AKRON, Ohio – Jack Paar could talk. For roughly a decade, he was television’s king of talk, in late-night and prime time.

The Canton, Ohio, native, who died Tuesday, loved to talk to politicians, especially his admired Kennedys. He talked to actors, once claiming guest Mickey Rooney was “loaded” and should leave the air. He talked to people who were most famous for talking to Paar, people like entertainer Elsa Maxwell and musician Oscar Levant.

And he talked to his viewers, millions of them, about his likes and dislikes, his travels and his family.

He was not always a pleasant man. When Paar began attacking columnist Walter Winchell, it was a young bully going after an older one, since Winchell had little of his once-famous clout. He stormed off NBC in a snit about being censored for a mildly off-color joke about a “w.c.” (short for “water closet,” or toilet). NBC eventually got him back.

For all his talk, he remained something of a mystery, proclaiming “my allergy to meeting strangers.” Hugh Downs, who worked as Paar’s late-night sidekick, once wrote that “for every criticism of an action or attitude of Jack’s, one could cite an action or attitude opposite in character.”

In his heyday, Paar was fascinating to viewers and newspaper writers who fed on his every teary declaration and angry diatribe.

Paar died at his home in Greenwich, Conn., reportedly after a long illness. He was 85 years old.

Aside from a brief comeback in the ’70s, he had basically ended his TV career in 1965. And even then, it felt as if he had hung on longer than he wanted.

“Show business just isn’t something I feel I have to be in the rest of my life,” Paar said in 1959, when as NBC’s late-night host, he was near the height of his fame.

He had remade “The Tonight Show” – renamed “The Jack Paar Show” for most of his reign – in 1957, taking over after a varied format had failed to keep the viewers loyal to previous host Steve Allen.

In 1962, he gave up the late-night show for a prime-time one (opening the late-night door for Johnny Carson). But the prime-time series – a mix of variety and talk similar to the late show – lasted only until 1965. Based on some earlier comments, Paar apparently decided he had enough money and did not need to work so hard.

“Every night, when the show was over, and it went really well … you’d feel great,” Paar told reporters in 1997 while promoting a documentary about his career. “And then the memos would come in. Memos asking who’s available for, like, next month.”

Paar had worked hard for a chance to deal with those memos, starting in radio as a teen-ager and wandering from station to station – with stops in Youngstown and Cleveland.

Born on May 1, 1918, in Canton, the son of a railroad man moved around as a child – from Canton to Detroit and finally Jackson, Mich. But his movements as an adult were at least partly an attempt to figure out what he did well.

For a time, he thought that was being a comedian, a trade he pursued in radio – where he said he lost his Cleveland job for making fun of the station executives’ wives.

He also committed comedy in a Special Service unit of the Army during World War II. “Paar won every skirmish hands down with his keen marksmanship with a quip – always directed toward “the brass,”‘ said an NBC biography.


His strong point at first was not being a husband, as he recalled later that he married and divorced the same woman twice in Cleveland.

“The first time we got a divorce, it was my fault,” he wrote in his 1960 memoir “I Kid You Not” – a pet Paar expression that became a national catchphrase. “The second time it was her fault. We finally decided to quit while we were all even.”

But later, he married Pennsylvanian Miriam Wagner – after assuring her father, with great exaggeration, that he had gone to Cleveland’s Western Reserve University – and it took.

When Paar died, The Associated Press said, Miriam and their daughter, Randy, were at his side.


After attempts as an actor and daytime TV host, Paar finally came into his own when he got “The Tonight Show” – and with it a national forum.

Though the big attraction was to see what Paar might do – a quality later sought by wild-card hosts like David Letterman, Howard Stern and Dennis Miller – there was also the chance that his guests would surprise.


“With the possible exception of Irv Kupcinet of Chicago, Jack Paar has a greater talent for bringing out the real personality of people than any other interviewer I have seen,” Downs said in his 1960 autobiography. “The difference between the two is that in Irv’s interviews, he allows the real personality of his guests to emerge at their leisure. Jack drags the real (and sometimes reluctant) personality from his guest in relatively short order.”

How short? Downs said Paar had no more than six minutes – until the next commercial break.


Paar might have fit very well into modern TV, where the need is constant for vivid personalities with strong opinions and a willingness to skewer even their guests. But today’s forums feel more like individual monologues. Paar wanted someone to talk to.

“If I’ve made any contribution to the medium,” he once said, “I like to think it’s been in making conversation respectable again.”



(c) 2004, Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio).

Visit Akron Beacon Journal Online at http://www.ohio.com/.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): PAAR-OBIT

AP-NY-01-27-04 1923EST



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