The onetime host of ''The Late Late Show'' left an indelible mark on broadcasting

By Ken Tucker
Updated August 03, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Tom Snyder, who died July 29 at age 71 in San Francisco of complications from leukemia, bridged the gap between the pre-ironic talk-show earnestness of Jack Paar and the absurdist wit of Conan O’Brien. As host of NBC’s Tomorrow show (1973-82) and CBS’ The Late Late Show (1995-99), Snyder — trained as a newsman and proudly a ”broadcaster,” a chain-smoker, a martini consumer — preferred to do without a studio audience, creating a unique intimacy with home viewers. Possessed of a booming voice and coarse laugh, he was parodied fondly on Saturday Night Live by Dan Aykroyd, who captured Snyder’s mercurial allure: genial goofiness and a quick temper.

It was a blessed relief to watch a middle-aged man who never tried to act like a cool twentysomething. Producer David Milch (Deadwood, John From Cincinnati), a regular guest during his NYPD Blue days, says, ”He never worked with an agenda; he took a deep pleasure in talking to you — the sign of a happy soul.” Snyder didn’t take any guff, either. When Tom Arnold, of all people, was rude to the host while promoting a lousy short-lived sitcom in 1993, Snyder shut down the interview by saying to the camera, ”Watch his new show or not, I don’t care.”

The 1994 night I interviewed Snyder for EW, he was pulling a cheerful stunt on his CNBC talk show, hosting a chili cookout with some firefighters. Hoping to land the post-Letterman spot, he said, ”Whoever does a show for CBS at 12:30 a.m. should be someone who can do chili cookouts, and interview, you know, Suzanne Somers. But if Jackie Kennedy dies at a quarter to one in the morning, it should also be someone who can do an interview with William Manchester or Edward Kennedy, and convey the gravity of the death of a great person. Maybe it’ll be me, because I’m that kind of broadcaster.”

He really was.