Remembering Steve Allen -- Comedy's renaissance man invented the modern late-night talk show in 1953

By Ken Tucker
Updated November 10, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

The thing about Steve Allen was, he looked so deceptively… ordinary. Who would guess that this bespectacled 6-foot-3-inch gent with a fondness for tweed jackets and jazz could abruptly break out in fits of jerky giggling and jarring non sequiturs — or could, apropos of nothing at all, suddenly imitate a seagull, screeching, ”Schmock! Schmock!” (We know that’s the correct spelling, because he wrote a book of the same title in 1975.) Even his passing at 78 was ordinary: He died of an apparent heart attack in his son’s home after helping his grandchildren carve pumpkins and make Halloween costumes.

Yet this apparently ordinary man left an extraordinarily prolific legacy. Born in New York City to vaudeville parents, he broke into radio and went on to write scores of books, compose thousands of songs (best known was his theme, ”This Could Be the Start of Something Big”), dabble in serious acting (he blew the licorice stick in the title role of The Benny Goodman Story in 1955), and create one of TV’s wonkiest PBS shows: 1977’s Meeting of the Minds, in which moderator Allen asked ponderous questions of actors playing such figures as Charles Darwin and Attila the Hun.

And oh, yes: He invented the late-night TV talk show as we now know it, with the introduction of The Tonight Show in 1953. The whole megillah was Allen’s creation — the desk, the band, the opening monologue, the wacky skits, the going up into the audience to answer questions, the guest chatter. You think Johnny Carson created Art Fern, the sleazy huckster? Allen did it first, with his Late-Night Pitch-Man character. Think David Letterman invented nutty stunts like the Velcro suit? Allen was jumping into giant vats of Jell-O before Dave was in long pants.

Today, most people know Allen as that cranky guy who took out ads in newspapers, decrying the ”filth, vulgarity, sex, and violence TV is sending into our homes.” In fact, the day before his death, he submitted the book-length pop-culture jeremiad Vulgarians at the Gate to his publisher. ”Steve came from a time when television was a friend of the family,” explains comedian Tim Conway. ”It never offended you.”

But 40 years ago, this cultural autodidact might have been giving Joe Lieberman the heebie-jeebies. Allen offered iconoclastic ”sick” comic Lenny Bruce generous airtime and treated Jack Kerouac to serious interviews at a time when most people thought Beat novelists were crazy mixed-up kids.

Allen was a generous straight man who, particularly on The Tonight Show (1953-57) and a syndicated Steve Allen Show (1962-64, 1968-72), worked in peak comic form, assembling a stock company of gifted comedians including Louis Nye, Tom Poston, and Don Knotts. ”He gave you your head,” says Knotts. ”He let you experiment and let you do what you thought was funny.”

By all accounts Allen’s 46-year marriage to actress-singer Jayne Meadows, 80, was blissfully close. But his private life was strained in the early ’70s when his son Brian joined what some considered a cult commune and changed his name to Logic Israel. In 1982, Allen said that while he was ”hurt and stunned” initially, he’d come to terms with Brian’s beliefs and even wrote Beloved Son, a 1982 book chronicling the family’s experience.