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‘Tonight Show’ Host Jack Paar Dies at 85

Jack Paar (left) shown in this undated publicity photograph. Mr. Paar is shown with Hugh Downs (center) and Jose Melis.
Jack Paar (left) shown in this undated publicity photograph. Mr. Paar is shown with Hugh Downs (center) and Jose Melis. (HO/REUTERS)
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Jack Paar, a wry, spontaneous and brainy broadcaster whose “The Tonight Show” and “The Jack Paar Program” pioneered the late-night television talk show in the 1950s and early 1960s, died Jan. 27 at his home in Greenwich, Conn. He was 85.

The cause was complications from a stroke, his son-in-law, Stephen Wells, told the Associated Press.

Mr. Paar, a former comedian, actor and fill-in host for a mentor, Jack Benny, said his career was one of “near misses” -- until he took over “Tonight” on NBC in July 1957. A skilled improviser and interviewer, he amassed an audience of millions with fun and multitalented guests who catered to his command of eclectic interests and barbed repartee, as when he nominated the oft-married Elizabeth Taylor for the “Other Woman of the Year Award.” He left television at his peak, handing over “Tonight” to Johnny Carson in 1962 and then ending his self-titled talk show on NBC three years later.

Alternately cerebral and emotional, Mr. Paar turned his programs into exercises in high tension and delight. Comedian Jonathan Winters and Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer made appearances on “The Jack Paar Program.” Richard M. Nixon, having lost the 1960 presidential race and the 1962 California gubernatorial campaign, played a piano composition he’d written.

Mr. Paar was one of the first television personalities to tape his shows for broadcast later. He liked to watch himself at night to critique his own performance. But taping also led to interference by NBC executives, creating a rift between Mr. Paar and the network that eventually led to his permanent departure.

On Feb. 11, 1960, he famously walked off his show for a month after NBC censors edited out a segment, filmed the night before, about a joke involving a toilet.

He took his camera crews to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro, to Berlin just after the Berlin Wall was erected and to Africa to visit with Schweitzer. Mr. Paar’s trips courted some controversy at the time but later were seen as efforts that distinguished his programs from others for their scope and curiosity.

“Anyone who saw him when he was in his prime knew he was a great television original,” said Ron Simon, a television curator at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York. “You never knew what was going to happen. . . . He was the catalyst for ways the talk shows would go.”

“The whole idea of intermingling politics with entertainment on a talk show really began with Jack Paar,” Simon said.

Jack Harold Parr was born in Canton, Ohio, on May 1, 1918, and moved around the upper Midwest because his father was a division superintendent with the New York Central Railroad.

Mr. Parr said he had a lonely childhood, exacerbated by a stutter and then an episode of tuberculosis. His skill as a broadcaster could be directly attributed to his working to overcome those conditions.

He cured himself of a stutter by sticking buttons in his mouth and reading aloud. While in bed with tuberculosis, he spent many hours playing with the radio his father built for him. He became entranced by electronics.

Otherwise, he spent his time reading about great figures in history instead of focusing on schoolwork. He was a restless youth and dropped out of high school to work as a radio announcer.

His early career took him to Indianapolis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo. He started honing his act to include comic routines, which became a particular favorite of enlisted men as he toured for the Army during World War II.

His jokes were usually at the expense of the officers. He quieted one talkative officer with the line, “Lieutenant, a man with your IQ should have a low voice, too.”

After the war, Howard Hughes, then running RKO movie studios, invited Mr. Paar to Hollywood to appear in several feature films. The most notable was Twentieth Century-Fox’s “Love Nest” (1951), an early comic vehicle with Marilyn Monroe.

As a film actor, he did not make much of an impression. His early efforts as a television host were equally inauspicious. At one time, he took over from Walter Cronkite as host of “The Morning Show,” an attempt by CBS to compete with “The Today Show” on NBC.

He was more successful on radio, temporarily replacing much larger stars, such as Benny and Arthur Godfrey, on their programs.

He took over “The Tonight Show” from Steve Allen, who had emphasized quicksilver pacing and sketch comedy. Mr. Paar instead treated his audience to interviews with irrepressible raconteurs -- among them Oscar Levant, Elsa Maxwell, Hermione Gingold and Buddy Hackett -- which helped rescue the show from low ratings.

His humor also poked fun at the very nature of celebrity. He might pretend not to see Cary Grant in favor of an old lady sitting next to the suave and instantly recognizable film star.

In other routines, he might show baby pictures and substitute crazy captions to explain the scene.

His throwaway lines became catchphrases, such as “I kid you not” after he told a supposedly true story. The line also became the title of one of the books he wrote.

Television critic Jack Gould of the New York Times wrote in 1962: “Mr. Paar almost alone has managed to preserve the possibility of surprise” in an otherwise dreary television landscape.

His penchant for surprise sometimes bubbled into controversy. He drew rebukes from NBC after walking off his show during the “water closet” incident.

For that show, he told a five-minute story about an Englishwoman traveling in Switzerland and looking for the W.C., a British euphemism for a water closet or toilet. Only, as the story continued, a Swiss priest and schoolmaster think she is looking for a wayside chapel.

After a network censor cut the joke out of taste concerns, Mr. Paar walked off the show and refused to work for nearly a month. When he returned, he made his entrance with the droll punchline, “As I was saying, before I was interrupted ...”

He added in a quasi-apology: “Leaving the show was a childish and perhaps emotional thing. I have been guilty of such action in the past and will perhaps be again. I’m totally unable to hide what I feel. It is not an asset in show business.”

He left “Tonight” for good in March 1962, returning a few months later for “The Jack Paar Program.” He also engaged in feuds with gossip columnists Dorothy Kilgallen and Walter Winchell and the television host Ed Sullivan. Much of the controversy was self-inflicted, as when Mr. Paar said Winchell’s “high, hysterical voice” came from “wearing too tight underwear.”

He retired in 1965, tiring of the grinding work schedule. He popped back into public life for career retrospectives but otherwise tended to such business interests as owning a television station in Maine.

Despite his intense public demeanor, he often shunned parties at ritzy watering holes in favor of a quiet family life.

He once described his interests as electronics, oil painting and helping end the scourge of crabgrass.

He was twice married and divorced to a pianist named Irene Gubbins, whom he met early in his radio career. “The first time we were divorced, it was my fault,” Mr. Paar said. “The second time, it was her fault. When we felt that we were even, we quit.”

Survivors include his wife, Miriam Wagner Parr, whom he married in 1943, and their daughter.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of his story incorrectly reported that Mr. Paar said his well-known quip, “As I was saying, before I was interrupted ...,” in 1962 on the first episode of “The Jack Paar Program” after he left “The Tonight Show.” He said the punchline in 1960 after returning to “The Tonight Show” from a hiatus amid a dispute with the network. The story has been revised.

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