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Comedian Steve Allen Dead At 78

Steve Allen, the droll comic who composed more than 4,000 songs, wrote 47 books and pioneered late night television with the original Tonight Show, died at his son's home. He was 78.

Bill Allen reports his father was a little tired after dinner on Monday and went to relax. Bill Allen says his father "never reawakened."

Bill Allen adds that his father's quiet death followed a "long, full and extraordinary life."

'A most creative innovator'
Click here to read comments by friends and colleagues on what Allen meant to his profession.
His career spanned more than half a century. Besides creating and hosting the original Tonight Show, Allen had his own variety shows, starred in movies and wrote more than 8,500 songs and 47 books.

"I've known him for almost 60 years...He is one of the great renaissance figures of today," comic Art Linkletter said.

"He had a magnificent mind. He was a kind, gentle, warm man...I loved him," entertainer Dick Clark said.

"His early work is really the foundation for what late-night shows have become," said CBS Late Show host David Letterman.

Amid the formality of early TV, Tonight was a breath of fresh air. The show began with Allen noodling at the piano, playing some of his compositions and commenting wittily on events of the day. He moved to a desk, chatted with guests, taking part in sketches, doing zany man-in-the street interviews.

"He was one of the sharpest guys off the cuff," current Tonight host Jay Leno said. "He played many characters, straight man and comic, and he did each role perfectly. But the role he played best was Steve Allen."

Allen was also remembered by Johnny Carson, who hosted The Tonight Show longer than anyone else. "All of us who have hosted the Tonight Show format owe a debt of gratitude to Steve Allen. He was a most creative innovator and brilliant entertainer."

Allen was born in New York City on Dec 26, 1921 to an Irish family. Both his parents, Billy Allen and Belle Montrose, were vaudeville comedians. After his father died when he was 18 months old, Allen's mother continued touring the circuits as a single. Allen grew up in other people's homes, mostly with his mother's family in Chicago. He remembered the place as "a rooming houe with the smell of cabbage cooking."

After studying journalism on a partial scholarship, he began his career in radio in Phoenix in 1942.

Drafted in 1943, he was soon released because of asthma. He married his college sweetheart, Dorothy Goodman, and they had three sons, Steve Jr., David and Brian. They divorced in 1952.

In Los Angeles, on CBS station KNX, Allen developed his talk show style and zany humor that became his trademarks. In 1950 he entered what he called the wacky world of TV on CBS's The Steve Allen Show. But he jumped networks to host the original NBC Tonight Show. It was there that Allen's comic genius and crazy ad libbing took flight. His man-on-the-street interviews and questions to his audience became standards in the world of comedy. He created routines like Stump the Band and The Question Man which Johnny Carson would later transform into The Great Carmac.

At a dinner party in 1952, Allen was seated next to his future wife, actress Jayne Meadows. Uncharacteristically, he was speechless.

At the end of the evening, she turned to him and said: "Mr. Allen, you're either the rudest man I ever met or the shyest." His reddened face indicated the latter. They married in 1954, and had one son, Bill.

"He was my best friend and my partner on stage and off for more than 48 years. He was the most talented man I've ever known and the one true love of my life," Meadows said.

He performed in a number of movies including The Benny Goodman Story, in which he showcased his musical talents, and Great Balls of Fire. But it was Allen's humor that made him a household name in the 1950's. His Sunday night Steve Allen Show went head to head with Ed Sullivan and Allen pulled a coup by getting an upcoming young singer by the name of Elvis Presley to perform on the show.

His show ran for five seasons and many of the skits were done with Meadows. Allen then hosted the popular I've Got A Secret as well as a number of specials.

Among his 4,000 songs were This Could Be the Start of Something Big and Impossible.

Allen was known for his philosophic mind, and questioned religion, morality, and science. He loved to read and in 1977 got to produce and host a show he called his labor of love, PBS's Meeting of Minds which featured debates on ethics and philosophy.

Worried about the popularity of pseudo science on television he joined a watchdog group called the Council for Media Integrity. He wondered, he said, how we could be "so dumb that we prefer dreams, legends and fairy tales" as substitutes for science. He considered himself a humanist but said he did not deny the possibility of God.

Allen was an accomplished musician and songwriter and he won a Grammy Award for Gravy Waltz. He was named to the TV Hall of Fame in 1964.

Although he loved TV, Allen was dismayed by much of what he saw on television in the nineies. He said too much of it was "vulgarians addressing barbarians"

Besides his wife and children, Allen is survived by 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

In addition to private services, which had yet to be planned, the family intends to organize a service at which Allen's friends in the industry can share stories about him, his son said.

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