- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2004

NEW YORK - Jack Paar, who held the nation’s rapt attention as he pioneered late-night talk on “The Tonight Show,” then told his viewers farewell while still in his prime, died yesterday. He was 85.

Mr. Paar died at his Greenwich, Conn., home as a result of a long illness, said Stephen Wells, his son-in-law.

“We’re in a bit of a fog,” he said. “There were a lot of people who knew Jack and loved him.”

Mr. Wells said Mr. Paar was hospitalized after suffering a stroke last year.

Mr. Paar’s wife of more than 60 years, Miriam, and daughter, Randy, were by his side, Mr. Wells said. Viewers came to know Randy as a youngster, thanks to Mr. Paar’s family-oriented tales and globe-spanning “home movies.”

Since the mid-1960s, Mr. Paar had kept mostly out of the public eye, engaging in business ventures and indulging his passion for travel.

His years on NBC enlivened an otherwise “painfully predictable” TV landscape, wrote the New York Times’ Jack Gould in 1962. “Mr. Paar almost alone has managed to preserve the possibility of surprise,” Mr. Gould noted.

Johnny Carson took over “The Tonight Show” in 1962. Mr. Paar had a prime-time talk show for three more seasons, then retired from television in 1965.

Mr. Paar took over the flagging NBC late-night slot in July 1957; Steve Allen had departed some months earlier. Mr. Allen’s show was a variety show; Mr. Paar’s a talk show.

“Like being chosen as a kamikaze pilot,” Mr. Paar wrote in “I Kid You Not,” a memoir. “But I felt sure that people would enjoy good, frank and amusing talk.”

They did. Viewers loved this cherubic wiseguy, whom someone once described as “like Peter Pan, if Peter Pan had been written by Mickey Spillane.”

Soon, everyone was staying up to watch Mr. Paar, then talking about his show the next day. Even youngsters sent to bed before he came on parroted his jaunty catchphrase, “I kid you not,” with which Mr. Parr regularly certified his flow of self-revealing stories.

Just why he walked away from such a breakthrough career at age 47 would become an enduring source of conjecture, possibly even for Mr. Paar. His explanation would have to suffice: that he was tired and ready to do other things.

Off the air, as on, he never stopped doing the thing he did best: talk.

“The only time I’m nervous or scared is when I’m not talking,” he said in 1997. “When I’m talking, I know that I do it well.”

What he accomplished with the spoken word — not only his words, but those he coaxed from fellow raconteurs such as Peter Ustinov, Elsa Maxwell, Hans Conried and Genevieve — proved irresistible to his audience.

Mr. Paar also played host to Muhammad Ali when he was still known as Cassius Clay, to a pleasantly pickled Judy Garland and to the outrageous pianist-composer Oscar Levant. Entertainers Mr. Paar championed included Jonathan Winters, Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby.

Mr. Paar’s circle of guests included leading politicians. During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy made a triumphant appearance — so much so that a few days after the election, Mr. Paar received a letter from Joseph P. Kennedy, the proud father, gushing, “I don’t know anybody who did more, indirectly, to have Jack elected than your own good self.”

Mr. Paar was a show all by himself, just talking about himself. “I’m against psychiatry — for me, anyway,” he told viewers. “I haven’t got any troubles I can’t tell standing up.”

A man of boundless curiosity and interests, he was charming, gracious and famously sentimental: He could shed tears, as he put it, just from “taking the Coca-Cola bottles back to the A&P.;”

He also could be volatile, pettish and confounding, never so much as in February 1960 when, making headlines, he emotionally told his thunderstruck audience that he was leaving his show. It was the night after a skittish NBC executive had judged obscene, and edited out, a story by Mr. Paar in which the initials “W.C.”

were mistaken for “wayside chapel” instead of “water closet.”

A month later, the network managed to lure him back. Returning on the night of March 7, he was greeted with generous applause as he stepped before the cameras. Then he began his monologue on a typically cheeky note: “As I was saying, before I was interrupted …”

Born in Canton, Ohio, in 1918, Jack Harold Paar left school at 16 for a job as a radio announcer and soon found success on various stations as a comic and disc jockey.

Then, in the Army special services during World War II, he entertained troops in the South Pacific as a stand-up comedian. His specialty was poking fun at officers for an appreciative audience of enlisted men. (“I don’t care what you think of the colonel,” he would chide, “stop using your thumbs when you salute.”)

In 1947, a magazine poll chose him as “the most promising star of tomorrow,” but as the 1950s wore on, he had scored only as a temporary replacement on radio for Jack Benny and Arthur Godfrey, as a failed B-movie actor and a short-lived daytime TV personality.

Then, within weeks of his “Tonight” debut, he was being hailed as “one of America’s most popular indoor pastimes.”

The talk came to an end in 1965. By then Mr. Paar had traded in his “Tonight Show” desk for a Friday prime-time hour, but he had made no secret that his third season of “The Jack Paar Program” would be his last. With little fanfare and — against all odds — no tears, he signed off with his June 25 show.

“I have been — forgive me — I have been a success,” Mr. Paar could declare three decades later, still exhibiting his blend of modesty and brashness. Then he added puckishly, “I’m as amazed as you are.”

Associated Press writers Noreen Gillespie and Pat Eaton-Robb in Hartford, Conn., contributed to this report.

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