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Tom Snyder, 71; host of NBC's `Tomorrow' pioneered the late-late-night TV talk show

July 31, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Tom Snyder, the brash and provocative late-night TV talk-show host whose bellowing laugh and ever-present cigarette made him a pop culture icon ripe for parody in the 1970s, has died. He was 71.

Snyder died Sunday in San Francisco of complications associated with leukemia, Mike Horowicz, his longtime producer and friend, told the Associated Press on Monday.

"Tom was the very thing that all broadcasters long to be: compelling," David Letterman, whose production company produced the show that marked Snyder's return to late-night TV in the 1990s, said in a statement Monday.

"Whether he was interviewing politicians, authors, actors or musicians, Tom was always the real reason to watch," Letterman said. "I'm honored to have known him as a colleague and as a friend."

CNN talk-show host Larry King said in a statement to The Times: "Tom Snyder was one of a kind; he had a unique personality. He changed anchoring in television news; his approach was like no one else."

A top-rated evening news anchor at KNBC-TV Channel 4 in Los Angeles in the early '70s, Snyder made the transition to late-night TV in 1973 as the host of "The Tomorrow Show," which ran in the time slot after "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" until 1982.

As NBC's late-late-night answer to old movies for insomniacs -- it originally aired from 1 to 2 a.m. and later from 12:30 to 2 a.m. -- "The Tomorrow Show" featured discussion topics such as group marriage, suicide, male prostitution, rock music groupies and film censorship.

Snyder also talked with newsmakers such as Teamsters union President Jimmy Hoffa, former Vice President Spiro Agnew, Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, and -- from prison in California -- Charles Manson. John Lennon, Marlon Brando and Orson Welles also sat for chats with Snyder.

"Fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the pictures, now, as they fly through the air," Snyder would tell his viewers.

"I told [network executives] in the beginning, 'Don't put me in a monkey suit. Don't put me in front of a band. I'm a newsman. I don't tell jokes. I just talk about issues,' " Snyder recalled in a 1979 interview with Newsweek magazine.

"It's sort of a little hip shoot," Snyder said of his show. "Something's got to happen or they'll turn off the box at this hour. What will make the program will be when people begin to say, 'Did you hear what that s.o.b. said at 1:20 this morning?' "

Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, authors of "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows," wrote of Snyder: "Tom could be sweet and ingenuous one moment, relentlessly probing the next."

As for criticism of his sometimes arrogant, intimidating and belligerent on-camera demeanor, Snyder told the New York Times in 1977:

"I'm not just there as a piece of wood, for people to talk to. I'm a human being. I have opinions and biases and beliefs and standards, and I have to inject them into that program. Otherwise we might as well have an empty chair and give the guests a list of written questions and let them answer them."

Despite the late hour, several million Americans regularly tuned into Snyder's show. Letterman, whose original late-night show replaced Snyder's on NBC in 1982, was one of them.

"I'd come home, turn on the TV, and suddenly NBC has this wonderful new show," Letterman remarked when Snyder appeared on the Letterman show in 1994. "It was you, sitting low in your chair, darkly lit, smoke rolling out of your nose. The image and feeling of intimacy was overwhelming."

Snyder quickly became fodder for parody, most memorably by Dan Aykroyd on "Saturday Night Live," complete with a cloud of cigarette smoke, the dramatic delivery and the big laugh that former Times television critic Howard Rosenberg once described as exploding from Snyder's "6-foot-4 body like a howitzer."

"I was flattered," Snyder said of Aykroyd's impersonation in a 1994 interview with the New York Times. "It wasn't a spiteful parody at all. And it was hilarious."

What's important about Snyder and "The Tomorrow Show," said Robert J. Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, is that "he really helped settle real estate that had not been settled before: The suburbs of prime time had never stretched much past Johnny Carson.

"Most people thought at 1 o'clock at night, they'd watch 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and the station sign-off," Thompson told The Times on Monday. "Snyder took that real estate after 'The Tonight Show' and turned it into something really worth watching."

Reflecting on his long broadcasting career, Snyder once said: "It may sound corny, but I think I was born to do this."

Born in Milwaukee on May 12, 1936, Snyder dreamed of becoming a radio disc jockey and often visited local radio stations.

Although he enrolled as a pre-med student at Marquette University after graduating from a local Jesuit high school, he soon switched to journalism.

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