A class act on-screen and off
Steve Allen is mourned and remembered by friends, colleagues and the entertainment world
By Dan Trigoboff and Beatrice Williams-Rude -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/5/2000 7:00:00 PM
Steve Allen's talent could not be contained, even in the box he helped shape.
First earning celebrity in a radio booth more than half a century ago, Allen recorded albums, appeared in films, wrote plays and dozens of books, composed thousands of songs and spoke out on public issues right up until his death last week at the age of 78.
But it was Allen's contributions to television for which he is best remembered. The Steve Allen Show ran on all of the Big Three networks and in syndication for more than 20 years. A 1953 local show over WNBT-TV New York became Tonight! on the NBC network, replacing Broadway Open House and making Allen the first to host what would later be The Tonight Show.
It was Allen who inaugurated such talk-show staples as the opening monologue, the desk-chair-and-sofa set, bits that involved the studio audience, and bringing his cameras outside the studio for improvisation with the man on the street.
"Steverino'' was verily venerated last week by those who knew him. Writers Guild of America President Herb Sargent said, "Even though I shouldn't say this, I think he could have done the show without writers. Working with him was the best experience I ever had in television, including my days working at Saturday Night Live."
His approach to the talk show proved so enduring that many Allen-inspired ideas were considered innovative when resurrected and modified by an openly grateful David Letterman. "His early work is really the foundation for what late-night shows have become," Letterman said last week.
His first job was at koy (am), where, legend has it, Allen once told his audience that the score for a football game between Harvard and William & Mary was "Harvard 14, William 12 and Mary 6."
Allen took his radio schtick to Los Angeles' knx (am), where his late-night show attracted attention and impromptu celebrity drop-ins. The first of several Steve Allen Show television programs followed out of New York in 1950. It was broadcast first five nights a week as a summer replacement for Our Miss Brooks and later switched to days. That grew into Tonight.
Even the nightly grind didn't sap Allen's energies, as he began a Sunday-night variety rival to Ed Sullivan in 1956. This Steve Allen Show featured Elvis Presley even before the famous Sullivan appearance. Allen often displayed grittier, edgier guests, including jazz musicians, beat writer Jack Kerouac and comics Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, Jonathan Winters and Lenny Bruce.
Over the years, Allen developed his own talented stock company, including Don Knotts, Pat Harrington, Tom Poston, Louis Nye, Dayton Allen, Bill Dana and bandleader Skitch Henderson. Allen left The Tonight Show in 1957, but a Steve Allen show continued in one form or another through the mid-1970s.
From 1977 to 1981, Allen produced the project of which he was most proud: Meeting of Minds. In each episode, a handful of historical figures-Cleopatra, Thomas Paine, Thomas Aquinas and Theodore Roosevelt among others-would discuss various issues, in character. The Peabody Award-winning show regularly featured Allen's wife, actress Jayne Meadows.
In films, he is best remembered playing the title role in The Benny Goodman Story. He also was a compulsive composer; his best-known song is This Could Be the Start of Something Big. In later years, Allen became active in trying to battle what he considered increasing vulgarity and smut in popular culture.
Last year at a comedy awards show, recalled satirist Mark Russell, "Steve was very upset. He went to every table where there were children and apologized for the content of the show, the profanity."
This stance teamed the liberal Allen with conservative activist L. Brent Bozell III, who called Allen a hero.
Allen leaves his wife and four sons.
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