On March 29, 1962, the last night Jack Paar hosted "The Tonight Show" on NBC, he looked out at a studio filled with friends and associates who'd come to pay their respects. There probably wouldn't be another turnout like this, Paar said, until his funeral. Some in the audience gasped.
As things worked out, Jack Paar outlived many of those who were there that night for his "electronic wake." But yesterday, in the Greenwich, Conn., home he shared with his adored and adoring wife, Miriam, Jack Paar died at the age of 85.
His last self-deprecating anecdote had long since been told, his last public feud had been fought, his last fiery controversy had been resolved. Death was his last guest, in a way, and it insisted that the host leave with it. Jack Paar's life had been rich with experience and adventure, and during its high point, he shared those experiences with a nightly audience of 11 million people.
He was the most talked-about entertainer in the nation during those years, from 1957 to 1962, when he hosted and produced "Tonight." Everyone knew the truth-in-labeling mantra "I kid you not," with which he prefaced true stories, and during daylight hours Americans were forever asking one another, "What is Jack Paar really like?"
Paar was much like the fellow with the dimpled chin they saw on TV -- a star who served "as a nightlight to the bathroom," he joked, and a man who loved to laugh and induce laughter in others. His curiosity about the world was insatiable, and it would take him -- and his show's cameras -- to the Berlin Wall, Africa, London, Castro's Cuba and Hawaii soon after it became a state.
His early retirement from television in the 1960s -- after a weekly one-hour series and a collection of specials -- would remain a mystery to his fans for the rest of his life, but Paar explained at the time that he was becoming bored and didn't want to spread that virus to viewers. And yet the Jack Paar show continued in a way, at parties he threw in his own home. He would entertain guests for hours, as happy with an audience of 30 as he had been with an audience of millions.
For all the sights he showed on his program -- including America's first look at the Beatles as filmed in a London club before their appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" -- Paar's true art was the art of conversation. He created the whole idea of talk as entertainment. To be on Paar's show, your talk had to be witty, amusing, wry, insightful, even educational; guests weren't booked just because they had movies opening or TV series premiering, as is done now on late-night talk shows.
Paar's show reflected his personality and his interests -- which were seemingly countless -- and he really was his own producer. Carol Burnett recalled during a recent interview that Paar made her a star overnight, twice, by booking her to sing "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles," a satirical tune lampooning pop stars that Burnett was then performing in a New York nightclub. Dulles himself missed the first performance, and since there were no home VCRs or TiVo machines, Paar agreed to have Burnett return two nights later and sing it again.
The key element of Paar's "Tonight Show" was surprise. If Paar felt like it, he would stop a singer in the middle of a song and, fearing that the audience was growing weary, insist that the show move on. Paar was not a respecter of stuffy old traditions, and he loved to break unbreakable rules to keep the audience -- and himself -- engaged. Jack Paar, in effect, liberated television from creaky old customs that had been hanging around since radio.
Dick Cavett, one of Paar's writers in the early days, analyzed Paar's tremendous appeal in a 1974 memoir. "He worked with a kind of spontaneity that was startling for television," Cavett said, "especially in those relatively early days, when everyone was slick, hair-sprayed, buttoned-up and observing of the proprieties. . . .
"There was always the implied possibility in his manner that he would explode one day, and you might miss seeing a live nervous breakdown viewed from the comfort of your own bedroom. No matter who the guest was, in a two-shot, your eyes were on Jack."
Like Cavett, Merv Griffin, then a game-show host, wanted to be Jack Paar and studied him closely. "I tuned in Paar every night, and it was a major education," Griffin wrote in 1980. "I watched him interrupt a guest when a story went on too long, and I noticed his use of dramatic silences to underscore emotional moments." Paar's instincts, including his sense of showmanship, were virtually unerring, and they helped make him the most effortlessly compelling figure on the air.
Although generations of TV viewers have come of age without vividly remembering Jack Paar, nearly every performer who gets a talk show even now makes a pilgrimage to the Museum of Television & Radio in New York to look at tapes of Paar at work. Conan O'Brien did it and became a fan. Later ABC's Jimmy Kimmel did the same thing. On the last edition of HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show," Garry Shandling, in the title role of a talk-show host, watched a tape of Jack Paar's farewell to television, when he closed down his weekly prime-time series, "The Jack Paar Program."
Sanders grew misty-eyed at the brilliant simplicity of Paar's last show, performed in an empty studio with only his German shepherd, Leica, present in the studio audience. At the end of the hour of reminiscence and clips, Paar said, "Come on, Leica, let's go home," and the dog followed him off into the wings.
There was never really a full-fledged attempt at a comeback for Paar, though he did agree in 1973 to an experimental arrangement at ABC; Paar would do a talk show in the late-night slot for one week a month, with other hosts filling in on other weeks. The experiment failed. More satisfyingly for Paar and his fans, he hosted and produced two NBC specials in the 1980s, with vintage Paar clips and guest stars such as Debbie Reynolds (who once tried to divest Paar of his clothes during a wild edition of the old "Tonight Show") and Jackie Mason, one of Paar's discoveries then making a gala return via a one-man Broadway show.
Paar had the brightest stars in the country as guests on "The Tonight Show," but he also developed his own repertory company of zany conversationalists -- among them acidic journalist and iconoclast Alexander King; Cliff Arquette as "Charley Weaver," a lovable codger who read "letters from Mount Idy," supposedly his home town; comedian Dody Goodman, who specialized in daffy non sequiturs; heavily accented French singer and actress Genevieve; British actor and wit Robert Morley, and many more.
But Paar remained the most fascinating character of them all. He was discovered during the '40s when Jack Benny needed a summer replacement for his radio show. He also had a short-lived contract at RKO, where his movie appearances included one as a suitor to Marilyn Monroe in the romantic comedy "Love Nest," starring William Lundigan and June Haver. Paar was not fond of Hollywood and insisted on keeping "The Tonight Show" based in New York, where it would have access to intelligent and articulate theater people instead of Los Angeles, where empty-headed movie stars thrived.
Regular viewers found themselves not just part of Paar's extended family but embroiled in his frequent controversies and feuds, like those he had with columnist Dorothy Kilgallen and competitor Sullivan. Paar dared to take on high-powered print journalists in an era when they still had clout; he has been credited with helping to end the tyrannical reign of demagogue Walter Winchell.
Mostly, the show was dedicated to laughter, and some of the quips and flubs became legendary in their time -- like the night Paar told guest Elsa Maxwell that her stockings were crooked and she replied, "I'm not wearing any." Paar didn't just laugh but doubled over in laughter at such moments. He also had the habit of stammering when nervous and then calling attention to the stammer. He let his human flaws and idiosyncrasies show through in an unfiltered way no TV star ever really had.
Today's audiences have had fleeting chances to see Paar perform via old footage, but out of context, so that the enormous role he played in his own times couldn't really be appreciated. Still, when the PBS program "American Masters" devoted two hours to Jack Paar in 1997 (with Paar himself producing the show), the special drew the biggest ratings of any "Masters" show up to that time. More recently "Jack Paar: Smart TV" has been a productive fundraiser for public TV stations throughout the country.
Paar loved music as well as speech, and sentimental songs were his favorites (he had a reputation for shedding tears easily). Many people are familiar with his opening theme, "Ev'rything's Coming Up Roses," appropriated from "Gypsy." There was, however, a closing theme as well, "So Until I See You," by Al Lerner and Vic Corpora. The lyrics were rarely sung, but the verse now seems eerily appropriate:
"But it's not over, don't say it's over, we will live this all again . . ."
If only we could.