05/04/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
They called him Dead Sullivan, the Toast of the Tomb. Sourpussed and rock stolid, he resembled a freshly un-wrapped mummy—or may-be Mount Rushmore sucking a lemon. His eyes, under-slung with pita pouches, darted about like motorized raisins, and his high, thin voice whined like a pesky fly. On-camera he chewed his lips anxiously, cracked his knuckles and lurched around, wrote one reviewer, "like Quasimodo doing the Lindy." Every time he opened his mouth he ran a high risk of putting his foot in it. He once introduced the celebrated songwriter as "the late Irving Berlin." Another time he declared: "I'd like to prevent the next singer." One night he concluded a show with this ringing peroration for victims of tuberculosis: "Good night, and please help stamp out TV!" Joe E. Lewis called him "the only man who can brighten up a room by leaving it," and when asked to sum up Sullivan's achievement, Fred Allen rasped: "He points at people. Rub meat on his guests and you could get a dog to do the some thing."
So how come this lumpish bumbler became TV's most popular and powerful emcee, the hands-down favorite target for impressionists (inset, from top: Will Jordan, Jackie Mason, Jack Carter), the superstar of the longest-running prime-time program in the history of the medium? On CBS from 1948 to 1971, The Ed Sullivan Show (originally Toast of the Town) monopolized the week's most lucrative family hour: Sunday evening, 8 to 9. At his peak in the mid-'50s, 45 to 50 million viewers (double the number who watch TV's top shows today) sat enthralled as Sullivan stumbled onstage and droned: "Wiv got a rilly big shew tonight, fulks!"
Most nights, he rilly did. He reanimated vaudeville, hyped it with big budgets and lavish productions, topped his bill with major entertainers and then on electronic wings transported the whole glittering shebang into everybody's living room—live. The Beatles First performed live in the U.S. on the Sullivan show, and three sensational appearances established Elvis Presley as the prime tonsil of his time. Humphrey Bogart, Maria Callas, Walt Disney, Bob Hope, Charles Laughton, Liberace, Liza Minnelli, Rudolf Nureyev, Richard Rodgers, Barbra Streisand, Albert Schweitzer, Margaret Truman—celebrities jumped through hoops to get a booking. Sex kitten Jayne Mansfield played the violin, Lauren Bacall recited "Casey at the Bat" in her inimitable bedroom voice, operatic diva Rise Stevens up and warbled "Cement Mixer" ("Put-tee put-tee"). Please the people and you got booked again and again: Yiddish funnyman Myron Cohen made 41 appearances, the comedy team of Wayne and Shuster was headlined 53 times. And every week Sullivan featured a clamjamfry of backup acts: midgets, jugglers, sword swallowers, ventriloquists, pandas on roller skates, elephants on water skis, kangaroos that drank booze, ladies who struck matches and lit cigarettes with their toes, odd fellows who stitched their Fingers together with needle and thread.
Odd as any was Mister Ed. He was crude, ignorant, driven—and curiously lovable. Born poor in Irish Harlem, he was a street-smart go-getter who had clawed his way up from copy boy to Broadway columnist (for the New York Daily Mirror) and then chased the main chance into television. Fame was his obsession, and when he got it he hugged it as a tiger hugs a kill. But his idea of glory was reflected glory. Totally without performing talent, he worshiped it in others and pursued it with a passion. He was TV's greatest groupie, a star-struck star. Entertainers adored him because he adored them. Night after night he was up till 4 A.M., cruising Manhattan's night spots to check out new acts, and in summer he tirelessly foraged through Europe and the Far East. But he didn't always recognize gold when he found it. Late in 1963, delayed by a mob scene at London's Heathrow airport, he asked an airline employee what was wrong. "It's the Beatles," the man explained. A generation behind, Sullivan snapped: "Can't you get some spray?"
Somebody set him straight, and in early February 1964, the Beatles were on his program. Cocksure of his showmanly instincts, he hand-picked every act he presented and in rehearsals ruthlessly edited and censored even the most celebrated performers. Few grumbled. Sullivan's judgment was respected—and so were his principles. Rigidly honest, he loathed liars and phonies but, above all, bigots. In a day when black entertainers were taboo on TV, he defied his sponsors and showcased blacks by the dozen—among them Pearl Bailey, Duke Ellington, Diahann Carroll, George Kirby and Lena Home. He was also Fiercely devout, a hard-shell Roman Catholic who truly believed his show was a hit because some nuns in Brooklyn prayed for its success. Friends dubbed him the Pope of Video and snickered at his dogmatic prudery. Cleavage was never displayed, deodorant ads were absolutely banned, Elvis was earner-amputated well above that writhing pelvis, and the least hint of homosexuality flung Ed into a froth.
Rage was his weapon of choice, a Black Irish fury that flashed out like a switchblade. He pursued ferocious vendettas with Frank Sinatra, Joan Crawford, Arthur Godfrey, Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Bobby Darin, Nat "King" Cole and Hedda Hopper. When Marlene Dietrich annoyed him, he lambasted her in his column as "one of Hitler's cuties." When Jackie Mason playfully gave him the finger in full view of the TV audience, Sullivan went through the roof and publicly denounced the comic as a pornographic punk. It took Mason 20 years to chivy his career back on track.
Something more drastic happened to columnist Walter Winchell, a rival whose success stuck in Sullivan's craw. Biographer Jerry Bowles reported that one night at the Stork Club Sullivan grabbed Winchell, held his head firmly in the bottom of a urinal and "gleefully pumped the flush lever" while his victim uttered "sobbing noises." Later, the two made peace, but many who roused the beast in Sullivan remained enemies to the end. After Ingrid Bergman ran off with director Roberto Rossellini, Sullivan asked his audience to vote on her "moral fitness" to appear on his show. "Ingrid never forgave me," he said contritely some years after the event, "and she was right."
Some of Ed's edginess was no doubt caused by his duodenal ulcer. Almost every morning, seared with pain, he had to pump out his stomach before he could face the day. But the ulcer was removed in 1960, and as he aged, the great man mellowed. Always a bit preoccupied, he became increasingly vague. One Sunday night, while a dancing bear was doing his thing on the program, Ed took custody of the animal's reward, a double-scoop vanilla cone. Absent-mindedly, he began to lick the drippings, whereupon the bear stopped dancing, let out a roar of outrage and took steps to recover his property. When last seen, Ed was racing offstage with a hairy nine-foot carnivore in hot pursuit.
In 1968 the show fell out of the Top 20, and in 1971 it was canceled by CBS. Ed composed an overblown but not inappropriate epitaph: "Vaudeville has died its second death." Three years later he died too, at 72, of esophageal cancer. Bob Hope found just the thing to say: "Sunday will never be the same again."