CHICAGO – He was not the first host of “The Tonight Show” (Steve Allen), nor the longest running (Johnny Carson) or the edgiest comic (Jay Leno).

But Jack Paar, who died at his Greenwich, Conn., home on Tuesday at 85, brought to his tenure at the helm of the NBC staple a uniquely urbane wit as well as a flamboyant and intelligent cultural breadth. He essentially invented the late-night talk show format, and he set a standard for the art of television conversation.

When he took over as “Tonight” host in 1957, following Allen’s altogether different variety-show approach, Paar pioneered the comic interview format that is now a late-night fixture, including the brief monologue, chitchat with the sidekick-announcer (Hugh Downs) and round of celebrity interviews at a desk and row of chairs.

“Jack Paar took the “Tonight’ show and made it an institution,” Bruce DuMont, founder and president of Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications, said Tuesday. “Allen had a light, fun show, but Paar made it witty, more intellectual. He put us to bed during a tumultuous time, one of Kennedy, Nixon and Castro, who were among his guests.”

Famed for one 1960 incident in which he abruptly quit for a brief time over a censorship squabble, wishing viewers a tearful farewell, only to return in a month, Paar could be a quirky mix of effortless sophistication and naked emotion, the opposite of Carson’s later steadiness and cool.

But he brought to those early days of television a cagey sense of the era’s giant personalities, relishing dialogues with the varied likes of Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), a seemingly tipsy Judy Garland, the hypochondriac and brilliant Oscar Levant and such fellow experts at storytelling and badinage as Peter Ustinov, Elsa Maxwell and Hans Conreid.

He also made audiences familiar with an astonishing guest list, including John and Robert Kennedy, Bea Lillie and Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen. Onetime Second City-ites Mike Nichols and Elaine May performed their now legendary comic routines. Dick Cavett and Garry Marshall were among his writers.

“He was a different kind of comedian than we’re used to on late night now,” said J. Fred MacDonald, cultural historian and president of an historical film archive, MacDonald and Associates. “Now, those programs serve as vehicles to promote the latest movie. He brought on political leaders, and not just to joke, but to try and understand them. He could do a program on his favorite charity or show a home movie water skiing behind a dirigible.

“He was eccentric, some say cranky, but today he seems an important anachronism,” MacDonald added. “We’re tougher, ruder now. He wasn’t rude.”

“The man was emotive,” admitted Eric Kulberg, executive producer of an upcoming public television series reprising moments from Paar’s interviews. “He was passionate about the subjects that meant much to him, and in that “Happy Day’ era, people weren’t used to that. He spoke his mind.”

Hailed after his “Tonight” arrival for his “strange melange of chatter, music and tomfoolery” (Look Magazine) and as alone in ’50s television for preserving “the possibility of surprise” (the New York Times), Paar achieved success after a string of unimpressive efforts. Though picked by a 1947 magazine article as a promising newcomer, Paar managed only a few minor roles in movies (including “Walk Softly, Stranger” in 1950 and “Love Nest,” with Marilyn Monroe, in 1951). He also filled in on radio for Don McNeil on the “Breakfast Club” and Jack Benny.

Born Jack Harold Paar on May 1, 1918, in Canton, Ohio, the son of a railroad superintendent, the once and future raconteur stuttered as a child, curing himself by putting buttons in his mouth and reading aloud. He survived tuberculosis and World War II, during which he roomed with Jackie Cooper and emerged as a comic entertaining fellow South Pacific troops, mostly by jabbing senior officers.

After he hosted a handful of failed daytime shows, he was hired for “Tonight.” He brought a versatile guest list and erratic, sometimes “unaccountably sullen” moods, according to one critic.

His telltale “I kid you not” became a trademark phrase of the era. He left “Tonight” in 1962, hosting a prime-time interview program for three more seasons. But then he virtually retired, returning only in the early ’70s with a short-lived attempt to compete with Carson on another network.

Kulberg, Paar’s archivist and friend for the last 10 years, said, “Some say he could be difficult, but he was always nice to me. After he left TV, he tried to put it all behind him. When I’d ask him about it, he’d usually say, “Oh, I just don’t remember. That was all a long, long time ago.”‘

Paar, who suffered a stroke last year, is survived by his wife of 60 years, Miriam, and their daughter, Randy.

(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


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

AP-NY-01-27-04 2007EST

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