Late-Night TV Icon Jack Paar Dies

01/27/2004 at 09:45 AM EST

Jack Paar, 85, who put NBC's "Tonight Show" on the map in the 1950s only to remove himself from the air -- and the limelight -- in the mid-'60s, died at his Greenwich, Conn., home on Tuesday after a long illness, Stephen Wells, Paar's son-in-law, tells the Associated Press.

Paar's daughter, Randy, and his wife, Miriam, were by his side, said Wells, adding, in an understatement: "There were a lot of people who knew Jack and loved him."

Before Dave and Jay, before Johnny, before Conan and all the others, there was Jack, who in 1957 assumed the "Tonight" chair from the show's previous star, Steve Allen, who hosted more of a variety show than Paar's specialty, which was a talk show.

And Paar welcomed guests who were entertaining simply because they knew how to talk -- not because they had a new movie to publicize.

These guests ran the gamut from those who'd been part of the Algonquin literary crowd to such upcoming comics as Jonathan Winters, Carol Burnett, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Phyllis Diller and Woody Allen. He also once showed footage from England of a then-obscure new music group called the Beatles -- before they landed on American shores to perform on Paar's rival, "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Paar had some celebrated hiatuses from "Tonight," such as when he walked off in protest over some action by his NBC bosses (who once censored his joke about a water closet). But he remained with "Tonight" until 1962, when Johnny Carson got the job.

In a statement to AP, Carson called Paar "a unique personality who brought a new dimension to late night television."

Paar hosted his own Friday night one-hour program in prime time until 1965. Then he simply said goodbye. He was 47.

By then, viewers -- who tended either to love or loathe him -- had grown familiar with his stories of Randy and Miriam, whom he would show in his home movies or footage from his travels, and his trademark expressions, such as, "I kid you not."

Paar, who started doing standup routines while in the military and even appeared in an early Marilyn Monroe movie called "Love Nest," brought a polish and an East Coast sophistication to his show, and played host to many high-profile figures, including John F. Kennedy, who appeared during the 1960 presidential campaign. (Though a Republican, Paar became a loyal fan and friend of the Kennedy family.)

Asked how he could retire (to Connecticut) at such an early age, Paar, who occasionally appeared at Museum of TV and Radio gatherings as the years went on, simply said that Miriam had invested well.

We kid you not.

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