Tom Snyder Turned Television Into a Tete-a-Tete

Snyder on CBS's
Snyder on CBS's "Late Late Show," which he hosted from 1995 to 1999. It was his final network program. (1995 Photo By Richard Cartwright -- Cbs)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Tom Snyder was born to broadcast. He loved television and it loved him back. In that, he was a member of a vanishing breed, especially as narrowcasting displaces broadcasting, "online" replaces "on the air," and any Tom, Dick or Mary can be monarch of a desktop domain, uplinking themselves to satellites in space.

Snyder's death Sunday from leukemia, at the age of 71, was not "the end of an era," as is often said of legendary figures in any field, but another poignant part of a long goodbye, of a transition painful to those who remember the great broadcasters of television with deep affection -- Dave Garroway, Howard Cosell, Jack Paar, and some, like Regis Philbin, who are still alive and working.

All they needed was a TV studio, a relatively small crew and a camera or two with which to reach out across the country into big cities and small towns, tenements and penthouses, and keep a viewer captive, speaking not to "everybody" but to each individual, intimately.

Snyder made his last network talk show, "The Late Late Show" on CBS, partly a celebration of television -- as it is, but also as it was. "The simulcast is up and running," he'd say after his introductory chatter about whatever was on his mind that day, "simulcast" being by then a seldom-used term for a TV show also heard on radio. "So settle back," he would say, "fire up a colortini, and watch the pictures fly through the air." No one was sure what a "colortini" was -- maybe a martini linked somehow to color TV, which was once more of a novelty than high-def is now.

"I'm small," Snyder said in a 1995 interview, as he began the new CBS show, which he hosted for four years. (He had hosted NBC's late-night "Tomorrow" program from 1973 to 1982.) "I'm little television. I'm not big. I'm 19 inches diagonal, and if I can do that, I'm okay." In person he was anything but little. He stood 6 feet 4 and wore, he said, size 13-D shoes (sometimes doing the show in his socks). He was so self-conscious about having big ears that he let his hair grow down over them.

And the picture got bigger, from 19 inches diagonal to today's wall-size 50-, 60-, 70-inchers and more. The size is almost irrelevant; Tom Snyder was big enough to fill the night with talk and his own persona. The Snyder we saw on TV was not a replica of the real guy; it was the real guy. Like David Letterman, whose company produced "Late Late" (as it does the current version with Craig Ferguson), Snyder was perhaps never so comfortable as when under the hot lights and wired for sound.

"Tom really was a true broadcaster," Peter Lassally, Snyder's executive producer, said yesterday. (Lassally continues to produce "Late Late" with Ferguson, another natural talker.) "The word 'broadcaster' is tossed around and used for anybody who works in the business, but Tom did what a true broadcaster can do: He made the camera disappear and talked directly to the viewer, and it was just 'conversation.' There really was no one like him."

"The big man is gone," said CBS News Vice President Steve Friedman, 60, who knew Snyder for 37 years. They became close friends when Friedman was a news writer in Los Angeles and, later, executive producer of NBC's "Today" in New York. "Tom used to say, 'Writers write, producers produce, and stars star,' " Friedman said, "but he only said that to make us feel better -- because he was a better writer than any of us, a better producer than any of us, and the biggest star in our universe."

Snyder's distinctive quirks -- including his loud, staccato "ha-ha-ha" laugh -- were too tempting to be ignored by impressionists, and the definitive faux Snyder was unquestionably Dan Aykroyd, who perfected the impression during the first five years of "Saturday Night Live." It became one of the most popular bits on the show, and it helped popularize Snyder with a young audience that otherwise might have ignored him.

The impression became so well known that there were times, on his own show, when Snyder would do his version of Aykroyd's version of Snyder, making the ha-ha-ha's even broader. He wasn't really such a good sport about the imitation, though. "He was never that fond of it," a friend said.

What Snyder proved at NBC and at CBS was that he could interview virtually anybody -- from mass murderer Charles Manson to Beatle John Lennon to entrepreneur Martha Stewart to Johnny Rotten of the notorious Sex Pistols. One of the most hilarious Snyder encounters ever was an interview with Howard Stern, a hugely entertaining case of culture clash.

Stern to Snyder: "You are a psychopath!"

"People who didn't do other talk shows did Tom's show," Conan O'Brien, boy genius of the new generation of TV talkers, has said of Snyder. "And they said things there that they wouldn't say anywhere else."

During the 1995 interview, Snyder was praised for his session with Stern. His response: He blew his top. He said he was sick of hearing about it and complained that NBC had aired it too many times. He was, it seems, more at home with an argument than a compliment, naturally contrary and argumentative. It was commonly said of Snyder that he could have gone farther in the business if only he hadn't always fought with network management and with any other authority figures around.

When he was still at NBC, and network boss Fred Silverman was displeased with his ratings, Snyder suffered the indignity of having his show torn asunder; a studio audience was brought in, and gossipeuse Rona Barrett made regular appearances. Snyder hated her and hated the new format and, inevitably, clashed again with the bosses in the front office. Silverman had committed the ultimate sin in Snyder's view: He had come between Snyder and his viewers.

Bits and pieces of Snyder in his element, and in his glory, circulated yesterday on the latest medium to threaten television, the Internet. There was Snyder again, grilling guests pugnaciously or roaring that expansive laugh. On a computer monitor, the pictures were small again -- but Tom Snyder was still a giant.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company