''Tonight Show'' icon Jack Paar dies. Johnny Carson's predecessor, who invented the late-night talk show as we know it, was 85

By Gary Susman
Updated January 27, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
Jack Paar: Pictorial Parade/Getty Images/NewsCom

Jack Paar, the ”Tonight Show” host who paved the way for Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, and anyone else who sits behind a desk late at night to chat with celebrity guests, died Tuesday at his Connecticut home, his son-in-law said in a statement. Paar, who hosted the NBC show from 1957 to 1962, was 85.

Paar is credited with turning late-night TV from a variety format (as the ”Tonight Show” was when his predecessor Steve Allen hosted it) to a place for conversation. Regular guests included raconteurs like Oscar Levant and Peter Ustinov, who didn’t necessarily have anything to plug. Paar also gave early TV exposure to such comics as Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Carol Burnett, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and the Smothers Brothers. He even preceded Ed Sullivan in airing footage of the Beatles on U.S. television — not because of their music, but because he thought they were funny.

Paar was a famously volatile and emotional host, and many viewers watched just to see if he or one of his guests would have a breakdown. One night in 1960, such viewers were rewarded. Paar opened the show with a three-minute tirade against NBC for censoring a mildly off-color joke the night before (one that used the term ”W.C.”, as in ”water closet”). He said: ”There must be a better way of making a living than this,” then stormed off the set, leaving astonished sidekick Hugh Downs (the future ”20/20” anchor) to preside over the remaining 87 minutes. Paar’s reappearance three weeks later was just as abrupt; he kicked off the show by saying; ”As I was saying before I was interrupted…”

Still, Paar’s misgivings about his job apparently remained, and in 1962, he retired (at age 44), handing over the reins to Carson, who went on to rule late night for 30 years. Paar seldom appeared on television again but seemed to have few regrets about giving up the late-night throne he’d built. ”Those were great years,” Downs recalled in an EW interview in 1992. ”I wish Paar had enjoyed them more.”