PARR, JACK

U.S. Talk-Show Host

Jack Paar is one of television's most intriguing and enigmatic talk show hosts. He served as the host of the Tonight Show from 1957 through 1962 and headed his own NBC variety series from 1962 to 1965. Both series were stamped with Paar's volatile and unpredictable personality and often a haven for witty, literate conversation.

Although Paar is considered one of the key talents uniquely suited to the cool medium of television, he worked extensively in other areas of show business. Leaving school at sixteen, he first worked as a radio announcer and later a humorous disc jockey. During World War II, Paar entertained troops in the South Pacific with his wry impersonations of officers, sometimes in concert with his Army colleague Jackie Cooper. After the war, he returned to radio, serving as a fill-in for Don MacNeil on the Breakfast Club and panelist on The $64 Question. In 1947 he was the summer replacement for Jack Benny, a comedian whose mannerisms Paar would later emulate. Paar was signed to a contract at Howard Hughes's RKO Pictures and debuted in Walk Softly, Stranger (1950) with Joseph Cotten. In 1951 he made Love Nest for 20th Century-Fox, playing the sexy boyfriend opposite an emerging starlet, Marilyn Monroe.

Paar was first employed in television as a host of game shows, notably Up to Paar (1952) and Bank of Stars (1953). In November 1953 he hosted his own daytime variety series for CBS and assembled a cast of regulars, including Edith Adams, Richard Hayes, Jack Haskell, and pianist Jose Melis. In August 1954 he took over the Morning Show from Walter Cronkite and became a competitor of Dave Garroway and the Today show. During this morning experience, Paar developed his conversational skills and an appreciation for a relaxed program with no rigid guidelines. When CBS again changed formats, Paar was given another variety series, this time in the afternoon.

Because of several well-received guest appearances on NBC's Tonight, Paar ascended to the permanent host slot on 29 July 1957. For several months before, the late-night series had floundered when original host Steve Allen moved permanently to prime time. Paar was given free rein to restore the show's luster and assembled his own freewheeling staff, including writers Jack Douglas and Paul Keyes, to give the show an extemporaneous quality. The new creative team emphasized the importance of the opening monologue as a vehicle to transmit Paar's singular, often emotional view of the world. Unlike any other host of The Tonight Show, Paar had no talent for sketches, so his writers created a persona through his words, always leaving space for the host to verbally improvise.

Called a "bull in his own china shop," he gained notoriety by creating feuds with the show business community, including Ed Sullivan, Walter Winchell, William Paley, and most television critics. To salve his often bruised ego, he surrounded himself with a salon of eccentrics whose ranks included pianist and professional hypochondriac Oscar Levant, the outspoken Elsa Maxwell, the irreverent Alexander King, and British raconteurs Robert Morley, Bea Lillie, and Peter Ustinov. He resurrected the careers of performers on the entertainment fringe, inviting back on a regular basis the folksy Cliff "Charley Weaver" Arquette, music hall veteran Hermione Gingold, French chanteuse Genevieve, and acerbic Hans Conreid. More in keeping with the Tonight ethos, Paar also nurtured young comic talent, and among his discoveries were Bob Newhart, the Smothers Brothers, Dick Gregory, Godfrey Cambridge, and Bill Cosby.

Paar also removed the talk show out of the controlled studio and begin to intermingle politics and entertainment. He and author Jim Bishop journeyed to Cuba and prepared a special report, "The Background of the Revolution." Paar's unexplained embrace of Castro was vehemently questioned by Batista supporters and even the United States House of Representatives. Paar also became friendly with the Kennedys and invited Robert Kennedy as chief counsel of the Senate Labor-Management Relations Committee to discuss his investigation of organized crime in the unions. The head of the Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa, responded with a million dollar lawsuit against Kennedy and Paar, which was eventually thrown out of court. Paar was also the first entertainer to originate a program from the Berlin Wall, which he did less than a month after its construction at the height of Cold War tension.

Paar became the most successful presence in late night, expanding his affiliate base from the 46 stations with which he started out to 170. In 1957, the title was changed to The Jack Paar Tonight Show and the next season the show was taped early in the evening instead of broadcast live. Beginning July 1959 Paar broadcast only four nights a week; Friday night became "The Best of Paar," inaugurating a tradition of Tonight reruns. At the height of his fame, he battled NBC censors over a joke about a water closet, a British euphemism for a bathroom. Incensed, he walked out at the beginning of a show, leaving announcer Hugh Downs to finish the program. His walk-off and subsequent disappearance dominated news for five weeks until he returned after an extended stay in Hong Kong.

Paar's rollercoaster ride on Tonight continued until 30 March 1962. He retired from late night, having hosted more than 2,000 hours. In September 1962, Paar returned to the variety format and produced a weekly Friday night series, borrowing the most successful elements of his talk show. Each telecast was ignited by a monologue and the core of each program was an in-depth conversation with some of Hollywood's most voluble personalities, including Judy Garland, Tallulah Bankhead, Richard Burton, and Jonathan Winters. Paar also spiced the series with home movies of his family trips, with wife Miriam and daughter Randy also becoming celebrities.

Paar continued to make headlines with newsworthy segments. He ventured into Gabon, Africa to interview Nobel Prize recipient Dr. Albert Schweitzer. Richard Nixon made his first public appearance after his defeat in the gubernatorial race in California and entertained Paar's audience with a piano solo. He also presented the first footage of the Beatles in prime time, a performance he openly derided as the downfall of British civilization.

He retired from the network grind in 1965 to manage a television station in Maine. In March 1975, Paar was persuaded to return to late night to compete against the inheritor of the Tonight mantle, Johnny Carson. This time he was reduced to one week every month, part of the ABC Wide World of Entertainment. The format that he had fostered had changed considerably and Paar retired five months later, this time for good.

Paar was an integral part of a new generation of television personalities. Unlike an older generation trained in vaudeville and Broadway, Paar and such 1950s contemporaries as Garry Moore, Arthur Godfrey, and Dave Garroway had no specific show business talents. They could neither act, sing, nor dance. They were products of a intimate electronic technology that allowed for a personalized connection with the audience. As a talk show and variety host, Paar created a complex, unpredictable character, whose whims and tantrums created national tremors.

-Ron Simon

 


Jack Paar
Photo courtesy of Jack Paar

JACK PAAR. Born in Canton, Ohio, U.S.A., 1 May 1918. Married: 1) Irene, late 1930s; 2) Miriam Wagner, 1943, child: Randy. Served as a noncombatant soldier in the United States Army with the 28th Special Service Company during World War II. Actor in motion pictures, 1950-53; appeared in radio and television shows including The $64 Question, Up to Paar, and CBS Morning Show, 1947-57; star of NBC's Tonight Show, 1957-62, and of various other programs.

TELEVISION SERIES

1952      Up to Paar
1953      Bank on the Stars
1954      The Jack Paar Show
1957-62 The Tonight Show (renamed The Jack Paar                                Show, 1959)
1962-65 The Jack Paar Program
1975     ABC's Wide World of Entertainment

TELEVISION SPECIALS

1960 Jack Paar Presents
1967 A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to Hollywood 1967 Jack Paar and a Funny Thing Happened Everywhere 1969 Jack Paar and His Lions
1970 Jack Paar Diary
1986 Jack Paar Comes Home
1987 Jack Paar Is Alive and Well

FILMS

Variety Time, 1948; Easy Living, 1949; Walk Softly, Stranger, 1949; Love Nest, 1951; Footlight Varieties, 1951; Down Among the Sheltering Palms, 1952.

PUBLICATIONS

I Kid You Not, with John Reddy. Boston: Little Brown, 1960.

My Saber Is Bent, with John Reddy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961.

Three On a Toothbrush. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1965.

P.S. Jack Paar. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1983.

FURTHER READING

Galanoy, Terry. Tonight! Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1972.

Henderson, Amy. On the Air: Pioneers of American Broadcasting . Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.

Metz, Robert. The Tonight Show. New York: Playboy Press, 1980.

 

See also Talk Shows; Tonight Show