Tom Snyder is driving a sporty black two-door Cadillac through Beverly Hills, on his way to a new future--again.
His destination is CBS Television City. His assignment: Just as he established a late-late talk show following NBC's Johnny Carson from 1973 to 1982, he now will try to do the same for David Letterman, starting Jan. 9.
At 58, in an open-collared dress shirt and slacks, Snyder looks fit and slender. He says he takes long daily walks: "I go at a pretty good clip. I do three miles in about 45 minutes."
He reminisces about a career that reads like a road map of broadcasting: local news, network news and NBC's late-late "Tomorrow" show, where he established the bravado \o7 talkmeister \f7 style--irreverent and sometimes abrasive--that Dan Aykroyd of "Saturday Night Live" jumped on.
More recently, there was a nighttime ABC Radio talk show and then a CNBC cable series, both of which caught the eye and ear of Letterman, a longtime fan, who subsequently tapped him for the plum job following his own show after Bob Costas turned down the post.
As Snyder wheels toward CBS, he is definitely heading for a fork in the road after more than a quarter-century of high-profile exposure crisscrossing the country. Los Angeles, New York, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Atlanta are among the major stops. When he was on top, as with "Tomorrow," it was the very top. But he has also bombed, and bombed badly, as he did in his overpromoted failure at WABC-TV in New York. That was in the early 1980s, and he seemed washed up.
"Oh, yeah, peaks and valleys," he acknowledges.
That's putting it mildly. But, as fate would have it, the egg he laid in New York eventually led to the start of the road back that now has landed him "The Late Late Show With Tom Snyder," following Letterman. Snyder doesn't like the word \o7 comeback\f7 . "I've never been away," he says.
Yet it certainly was a form of \o7 national\f7 comeback. After the WABC-TV flop, he did an afternoon show on Los Angeles station KABC-TV Channel 7--only to be replaced there also by the syndicated Oprah Winfrey series.
But then he began his nightly ABC Radio gig, followed by his engaging, well-received CNBC prime-time series the last two years.
Producer Michael Horowicz, who was with Snyder during the WABC-TV years and on the CNBC show, which ended just a month ago, says of the New York fiasco: "Those were bad times for Tom. He deserves a shot, to have his fun now. I'm just here with him for the ride.
"Tom will even say it: Radio changed him. He was almost bitter, jaded, cynical when he left New York. And then when I met up with him again a year ago, he was deeper. He was like a fine aged wine. I think what happened was a little bit of humbling, but mostly the interaction with the callers. It softened him and put him in touch with his viewers and his listeners, people who were his fans. That was the big thing."
Snyder concurs: "I discovered radio, and to this day I love it. I love it more than I will ever love television because, to me, it is the most intimate and the most powerful medium of all broadcasting. The 5 1/2 years that I worked for ABC Radio were the best years of my life."
(In fact, two key elements of talk radio will be part of Snyder's new CBS show: It will be fed live to stations in the East and Midwest, and it will include calls from viewers. CBS Radio, which plans to simulcast the show nationally, is aiming to line up 150 stations.)
After he left radio for cable's CNBC, Snyder says bluntly, "There were a lot of people at CNBC who said, 'Tom is over the hill.' "
But Andy Friendly, the vice president of prime-time programs who hired Snyder for CNBC, says the broadcaster turned out to be "the heart and soul" of the cable network during the last two years.
"There's no question that his leaving is a huge loss for us," Friendly "More than anyone else, he symbolized the growth of CNBC."
Friendly says CNBC tried hard to keep Snyder, "but in the end, the lure of the big tent, the big network, getting back to broadcasting in the late night, which he always loved, working with Letterman--who's a friend and fan of his--and the symmetry of taking back his own time period, which Dave took from him (at NBC), there's a lot of magic wrapped up in all that, and I think that's what really did it for Tom."
Letterman is CBS' biggest star right now--the undisputed new king of late-night TV--and his company, Worldwide Pants Inc., will produce the Snyder series. The reported $42-million deal that brought Letterman to CBS from NBC included the rights to a follow-up show. And the executive producers of "The Late Show With David Letterman"--Peter Lassally and Robert Morton--will also be the executive producers of the Snyder entry.
Speaking of Snyder, Letterman says: "I'm very fond of this guy. I saw his very first 'Tomorrow' show and watched many of them over the years. The impression one got of intimacy for that time of night and his communication skills were terrific--the perfect man for the time period."