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L.A. THEN AND NOW

Local talk-show hosts' barbs, onstage and off, hooked viewers

The tumult involving Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and David Letterman wouldn't have fazed Southern California viewers 50 years ago. They were used to chaos and controversy on the local TV chat circuit.

January 24, 2010|By Steve Harvey
  • Oscar Levant, a chain-smoking, pill-popping actor, concert pianist, composer and wit, enjoyed hurling barbs at other celebrities, even fellow TV hosts.
Oscar Levant, a chain-smoking, pill-popping actor, concert pianist,…

The talk-show tumult involving Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and David Letterman wouldn't have fazed viewers half a century ago in Southern California.

They were used to chaos and controversy on the local TV chat circuit during that free-wheeling era of live broadcasts.

On any night, a host might walk off in the middle of the program (if he had even bothered to show up). Or smash a sponsor's product on the stage. Or direct insults at spectators.

Arguments with wives, on and off the air, occasionally broke out -- and only occasionally featured firearms.

The most famous host probably was Oscar Levant. A pill-popping actor, concert pianist, composer and wit, he was given a talk show by courageous KCOP-TV Channel 13 in 1958.

Summing up his mental state, the chain-smoking Levant once said on the air: "I've been in four hospitals in the last six years. I've had insulin shock therapy, electroshock therapy and psychotherapy. One of these days, I'm going to do this show in white tie and straitjacket."

Levant enjoyed throwing barbs at other celebrities, even hosts. " 'The Jerry Lewis Show,' " he said, "has all the suspense of a Hitchcock thriller -- the suspense of wondering when the first laugh will come."

Levant's co-host was his actress wife, June. Once, newspaper columnist Roger Grace recalled, Levant asked her to read letters from her fans on the air. As the praise poured out, the insecure Levant stormed off the stage, yelling at her on the way.

He also clashed with his sponsor, Philco, a television manufacturer. When Philco dropped him, Levant exhorted his audience, "None of you buy Philco products until it returns to my show!" according to his co-biographers, Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger.

Levant predicted that he would be fired but said he could always find work with either KHJ-TV Channel 9 or KTLA-TV Channel 5 because "they'll take anybody."

He was suspended and, sure enough, KHJ hired him. There, his sponsor, Emerson Radios, asked Levant "if he would demonstrate one of their new, unbreakable bedside radios by dropping it lightly on the desk," his biographers wrote.

Instead, Levant hurled it to the floor, breaking it into pieces.

Mused Levant: "Why should everything be unbreakable anyway?"

With a guest list that included U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, author Aldous Huxley and architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Levant enjoyed high ratings. But his health prompted him to leave KHJ. He briefly returned to a forgiving KCOP before retiring as a host.

One of Levant's colleagues at KCOP was Tom Duggan, a fiery commentator who had left Chicago rather than face a 10-day jail sentence for contempt of court (he had commented on the air about a child-custody trial in which he was involved).

It was a first: a talk-show host on the run.

In 1956, Duggan made more headlines in L.A. when his wife pursued him to the residence of a woman who worked as his sidekick. The wife shot the lock off the door.

Police found Duggan in the apartment but not, oddly enough, the sidekick. The sidekick later told police she had gone fishing with her boyfriend that night.

Duggan's wife, who was armed with a gun and claw hammer, told police: "I was knocking on the door with the gun when it went off. It was an accident."

Duggan later told reporters: "My wife is beautiful, but she's a lousy shot."

He was fired by two stations for failing to show up for his show and later toiled as a rock disc jockey. "He hates the music and rips it with enthusiasm," The Times noted.

Joe Pyne, a controversial L.A. radio and television talk-show host for 14 years, led a quieter personal life.

What he was known for was his abrasive on-camera style.

Pyne, who claimed to have originated the talk-radio format in Wisconsin in the 1940s, was hired by KTTV Channel 11 a decade later.

He focused on issues, saying, "I don't interview movie stars on their last picture." The decorated Marine Corps veteran enjoyed jousting with anti-Vietnam War activists and liberals in general.

He also tangled with his audience members, whom he might advise to "gargle razor blades" or "take your false teeth out, put them in backward and bite yourself in the neck."

Love him or hate him, viewers tuned in. At one point, Pyne's show was syndicated in more than 80 cities.

For all his health woes, Levant outlived Duggan and Pyne. Duggan was killed in a car crash on Pacific Coast Highway in 1969. He was 53.

Pyne, a chain smoker who called cigarettes "coffin nails," died of lung cancer in 1970. He was 45.

Levant died of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of 65. In retirement, he had taken to writing.

Once, appearing on "The Merv Griffin Show," Levant brought along his book, "Memoirs of an Amnesiac," and asked Griffin to plug it.

"It's a very good book," Griffin responded.

"How do you know?" Levant snapped. "Since when are you a literary critic?"

steveharvey9@gmail.com

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