of making a living than this.”

Peacock topper Robert Sarnoff lured Paar back after a three-week “vacation,” and his return was a national sensation. With typical attitude, he started his return show with, “As I was saying, before I was interrupted …”

Paar served as an inspiration for just about every host who has entered the talkshow arena since then. “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno said Tuesday that Paar “set the bar and he set it very high.

“I was fortunate enough to have him as a guest on the show,” Leno said. “He will be sorely missed.”

NBC “Late Night” host Conan O’Brien — whose set includes a photo of Paar among other legendary hosts — said he was sad to hear of Paar’s passing.

“He was a brilliant television pioneer who laid the groundwork for ‘Late Night,’ ” O’Brien said. “I had the pleasure of meeting Jack and his wife, and he couldn’t have been kinder and more encouraging to me personally.”

Merv Griffin, no stranger to talkshow hosting, observed: “Jack invented the talkshow format as we know it: the ability to sit down and make small talk big. I will miss him terribly. Not only was he a great friend, he was my beginning, just as he was everyone else’s.”

The Canton, Ohio, native left school at 16 to take a job as a radio announcer in Cleveland. During World War II, he developed his comedy skills as part of a special services company that entertained troops in the South Pacific. He worked as an actor and comic after the war, appearing in a handful of films in the late 1940s and early ’50s, including “Love Nest” with then-rising star Marilyn Monroe. A 1947 magazine poll chose him as “the most promising star of tomorrow.”

He segued to TV in the early ’50s, making many appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and hosting gameshow “Up to Paar.” In 1954 he took over from Walter Cronkite as host of CBS’ “The Morning Show.” A successful guest-hosting stint on Jack Benny’s radio show led to an offer to host “The Tonight Show” when the show’s first host, Steve Allen, ankled.

Under Allen, the program had followed a standard variety-show format, but Paar changed the show into something new — a talkshow.

The show was 1 hour and 45 minutes long, live from New York. Paar wouldn’t book stars who were simply promoting projects. “You didn’t get on if you didn’t have anything to say, if I didn’t trust you,” he once said.

He wanted intelligent talk, and he got it. He had the young Muhammad Ali — then known as Cassius Clay — on the show, visited Albert Schweitzer in Africa and talked religion with Billy Graham. He scored a coup in 1960 when presidential candidates John Kennedy and Richard Nixon made separate appearances on the show, and he later got a letter from the new president’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, saying, “I don’t know anybody who did more, indirectly, to have Jack elected than your own good self.”

His willingness to address politics sometimes got him into trouble. He interviewed Fidel Castro and was an early supporter of the Cuban rebel leader, who he thought would be a latter-day Robin Hood. He caused an international incident when he broadcast from Berlin when the Berlin Wall went up. Despite the criticism Paar received, though, even a Cold Warrior like Nixon was willing to come on his show and play the piano.

At a time when television was homogenized and well-scrubbed, Paar’s eccentricity added an element of danger. “Mr. Paar almost alone has managed to preserve the possibility of surprise,” the New York Times’ Jack Gould wrote in 1962.

Paar helped launch the careers of many stars, including Barbara Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Carol Burnett, Jonathan Winters, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, and he assembled a talented group of regulars for the show, including humorist Alexander King, thesp Cliff Arquette, Peggy Cass and Hans Conried. His announcer-sidekick was Hugh Downs.

Paar’s tenure was noted for his public feuds, including a run-in with one-time booster Sullivan. Paar paid guests $320 while Sullivan paid $5,000 for his primetime show. In 1961, Sullivan decreed that any performer who went on Paar’s show first would get only $320 from Sullivan, forcing talent to begin choosing sides.

After Sullivan dropped out of a skedded debate on the topic, accusing Paar of breaking their deal on the rules, Paar went on the air that night and threatened to sue Sullivan for libel, telling viewers, “Somebody lied to you today, and you must find which one of us is the liar.”

Paar left “Tonight” for good in 1962, while still in his prime, leaving the host chair to be filled by Johnny Carson. He went on to host an hourlong Friday-night variety show, “The Jack Paar Program,” on the Peacock from September 1962 until ’65.

He was an enthusiastic traveler and later produced primetime documentaries introducing Americans to world cultures. He also was the author of four books, including “I Kid You Not” and “Three on a Toothbrush.”

He returned to TV in 1973, hosting the short-lived “Jack Paar Tonight.”

He married Miriam Wagner in October 1943; she survives him, as does daughter Randy.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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