LOS ANGELES — Steve Allen, who pioneered the enduring late-night talk show with the original “Tonight Show” and produced a stream of songs and books, was remembered Tuesday as a comic who became a renaissance man.
Allen, 78, died Monday night of an apparent heart attack at the Encino home of his son, Bill Allen.
“He said he was a little tired after dinner. He went to relax, peacefully, and never reawakened,” his son said.
Steve Allen’s wife, actress Jayne Meadows, was “distraught” at the loss of her husband of 46 years, Bill Allen said. She had stayed home while her husband visited with their son and his family at their nearby house.
“Like the rest of America, Dolores and I share in the sadness of Steve Allen’s death but celebrate his great and full life. We’ll miss him. He left us too early,” comedian Bob Hope said in a statement.
“All of us who have hosted the “Tonight Show” format owe a debt of gratitude to Steve Allen. He was a most creative innovator and brilliant entertainer,” said former “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson.
And current “Tonight” host Jay Leno said of Allen: “He was one of the sharpest guys off the cuff. He never played dumb. He played many characters, straight man and comic, and he did each role perfectly. But the role he played best was Steve Allen.”
“He had a magnificent mind. He was a kind, gentle, warm man. He would be embarrassed for me now, because I can’t put into words the way I felt about this man. I loved him,” entertainer Dick Clark said.
In recent years, Allen used his celebrity to lobby against what he saw as increasing and dangerous vulgarity and violence in media. He was featured in a series of newspaper advertisements calling on viewers to demand more family friendly TV shows, including an ad that ran Tuesday in his hometown Los Angeles Times.
Allen’s versatility made him a force in music, theater and television and more for decades. The day before his death, he performed in concert at an area college.
Besides starring the King of Swing in the 1956 movie “The Benny Goodman Story,” Allen appeared in Broadway shows, on soap operas, wrote newspaper columns, commented on wrestling broadcasts, made 40 record albums, wrote plays and a TV series featuring historical figures in roundtable discussions.
Several Allen tunes were recorded by pop vocalists; the most popular was “This May Be the Start of Something Big.”
His skill as an ad libber became apparent in his early career as a disc jockey in Phoenix. He once interrupted the playing of records to announce: “Sports fans, I have the final score for you on the big game between Harvard and William & Mary. It is: Harvard 14, William 12, Mary 6.”
Allen was born to vaudeville comedians Billy Allen and Belle Montrose in New York City on Dec. 26, 1921. Steve was 18 months old when his father died, and his mother continued touring the theater circuits alone while Steve grew up in the care of relatives.
In the early 1940s Allen dropped out of college to work as a disc jockey and entertainer at radio station KOY in Phoenix before he was drafted in 1943.
He was soon released because of asthma, returned to KOY, and married his college sweetheart, Dorothy Goodman. They had three sons, Steve Jr., David and Brian, and divorced in 1952.
Allen moved to Los Angeles and began offering his comedy and music on local radio. He and Meadows married in 1954 and had one son, William (Bill) Allen.
His midnight show on KNX attracted national attention in 1950 when it was carried on the CBS network as a summer replacement. The radio networks were converting to television, and he was brought to New York by CBS for “The Steve Allen Show.”
Allen’s most enduring achievement came with the introduction of “The Tonight Show” in 1953. The show began as “Tonight” on the New York NBC station WNBT, then moved to the network on Sept. 27, 1954.
Amid the formality of early TV, “Tonight” was a breath of fresh air. The show began with Allen noodling at the piano, playing some of his compositions and commenting wittily on events of the day. He moved to a desk, chatted with guests, taking part in sketches, doing zany man-in-the street interviews.
Allen’s popularity led NBC in 1956 to schedule “The Steve Allen Show” on Sunday evenings opposite “The Ed Sullivan Show” on CBS.
A variation of “Tonight,” the primetime show was notable for its “Man in the Street Interview” featuring new comics Louis Nye (“Hi-ho, Steverino”), Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Pat Harrington and Bill Dana. The show lasted through 1961, airing the last year on ABC.
Allen cut back his “Tonight’ duties to three nights a week when the primetime show started. He left even that in 1956. He was replaced for a season by Ernie Kovacs, then NBC tried a new format in 1957, “Tonight! America after Dark.” It failed, and “Tonight” resumed with Jack Paar, followed by Johnny Carson in 1962 and Jay Leno in 1992.
Over the years, Allen remained busy with concerts and with appearances in movies and TV series, often with his wife. Her sister, the late Audrey Meadows, played Alice in Jackie Gleason’s “The Honeymooners.”
A self-styled advocate of “radical middle-of-the-roadism,” Allen often spoke out on political matters such as capital punishment, nuclear policy and freedom of expression.
He joined with the Parents Television Council, a nonprofit, conservative group based in Los Angeles, to speak out against TV content in a series of ads. In a speech last year, he said shows such as “Jenny Jones” have “taken television to the garbage dump.”
Allen was proudest of his 1976-79 PBS series “Meeting of Minds.” He moderated a panel of actors impersonating historic figures such as Galileo, Cleopatra (played by Jayne Meadows) and Attila the Hun, who explained their diverse philosophies.
Besides his wife and children, Allen is survived by 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
In addition to private services, which had yet to be planned, the family intends to organize a service at which Allen’s friends in the industry can share stories about him, his son Bill said.