Steve Allen is television's only living Renaissance man. Comedian, pianist, composer, master of ceremonies, scriptwriter, producer, director, actor, singer — Allen has explored and conquered just about every facet of television entertainment. In the early years, he created one of the medium’s most durable treasures: The Tonight Show. More recently, he devised, wrote, and hosted one of TV’s most prestigious series, Meeting of Minds.
Allen, however, doesn’t belong only to television. He started his career as a performer on radio. Through the years, as he found creative outlets in television, he reached for literary expression, proving himself as a novelist, a poet, and an essayist. A Man for All Media, the appellation that has followed Steve Allen for at least two decades, is one he undoubtedly has earned.
Born in New York City on December 16, 1921, Allen once told a magazine writer, “I came from a somewhat disorderly background.” His biography hints at an unhappy childhood spent traveling from city to city with a mother who was a vaudeville comedienne.
“My mother,” he said, “was not well cast for the role. Not every adult should be a parent. My mother had no particular gift for motherhood. And even if she had, it would have been a difficult situation: vaudeville was no place to raise children.” (His father, a straightman and vocalist, died before Steve was two.) Later, because young Allen developed asthma, mother and son eventually settled in Arizona, but not before he had gone to 16 schools.
After a year at Drake University, another at Arizona State Teachers College, and a stint in the U.S. Army, he worked three years as an announcer-writer-pianist-producer for radio station KOY in Phoenix. In 1945, he traveled to Los Angeles to break into radio big time. Eventually, at KNX, he created a late-night comedy-music-talk show still regarded as one of the funniest programs in Los Angeles’s radio history.
In 1950, CBS lured him to New York to head a comedy-variety series titled The Steve Allen Show, which premiered Christmas Day of that year and aired live Monday through Friday for 30 minutes at 7:00 p.m. Allen played the piano, interviewed guest stars, and displayed one of his greatest assets: ad-lib humor.
“To the degree that I have any distinction at all as a comedian,” Allen once said, “I suppose it is in the spontaneous creation of humor in front of an audience.”
In March of the following year, the show moved to the 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. slot and, with an expanded version, moved yet again in the summer of 1952 — this time to CBS prime-time on alternate Thursday nights.
The show was canceled in September 1952, but not before Allen had been named host of the CBS show Songs for Sale, in which aspiring songwriters had their songs rated by a panel of judges and performed by such talents as Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee, and Tony Bennett. Allen's tenure on that show lasted for the 1951-52 season.
Through 1953-54, he appeared occasionally as a panelist on the CBS variety telecast This Is Show Business, and regularly on the network's top-rated panel show What’s My Line?
Then, in 1954, he returned to the talk show format he practically invented on Los Angeles radio, hosting NBC's Tonight Show.
NBC President Sylvester (“Pat”) Weaver, Jr., had the admirable idea of positioning the already successful late-night Allen show in the network's 11:30 p.m.-1:00 a.m. nightly schedule and changing the name of the program to Tonight. Weaver wanted a relaxed, conversational program that would serve as a kind of electronic nightcap for America's TV audience and recognized precisely those qualities in Allen's late-night mix of talk, comedy, and music.
Under Allen, Weaver got what he wanted. Tonight, which premiered live September 27, 1954, was informal, informative, chatty, and consistently entertaining.
Bespectacled, boyish, and always the well-behaved wit, Allen, seated at the piano, would open each evening with good talk and good music. He occasionally included some of his own compositions, such as his most famous song, This Could Be the Start of Something Big. Then he went to his desk, called out his guest stars, and traded repartee with them. At some point in the program, he mingled with members of his audience, showering them with his comedic ad-libbing.
He also used remote cameras to broadcast various scenes outside the studio. One of his most memorable remotes occurred when Tonight was telecasting from Miami. Allen had persuaded the U.S. Marines to stage a full-scale landing on Miami Beach, all for the benefit of the show. Tourists in neighboring hotels, however, believed that a Cuban military invasion was actually taking place — and panicked.
After his Sunday prime-time series, The Steve Allen Show, made its debut on NBC in the summer of 1956, the comedian cut back his Tonight duties to Wednesday through Friday. He continued Tonight on that basis until January 25, 1957, when he left the show to devote his energies to his new comedy-variety program.
The new Steve Allen Show featured talented comics and such skits as “The Allen Report to the Nation,” “The Question Man,” “Letters to the Editor,” “The Allen Bureau of Standards,” and “Where Are They Now?”
The most popular feature of the show was “Man on the Street Interview,” which allowed the program’s regular comics to showcase their talents and the characters with whom they were soon identified. Thus, Louis Nye was the effete Gordon Hathaway, Don Knotts was the high strung Mr. Morrison; Pat Harrington assumed the role of Italian golfer Guido Panzini; Tom Poston portrayed the man who could never remember his own name; and Bill Dana became the bashful Jose Jimenez. ]
The Steve Allen Show, always neck-to neck in the ratings battle with CBS's Ed Sullivan Show, continued on Sunday nights until the 1959-60 season, when NBC moved it to Monday evenings. It left the network at the end of the season and moved to ABC in 1961, introducing Tim Conway and Jim Nabors and featuring the Smothers Brothers.
From 1962 to 1964, Allen returned to his Tonight show format when another Steve Allen Show aired over Westinghouse TV. In 1964, he moved back to CBS for three years as moderator of the long-running quiz show I’ve Got a Secret. He also headed the network’s Steve Allen Comedy Hour during the summer of 1967, featuring such regulars as his wife, actress-comedienne Jayne Meadows, Louis Nye, John Byner, and Ruth Buzzi.
For the next several years, Allen turned primarily to syndication to sell his various series, including another daily comedy-talk show that bore his name, and Laugh-back, a series of 23 comedy specials.
In 1977, he launched a new television art form in Meeting of Minds, the highly acclaimed PBS series that resurrected the illustrious dead for a discussion of their lives and philosophies. The four seasons of Meeting of Minds presented Steve Allen at his television best: writer, wit, student of history, conversationalist. "The show can teach history — obviously," he once said, “but it can also teach the art of rational communication. There's too much screaming and misunderstanding in the world." The series won an Emmy and a Peabody Award, among other honors.
Since then, Allen has hosted a series of NBC comedy specials, as well as ABC specials entitled Life's Most Embarrassing Moments. He narrated The Start of Something Big, a one-hour syndicated series about how certain things and certain celebrities got their start in life.
Last December the television musical Alice in Wonderland aired as a four-hour miniseries. Allen wrote the music and lyrics for 19 songs performed by such artists as Martha Raye, Imogene Coca, Karl Malden, Carol Channing, Sammy Davis, Jr., Steve Lawrence, and Eydie Gorme.
Allen, a veritable one-man entertainment center, has written more than four thousand songs. So many, in fact, that he is listed in the 1984 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific composer of modern times.
He has written 28 books, including the popular novel Not All of Your Laughter, Not All of Your Tears, and recorded more than 30 record albums.
And, by most accounts, he has lived a dozen lifetimes. In 1974, at a roast in honor of his 25th year in television, Allen quoted a French cardinal who, when asked what he had done during the Revolution, said, "I survived." Steve Allen has indeed survived magnificently.
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Steve Allen's induction in 1986.