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Steve Allen, TV innovator, author, composer, dies at 78

November 01, 2000|By Stephanie Simon | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Steve Allen, the zany comedian and witty social commentator whose career zipped at warp speed from one occupation to the next--from hosting the original "Tonight" show to lecturing about morality to composing thousands of songs--has died in Encino at age 78.

Allen, once honorary mayor of Encino, had been carving pumpkins with his grandchildren Monday night at his youngest son's home. He decided to rest, then lost consciousness and later died, apparently of a heart attack, said the son, Bill Allen.

Although the veteran entertainer had occasionally been in ill health over the past decade, including a bout with colon cancer, Allen lived fully until he died.

On Sunday he performed before a sold-out audience at Victor Valley College. On Monday he worked on promotional plans for the December release of his 53rd book, "Steve Allen's Private Joke File," and completed the manuscript for a planned book, "Vulgarians at the Gate," about violence and vulgarity in the media.

On Tuesday, hours after his death, The Times printed one of Allen's occasional full-page advertisements lambasting television sponsors for "the filth, sex and violence you send into our homes."

Allen, who actively supported the Screen Actors Guild during the six-month strike against the advertising industry that was settled only last week, was on the ballot as one of 74 SAG members vying for 25 open seats on the union's national board of directors. Ballots are due back from members today, with results expected later this week. A SAG spokeswoman said it is unclear what will happen under the union's bylaws if Allen wins.

The multifaceted performer prided himself on working seven days a week, eight hours a day, telling The Times not long ago: "In some ways, I feel more active now than I did many years ago. I feel like I always have. Energetic. Very, very involved."

Invented Late-Night Television Format

The son of vaudeville actors, Allen charmed radio and television audiences for decades with his inspired shtick, most of it ad-libbed. As the original host of "Tonight" in the mid-1950s, Allen invented the genre of late-night TV and redefined the art of comedy, serving up screwball skits featuring such characters as the Question Man and antics such as the very emotional reading aloud of letters to the editor.

"My comedy has always appealed to the hip and to the silly, whether it's the 9-year-olds who dig the silliness, or the high school and college kids who dig the hipness," he once said.

But Allen was equally comfortable with serious material. In 1977, he created television's "Meeting of Minds," which won an Emmy in 1981 for best informational series. The show presented imaginary debates between historic figures such as Charles Darwin, Attila the Hun and Marie Antoinette.

Allen also made a determined effort to introduce his viewers to jazz greats, showcasing soloists with the "Tonight" band and interviewing legendary musicians for a television program called "Jazz Scene U.S.A."

In perhaps his most memorable acting role, Allen portrayed a legendary jazz clarinetist in the 1955 motion picture "The Benny Goodman Story" with Goodman himself dubbing the clarinet soundtrack.

Allen's versatility astounded his admirers. He dived into nine feet of Jell-O on "Tonight" and penned a weighty book on religious cults. He composed the song "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," and published a murder mystery, a musical and books of poetry. He pioneered the concept of taking a hand-held microphone into a TV show audience, and wrote about migrant farm workers in the 1966 book "The Ground Is Our Table."

The man called "Steverino" was born the day after Christmas in 1921 with a mouthful of a name: Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen. His father died when he was a toddler, and his mother took to the road with a comedy routine, often leaving young Steve in the care of her family, the constantly bantering Donohues. Growing up amid laughter, Allen found that comedy came to him as naturally as coughing.

Allen launched his career in 1942, when he dropped out after desultory studies at Drake University in Iowa and at Arizona State Teachers College. He picked up a job at radio station KOY in Phoenix, producing his own show and launching his first comedy act.

Drafted during World War II, Allen was released from the Army after just a few months because of disabling bouts with asthma. In his 1960 autobiography, "Mark It and Strike It," Allen described himself as "a pampered, sickly beanpole, too weak for athletics and too asthmatic for the Army."

Instead, he found his niche in performing. Allen moved west for a job with Hollywood radio station KNX in 1948 and developed his now-famous routine of dabbling with the piano keys, chatting with his audience, commenting on his mail and improvising high jinks. After just two years, Allen transferred his radio act to television with "The Steve Allen Show," which debuted on Christmas in 1950.

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