Steve Allen estimates he has only been off television for a few weeks out of the last 30 years. It's an enviable record and an encouraging one, because there probably hasn't been a more durable, versatile, able and admirable personality in the history of the medium.
This month Allen hosted the premier of NBC's "The Big Show" and is to emcee this weekend's "Special Celebration" (tomorrow at 10 p.m. on Channel 26) as the finale to another round of fiendish fund-raising on public TV. He can also be seen, very briefly, playing himself in the movie "Heart Beat," which concerns the adventures of literary cult figures Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy.
"Yeah, I just did a little quick-run-down-the-hill, having had my hair especially changed and wearing what now looks like a dumb suit," Steve Allen says. "Funny to think that of the clothes you and I are wearing we will one day think, 'God, how stupid we were dressed,' but we don't know it today."
Allen writes books the way some people write checks, composes songs between blinks, makes personal appearances and commercials ad infinitum, and thinks deep thoughts about the state of practically everything. One might question his authority on some of the subjects over which he expounds (he is completing a book about China) but never doubt for a minute that he is cursed with insatiable curiosity.
His outer office, in arid Van Nuys, Calif., is decorated with album covers from his innumerable recording flings. His inner office is bedecked with books, memorabilia and awards. Say, Steve -- here's one called the Heart of Gold Award, from the Pasadena Memorial Lutheran Hospital.
"I think I probably made more Lutherans sick that year than anybody else, and they gave me an award," Allen says.
Allen in his time -- and it still is -- has probably been responsible for as much laughter as anybody else in television. Yet he seems proudest of a relatively serious series he has done for public TV, "Meeting of the Minds," a fantasy documentary talk show in which actors play people like Jefferson, Marx, Freud and the Dowager Empress and have great spats.
ABC, CBS, and NBC turned it down so he took it to PBS. "All the networks were very complimentary in turning it down," Allan recalls. "The one nasty letter I got -- a real contemptuous letter -- was from two guys at PBS. I've never heard of them since; I don't know who they are. Not only did they say 'No thank you,' but they said it trivialized history and they went on at some length telling me how much they disliked the whole idea."
But later, a producer at public station KCET in Los Angeles latched onto the format and developed it for public TV, where it has been one of the more popular American-made shows. Not that they have all that many American-made shows, of course. But so much for the genius of those two nameless bozos who turned it down the first time.
He looks too young for the role, but Steve Allen is a founding father of television. And you always want to ask founding fathers if they aren't a little ashamed of the way the little bastard turned out. Sometimes Allen looks embarrassed to be a part of some of the shows he ends up on.
"Well if I were seriously embarrassed, I wouldn't be there," he says. "There are certain moments when I survey the situation around me and it seems kind of silly. But then there's not one of me -- well, there's not one of any of us -- but one of me is a silly person who gets hit in the face by pies and wears ridiculous clothes and goes 'smock, smock' and all that stuff.
"So that's the one you see on the game shows. You know I can still go out and write a serious novel if I want to, and nothing has been compromised. I haven't sold out."
Allen wrote a book last year called "Rip-Off" about moral decay in the country.Since television is the most pervasive medium -- the national town square of the national fun house or whatever it is -- it would seem safe to blame television for a decline in values.
Allen says TV is just part of the general system and not to blame all by itself. But isn't the balance between substantial programming and junk-food on TV awful lopsided in favor of the latter? "Sure it is!" Perhaps more so than ever? "Definitely more than ever. You can put those words in my mouth as far as you want."
But Allen also says, "Television has been very kind to me. To this day, I'm on television literally every few days, commercial and noncommercial, so I have no complaints as a performer."
He also recalls in TV's defense a visit he made to a veteran's hospital during the Vietnam war. "Here were all these high school-looking kids in these damn beds -- some of them are probably still there -- and an insight that occurred to me is what a godsend television is to people in that kind of predicament."
Does he ever look at Television Land and think, "Wait a minute, this should have become something else?"
"Sure it should have. It may still. I don't know, but I don't think it will happen soon. But I don't confuse myself with the immortals. I don't see myself as important enough to have anybody say, 'My God, what is a fine man like Steve Allen doing on this crap?'"