Jack Paar died earlier this week. Below are Paar's New York Times obituary (in its entirety) and an essay about Paar written by Dick Cavett, which was published in the Times yesterday.
Jack Paar, Unpredictable TV Host Who Kept Americans Up Late, Dies at 85
By RICHARD SEVERO
Published: January 28, 2004
Jack Paar, the prickly, often emotional and always unpredictable humorist who turned late-night television into a national institution when he was host of the "Tonight Show" from 1957 to 1962, died yesterday at his home in Greenwich, Conn., his son-in-law, Stephen Wells, told The Associated Press. He was 85.
"Before Jack Paar, there were various variety shows doing the midnight watch," the critic John J. O'Connor wrote in The New York Times in 1997. "He simplified the format into a talk show, complete with the sofa-and-desk set that remains a fixture. His secret? Interesting guests, far more so than the celebrity hordes working on product plugs today, and an uncanny ability to listen carefully and actually engage in clever and often witty conversation."
In introducing highlights from his programs some years ago, Mr. Paar said, "I hate the word 'talk show.' It makes it seem as if all I did was invent a davenport."
But in truth Mr. Paar's couch became a sounding board for social gossips like Elsa Maxwell and national political figures like Robert F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon and Barry M. Goldwater. It was also a hangout for witty regular guests like the irascibly neurotic Oscar Levant and the equally fine raconteurs Alexander King, Peter Ustinov and Clement Freud.
William Grimes, watching some old Paar shows, observed in The Times that it was "clear that good talk was the foundation of Mr. Paar's success, along with an ability to coax, and sometimes coerce, colorful stories out of guests who, in television's earlier days, did not always seem to know what exactly they were supposed to do."
"Long before David Letterman," Mr. Grimes continued, "Mr. Paar had an anarchic streak that inspired him to pair guests like Liberace and Cassius Clay, or Jayne Mansfield and Zsa Zsa Gabor, or to get in the ring with a professional wrestler or to shuffle the cue cards in the middle of a Robert Goulet-Judy Garland duet."
In time he was joined by a kind of repertory company that included Hugh Downs, his announcer; José Melis, his pianist; Cliff Arquette, who portrayed a down-home character named Charley Weaver; Genevieve, a French chanteuse who mangled the English language; and the comedians Jonathan Winters, Dody Goodman and Peggy Cass.
Mr. Paar's couch in the NBC studios at Rockefeller Center in New York also became a launching pad for dozens of unknowns who would get national exposure on his show, among them Bill Cosby, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Carol Burnett, Woody Allen, the Smothers Brothers and Godfrey Cambridge.
"Everyone thinks Ed Sullivan discovered the Beatles," he once complained. "That's not true. I had them on before he did. I did it because I thought they were funny, not because I liked the music. I'm a Muzak kind of guy — my home's like living in an elevator."
In 1960 he wrote a book with John Reddy, "I Kid You Not," echoing his best known catch phrase.
An avid traveler, Mr. Paar liked to bring the world beyond show biz to his audience. Tom Shales of The Washington Post remembered, "He took his viewers to Africa, to Cuba (immediately after the revolution), to Hawaii shortly after it became a state and to the late and unlamented Berlin Wall. Paar was a true television auteur; his shows were all reflections of his own insatiable curiosity and fascination with the world."
Mr. Paar's show was so successful that no one is really certain why he suddenly left it while it was still being watched by seven million Americans on NBC every night. Mr. Paar said years later, "I've never really had a good answer to that."
But many Americans remember an earlier farewell. Mr. Paar quit his show twice, the first time in 1960, after NBC censored a joke that included the letters W. C., for water closet. Tearful and angry, he looked straight into the camera and said: "I am leaving the `Tonight Show.' There must be a better way of making a living than this." Three weeks later, he was back, proclaiming, "As I was saying before I was interrupted . . . "
There always seemed to be a neurotic edge to Mr. Paar and his pals. Mr. O'Connor once said people watched to see if anyone would have a nervous breakdown on camera. Mr. Downs once explained affectionately, "Jack's not mentally ill; he's a carrier of mental illness." Levant, asked what he did for exercise, mumbled, "I stumble and then I fall into a coma."
"I hate my emotion," Mr. Paar said of all his tearful controversies. "Knock it off, I tell myself, but I just can't help it."
Mr. Paar was preceded on NBC late-night television by Jerry Lester and Steve Allen and succeeded by Johnny Carson, who kept the show for nearly 30 years. ("I should never have given the `Tonight Show' to him," Mr. Paar once cracked. "I should have rented it or married him.")
Jack Harold Paar was born May 1, 1918, in Canton, Ohio, the son of Howard and Lillian Paar. Howard Paar was a division superintendent for the New York Central Railroad.
Mr. Paar did most of his growing up in Jackson, Mich., and later Detroit. When he was 5 years old, an older brother was killed by a car. When he was 10, his best friend died. When he was 14, he had tuberculosis. He grew stronger and worked on a railroad gang to build himself up. He went out for wrestling in high school but quit school when he was 16.
Although he stuttered, he aspired to be a radio personality. He cured himself of the stutter, he said, by putting buttons in his mouth and reading aloud. He enjoyed his solitude, reading biographies of great men. In the late 1930's Mr. Paar had a series of jobs in small radio stations in Youngstown, Ohio; Indianapolis; Pittsburgh; Cleveland; and Buffalo, serving as both a disc jockey and comic. The jobs paid as little as $3 a week.
In 1942 he was drafted into the Army and assigned to Special Services, a noncombat unit that entertained troops overseas.
After the war, determined to become an actor, he somehow induced Howard Hughes to give him a screen test at RKO, and within a few years, started to play minor characters in minor movies, both at RKO and 20th Century Fox. Among his movies were "Walk Softly, Stranger," (1950), "Love Nest" (1951) and "Down Among the Sheltering Palms" (1953).
His first significant early recognition came not in films but in radio, when he was selected as the 1947 summer replacement for Jack Benny, whose Sunday evening radio show was an American institution. He was also a vacation replacement for Don McNeill on "The Breakfast Club," a popular radio show in the 1940's and 50's.
In 1953 he was asked to do a CBS radio show called "Bank on the Stars," and on the basis of his performance was asked to be a vacation replacement for Arthur Godfrey. In 1954 he replaced Walter Cronkite as host of the "CBS Morning Show." Although he received good reviews, he did not attract as many advertisers as the network would have liked, and he left after 11 months.
Quite a number of Mr. Paar's shows failed over the years, so many that John Crosby, the television critic of The New York Herald Tribune, said in the 1950's that he did not know another performer in the business who had so many shows canceled. Asked once about Mr. Paar, Fred Allen said, "Oh, you mean the young man who had the meteoric disappearance."
But eventually his stints as a replacement led to his selection as the host of "Tonight."
Mr. Paar was variously described as sophisticated, manic, weepy, vindictive and clever: a whirlpool of appeal, arrogance and, on occasion, sullenness. An odd mixture of ego and self-denigration pervaded his work. He was thin-skinned, but he also could direct his barbed wit at people he did not like.
And so Mr. Paar had some running feuds with journalists, including Walter Winchell. In one exchange, he referred to Winchell as a "nut" who "wrapped himself in the American flag whenever you criticized him" and "wore the American flag like a bathrobe."
Mr. Paar also sometimes feuded with some of the people who worked for him. In the late 1950's when his NBC show was quite popular, he squabbled with Dody Goodman, his foil, and dismissed her. (Later, they settled their differences on television, with Mr. Paar weeping for joy.) He drew to his show some of the most talented people in television. One of his writers was Dick Cavett, who went on to have his own talk shows; another was Garry Marshall, who later produced and directed films and television programs.
From 1962 to 1965 he was host of a weekly prime-time talk and variety show.
In the late 1960's he bought a television station in Poland Springs, Me., then sold it at a profit of many millions, saying that he wanted to travel in Europe and Asia. By the time he was 50 he was mostly retired and had all the money he wanted. He said he wanted to spend more time with his family and pursue his primary passions, tinkering with electronic gadgets in his basement and fighting crab grass.
He is survived by his wife, Miriam Wagner Paar; a daughter, Randy; and a grandson.
In his later years Mr. Paar returned to television from time to time to do nostalgic specials. Rarer still were appearances before live audiences at occasions like a tribute to his work by the Museum of Television and Radio. ("Most people think I've been in the witness protection program," he joked.)
But during his last appearances he demonstrated that he still had a clever way with a story, a talent he characteristically deprecated with the observation, "I've been doomed all my life to the small chuckle."
Anyone That Funny Is Entitled to Cry
By DICK CAVETT
Published: January 29, 2004
"What is Jack Paar really like?" The question was so persistently asked that for a time it became a sort of national catchphrase, and it dogged Jack for years. No one has ever answered it to anyone's satisfaction and I will not (sorry) be the exception.
Jack Paar, who died on Tuesday at 85, was an immense talent. He appeared to be uninfluenced. His delivery of material was like that of no one who came before. He was a genius as a monologuist, and I'm not sure anyone has revealed that he did his monologue without cue cards or prompter. He selected the material he wanted and then wrote it out for himself with a fountain pen, and he had it. This is unheard of.
He had looks and brains and talent, but so do many people. But you never hear anyone say, "He's a Jack Paar type." Mercurial may come closest to describing that unique makeup that was Jack's personality. He was smart, sentimental, witty, irritable, loyal, insecure, infuriating, hilarious, neurotic and totally entertaining.
I once asked the British critic Kenneth Tynan why no matter who was on the screen with him, you watched Jack. He replied, "You can't look away for fear of missing a live nervous breakdown on your home screen."
Jack was repeatedly ridiculed for his crying. He did cry now and then. Although it was plain to me that it was genuine, not everyone enjoyed it. At a party just before Johnny took over the "Tonight" show, I heard someone say, "If Carson is on that show 10 years [!], he will never shed a single tear."
Someone else responded, "For which I will be profoundly grateful to him."
Could Jack ad-lib or was it all written? the unwashed would ask. One night Jack said backstage: "Watch this, kid. When fat Jack Leonard comes out, I'm just going to freeze him out with silence."
Jack did, and after Leonard had exhausted his one-liners to no reply, in panic he seized on a fact.
Leonard: "You know, my wife is an acrobat."
Paar: "She'd have to be."
There were moments with Jack that I have yet to puzzle out. When I was dropping off my material for the "Tonight" show on Jack's desk one day, he looked up and said, "Hey, kid, you haven't given me anything I could use in weeks."
Shattered, I pointed out some of my recent lines that he had used, to no avail.
"Oh, and go a little easy on the fag jokes, O.K.?" he asked.
"I didn't know I had written any fag jokes, Jack."
"Just go easy on 'em, O.K.?"
"Sure," I said, stupefied. I told one of the older writers, and he said: "That's just Jack. He's forgotten it already." That sort of thing took some getting used to. The rewards made it worth it.
He gave me the best advice I ever got. I asked him what the secret was in doing such a show.
"Don't make it an interview, kid," he said. "Make it a conversation. Interviews have clipboards."
Jack envied education. He once asked, "What's the magazine?" I had a copy of, of all things, The Partisan Review under my arm. "Have you finished it?"
"Yes," I said, lying.
"Leave it off."
The next day he told me what he thought of an article on Marilyn Monroe titled "Marilyn and the Law of Negative Compensation," or some such pretentious title. He then analyzed the article so impressively that I had to reread it.
"She was a nice girl" he said. I didn't know then that they were in a film together.
The next thing Jack relieved me of was my copy of The Observer of London. Hearing him say on the air, "I just read in The Observer . . ." made me proud of my, um, student.
The bad part of this schooling envy of Jack's was that he would sometimes abase himself before guests who hadn't a scintilla of his wit or native intelligence.
Every time I thought I now knew Jack, something would prove the contrary.
One memorable night I shared the hotel elevator with a Who's Who of Hollywood. Eager to score points with Jack, then my new boss, I rushed to his door and pounded. The room was dark, and he was half-dressed, had a bottle of wine and was watching the show. And his hairpiece was askew. Oblivious to the degree to which I was not welcome, I blurted: "Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Jack Benny . . . are at a party right upstairs. I knew you'd want to know."
The only part of the ensuing tirade that I recall included the repeated use of an expletive and "Don't tell 'em where I am! I'd rather die!" The door was closed energetically.
What have we lost? A giant of the entertainment industry whose foibles and neuroses were probably far more fun for us than they were for him.
I asked Jack once, "What's the formula for how to handle things when you don't like a guest?"
He said: "You think of it as what you would do in real life. Smile, be nice and then suddenly kick 'em under the table."
Dick Cavett was a writer for Jack Paar and later helped to revolutionize the late-night talk show.
On this episode of Fresh Air, TV critic David Bianculli pays tribute to Paar. The segment includes clips from Paar's show.