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Giants of TV

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STEVE ALLEN 12.26.1921 — 10.30.2000

— ”There is nothing, nowhere, not anything funnier than the black-and-white two-min-ute kinescope of Steve Allen on his evening show, sitting at his desk, out of control, laughing, unable to speak his next line, squealing, dying, trying to get through his bit. You can see him gather himself, get ready to speak, and then suddenly giggle and shriek with a high-pitched inhuman noise that evoked in us our own form of uncontrollable, responsive laughter. This unplanned moment defines so simply Steve’s early sense of joy, of comedy, of pure cut-loose, laugh-riot silliness, and embodies the soul of a kind of comedy that inspired many of us to be comedians.”… ”I still laugh when I think of the exchange I witnessed when I did his show in the late ’60s: When asked by an audience member, ‘Do they get this show in Omaha?’ he said, ‘They see it, but they don’t get it.”’ — Steve Martin

If you have ever turned on the TV after the 11 o’clock news and laughed, you owe Steve Allen a debt of gratitude. As the first host of The Tonight Show in 1953, Allen marked Year One in the history of late-night talk shows as testing ground for think-outside-the-mike comedy. His playground went far beyond his desk: Allen would often hit the streets to interview passersby or, on occasion, roll around in a giant bowl of salad. Sadly, little remains of these formative years, as most Tonight tapes were shortsightedly destroyed. But the memory of those episodes, and of Allen’s many stints behind the interviewer’s microphone after his Tonight gig ended, has clearly been indelibly etched in the minds of late-night hosts Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Conan O’Brien. Appreciation of his wit goes far beyond them: You don’t have to have a desk job to have loved Steve Allen.

NANCY MARCHAND 6.19.1928 — 6.18.2000

— Those that knew Marchand best from her four-time Emmy-winning role as the starched patrician publisher Mrs. Pynchon on CBS’ Lou Grant were no doubt shocked to see her shuffling in tattered slippers as the manipulative matriarch of HBO’s The Sopranos. But neither of these characters could completely personify the chameleonic actress, an accomplished stage and screen vet who was just as straightforward in real life as she was in any role. ”She loved to sound like [bawdy nightclub owner] Texas Guinan off camera,” recalls Grant costar Ed Asner. ”It was ‘Hello, big guy,’ or she’d call you a son of a bitch if necessary. Then she’d go on and become Mrs. Pynchon and be the most exquisite, elegant lady you could ever hope to lay eyes on.”

Marchand believed in character first, eschewing all glamour, if necessary, to inhabit a part — whether it was slumping into drab wallflower malaise in 1953’s TV version of Marty, or exhibiting Livia Soprano’s parade of antisocial habits. ”She ate in every scene, and her mouth was just dripping with food while she’d be talking,” says The Sopranos’ James Gandolfini. ”It just cracked me up, but it was the character. [Livia] didn’t care what she looked like, didn’t care about manners, didn’t care about anything.”