Jack Paar was an American radio and television talk show host best known as the host of The Tonight Show from 1957 to 1962 (after 1959 it was known as The Jack Paar Show).
Born in Canton, Ohio, he moved, along with his family, to Jackson, Michigan, during his childhood.
Leaving school at 16, he first worked as a radio announcer at WIBM in Jackson, MI and later a humorous disc jockey at stations throughout the Midwest including WJR in Detroit, WIRE in Indianapolis, IN; WGAR in Cleveland, OH and WBEN in Buffalo, NY.
In his book P.S. Jack Paar, he claimed to have been on utility duty at WGAR on the night Orson Welles produced his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast over the CBS network, to which WGAR was an affiliate; in the course of trying to calm any panicked listeners, Paar announced, "The world is not coming to an end. Trust me. Have I ever lied to you?"
During World War II, he was part of a special services company that entertained troops in the South Pacific, his pointed jibes at officers nearly getting him into trouble more than once.
After the war, Paar tried his hand at movie acting and comedy, playing opposite Marilyn Monroe in Love Nest (1951) and frequently appearing as a standup comedian on The Ed Sullivan Show.
He also hosted the game shows Up To Paar in 1952, and Bank On The Stars in 1953. In addition, he hosted The Morning Show on CBS in 1954.
In 1956 he hosted The Jack Paar Show on the ABC Radio network.
An impressive stint as a guest host on Jack Benny's radio show caught the attention of NBC officials, who eventually offered him his best known role as host of The Tonight Show.
Paar was the program's host from 1957 to 1962; after 1959 it was known as The Jack Paar Show. It became, in 1959, one of the very first, if not the first, regularly scheduled videotaped programs in colour.
Sadly, only a few minutes of video of Paar's talk host career in colour are known to exist today; NBC's policy at the time was to preserve programming on black-and-white kinescopes.
It was during Paar's stint as host that The Tonight Show became the entertainment juggernaut that it remained for the next five decades; no other host generated the degree of obsessive fascination in the press or the public that Paar did, partly because his version of the television talk show was so amazingly unpredictable, with memorable occurrences like a slurring drunk Judy Garland talking about her rival Marlene Dietrich playing only the applause sections of a recording of Dietrich's recent European concerts while at a party that they both happened to attend.
Both John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon appeared separately on the show when they were running against each other for president in 1960, and Robert F. Kennedy later granted the first interview after his brother's assassination to Paar on The Jack Paar Program.
The focus was always on compelling conversation and Paar's guests tended to be literate raconteurs such as Peter Ustinov rather than scripted actors selling their current films, while Paar himself was a superb storyteller.
During this time, Paar also made occasional appearances on the television game shows Password and What's My Line? On episode 215 of the latter, Paar filled in as guest panelist for Steve Allen, his predecessor at The Tonight Show.
In 1959, he was criticised for his interview with Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Two years later, he broadcast his show from Berlin just as the Berlin Wall was going up.
He also sustained numerous cancellations from sponsors of the show, when he would make ad-libs during live commercials for that sponsor's product, such as once describing a brand of men's underwear that sponsored his show as "fitting so tight, it's like being hugged by a midget."
Paar also engaged in a number of public feuds, one of them with CBS luminary Ed Sullivan.
Paar was often emotional and unpredictable. The most salient example of this kind of on-screen behavior was demonstrated in 1960. One of his jokes was cut from a broadcast by studio censors.
The joke in question involved a woman writing to a vacation resort and inquiring about the availability of a "W.C." The woman used that term to mean "water closet" (i.e., bathroom), but the gentleman who received the letter misunderstood "W.C." to mean "wayside chapel" (i.e., church).
The full text of the joke reveals multiple double entendres that are tame by today's standards, but too much for the network to bear in 1960. NBC replaced that section of the show with news coverage and failed to inform Paar of their decision.
The decision to censor the joke so angered Paar that the next night, February 11, he announced on the air that he was leaving the show, saying "I've made a decision about what I'm going to do. I'm leaving The Tonight Show. There must be a better way to make a living than this, a way of entertaining people without being constantly involved in some form of controversy. I love NBC [...] But they let me down."
After finishing this monologue, Paar abruptly walked offstage, leaving his flustered announcer Hugh Downs to finish the show for him.
Less than a month later, Paar was convinced to return; on March 7 he opened his monologue with the now-famous line, "As I was saying before I was interrupted...I believe the last thing I said was 'There must be a better way to make a living than this.' Well, I've looked...and there isn't."
He then went on to explain his departure with typical frankness: "Leaving the show was a childish and perhaps emotional thing. I have been guilty of such action in the past and will perhaps be again. I'm totally unable to hide what I feel. It is not an asset in show business, but I shall do the best I can to amuse and entertain you and let other people speak freely, as I have in the past."
Paar's emotionality made the everyday routine of putting together a 90-minute program difficult to continue for long. Paar made it clear that he was not planning to continue with the Tonight Show because, as a TV Guide item put it, he was "bone tired" of the grind, and he signed off for the last time on March 29, 1962.
Paar then began hosting a prime-time Friday night show on NBC, entitled The Jack Paar Program. Popular belief holds that The Ed Sullivan Show introduced the Beatles to American television audiences; in fact, on January 3, 1964 the group made their prime time debut on Paar's hour in film clips Paar had leased from the BBC, with Paar gently making fun of the band (the Beatles first U.S. television appearance was in a feature story on The Huntley-Brinkley Report on November 18, 1963).
Paar's show had a world view, debuting acts from around the globe and showing films from exotic locations; most of the films were made on travels made by guests such as Arthur Godfrey or Paar himself (e.g., with Albert Schweitzer at his compound in Gabon, West Africa).
During the first half of 1964, another running feud pitted Paar against the show immediately preceding his program, David Frost's satire series That Was The Week That Was.
A typical exchange would have That Was the Week That Was "signing off" the NBC Television Network just before the Paar program, with Paar responding that the show immediately preceding his was Henry Morgan's Amateur Hour (Morgan was a frequent guest on the earlier show).
The mock feud suddenly evaporated when NBC moved That Was the Week That Was to a Tuesday night time slot for the 1964-65 season.
Paar's prime time show aired for three years, including guests such as Brother Dave Gardner, Peter Ustinov, Lawrence of Arabia's brother, Richard Burton, Oscar Levant, Lowell Thomas, Cassius Clay reciting his poetry to piano accompaniment by Liberace, an occasionally inebriated Judy Garland, Jonathan Winters, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby (whose nickname for Paar was "The Boss"), Bette Davis, Robert Morley and many others.
The final closing segment of the series, broadcast on June 25, 1965, featured him sitting alone on a stool, sharing a discussion that he had with his daughter Randy, who called Paar's departure a sabbatical.
Noting the origins of the term, he said that his own field was, though not completely used up, "a little dry recently." Then he called to his German shepherd, who came to him from the seats of what was, for once, an empty studio, and walked out.
Paar came back for another late-night show in January 1973 on ABC; this time, as one of a group of rotating hosts (including a young Dick Cavett, a former Paar writer) on ABC Wide World of Entertainment, he appeared one week out of each month, which was the most Paar was willing to appear.
(Paar later claimed he would not have appeared at all unless ABC committed itself to keeping Cavett's show on the schedule in some manner.)
His announcer for this series was Peggy Cass, and perhaps the most notable aspect of the series was the fact that comic Freddie Prinze made his national television debut on it.
He later expressed discomfort with what the medium had developed into. While Cavett had no problem interviewing young rock acts, Paar once expressed the view he had trouble interviewing people dressed in "overalls." The show, which was in direct competition with Tonight, lasted one year before he quit.
Dissatisfied with the one-week-per-month formula, he complained that even his own mother didn't know when he was on.
In 1986, NBC aired a special featuring Paar, titled Jack Paar Comes Home; the following year, a second special Jack Paar Is Alive and Well was broadcast by the network. Both of these specials were largely made up of kinescoped clips from Paar's prime time program, to which he maintained the copyright.
In the course of promoting the first special, Paar guested on Johnny Carson's version of Tonight for the first time on November 18, 1986.
PBS television devoted an edition of the prestigious American Masters series to Paar's career in 1997, and in 2003 revisited the topic with another hour-long examination of the Paar phenomenon, appropriately entitled Smart Television.
Paar, who enjoyed many years of relatively good health and made rare guest appearances on The Tonight Show (under Johnny Carson and Jay Leno) and Late Night with David Letterman, as well as Charles Grodin's CNBC talk show, died at his Greenwich, Connecticut home in January 2004 at age 85, with his wife and daughter by his side.
He had long been ill, having undergone triple-bypass heart surgery in 1998 and a stroke one year before he died.
As Richard Corliss noted in Time Magazine's obituary, Jack Paar had divided television talk show history into two eras: Before Paar and Below Paar.