Jack Harold Paar (May 1, 1918 – January 27, 2004) was an American author, vaudevillian, radio announcer and host, disc jockey, radio and television comedian and TV host, film actor and television talk show presenter, best known for his stint as host of The Tonight Show from 1957 to 1962. Time magazine's obituary of him noted that: "His fans would remember him as the fellow who split talk show history into two eras: Before Paar and Below Paar."
Early life and education
Paar was born in 1918 in Canton, Ohio, the son of Lillian M. (Hein) and Howard Paar. He moved with his family to Jackson, Michigan, approximately 40 miles south of Lansing, as a child. As a child he had a stuttering problem which he conquered. He contracted tuberculosis when he was 14, and left school at 16.
Early radio career
He first worked near home as a radio announcer at WIBM in Jackson, Michigan, and later as a humorous disc jockey at Midwest stations, including WJR in Detroit, WIRE in Indianapolis, WGAR in Cleveland, and WBEN in Buffalo. In his book P.S. Jack Paar, he recalled doing utility duty at WGAR in 1938 when Orson Welles broadcast his famous simulated alien invasion, The War of the Worlds, over the CBS network (and its WGAR affiliate). Attempting to calm possible panicked listeners, Paar announced, "The world is not coming to an end. Trust me. When have I ever lied to you?"
Paar was drafted into the military in 1943 during World War II, interrupting his tenure as host of WBEN's morning show The Sun Greeter's Club (he opted not to return to the station at war's end, instead seeking opportunities in network radio and film). He was assigned to the U.S.O. in the South Pacific to entertain the troops. He was a clever, wisecracking master of ceremonies whose impersonations of officers nearly got him into trouble.
Hosting and films
After World War II, Paar worked in radio as a fill-in on The Breakfast Club show and appeared as a panelist on The $64 Question. He got his big break when Jack Benny, who had been impressed by Paar's U.S.O. performances, suggested that Paar serve as his 1947 summer replacement. Paar was enough of a hit on Benny's show that Benny's sponsor, the American Tobacco Company, decided to keep him on the air, moving him to ABC for the fall season. Paar later refused American Tobacco's suggestion that he come up with a weekly running gag or gimmick, saying he "wanted to get away from that kind of old-hat comedy," the kind being practiced by Benny and Fred Allen." The show was then terminated, earning Paar the enduring image of "a spoiled kid." A profile of Paar by the Museum of Broadcast Communications suggests that Paar later emulated Benny's mannerisms.
Paar also signed as a contract player for Howard Hughes' RKO Pictures studio in the immediate postwar period, appearing as the emcee in the movie Variety Time (1948), a compilation of vaudeville sketches. He later recalled that RKO producers had trouble figuring out what kind of screen characters he could play until one of the executives dubbed him, "Kay Kyser [a popular bandleader of the time], with warmth." Paar projected a pleasant personality on film, and RKO called him back to emcee another filmed vaudeville show, Footlight Varieties (1951). He also appeared in the 1950 film Walk Softly, Stranger, starring Joseph Cotten. In 1951, he played Marilyn Monroe's boyfriend in the 20th Century Fox film Love Nest.
Paar returned to radio in 1950, hosting the $64 Question for one season, then quitting in a wage dispute after the show's sponsor pulled out and NBC insisted everyone involved take a pay cut. In 1956, he gave radio one more try, hosting a disc jockey effort on ABC called The Jack Paar Show Paar once described that show as "so modest we did it from the basement rumpus room of our house in Bronxville."
Paar got his first tastes of television in the early 1950s, appearing as a comic on The Ed Sullivan Show and hosting two game shows, Up To Paar (1952) and Bank on the Stars (1953), before hosting The Morning Show (1954) on CBS. He guest starred twice in 1958 on Polly Bergen's short-lived NBC comedy/variety show, The Polly Bergen Show.
The Tonight Show
NBC asked Paar to succeed Steve Allen as host of The Tonight Show in July 1957. With Steve Allen's success as the first host of The Tonight Show, NBC gave him his own prime time variety hour in June 1956. Over the next seven months Allen's Tonight duties were shorted to three nights a week. With this heavy work load and his new show a success Allen departed Tonight in January 1957. For the next six months NBC renamed and replaced its late night programing with a multi-hosted multi-city based talk show which became a huge embarrassing failure. In need of a hit the network soon returned to a proven formula by reviving Tonight and hiring Jack Paar. He would remain as host until 1962. At first it was entitled Tonight Starring Jack Paar; after 1959 it was officially known as The Jack Paar Show. Paar often was unpredictable, emotional, and principled. When network censors cut a joke about a "water closet," the British term for a toilet, from the show's February 11, 1960, broadcast tape before airtime without notifying, he received national attention walking off the program the following evening in protest . He did not return until three weeks later, after the network apologized and he was allowed to tell the joke. Paar's emotional nature made the everyday routine of putting together a 105-minute program difficult to continue for more than five years. As a TV Guide item put it, he was "bone tired" of the grind, although he confided to interviewer Dick Cavett later that leaving the program was the greatest mistake of his life. He signed off the show for the last time on March 29, 1962, spending much of that final program ripping his enemies in the press, notably gossip columnists Walter Winchell and Dorothy Kilgallen.
Because NBC did not want to lose Paar to another network, it offered him a Friday prime-time hour, giving him carte blanche on content and format. He agreed, deciding on a variation of his late-night format and titling the show The Jack Paar Program. The show, which debuted in the fall of 1962, had a world view, debuting acts from around the globe and showing films from exotic locations. Most of the films included in it were made on travels by guests such as Arthur Godfrey or Paar himself (e.g., several visits with Albert Schweitzer at his compound in Gabon in Central Africa, and Mary Martin at her home in the jungles of Brazil).
During the first half of 1964, a mock feud pitted Paar against the show immediately preceding his program, Englishman David Frost's news-satire series That Was The Week That Was. A typical exchange would have TW3, as it was referred to, "signing off" the NBC Television Network just before the Paar program, with Paar responding that the show immediately preceding his was Henry Morgan's Amateur Hour (Morgan was a frequent guest on TW3). The feud suddenly evaporated when NBC moved TW3 to a different time slot.
Paar's prime time show aired for three years, including a wide variety of guests such as comedian Brother Dave Gardner, actor-director Peter Ustinov, Lawrence of Arabia's brother, actor Richard Burton, pianist-actor Oscar Levant, news icon Lowell Thomas, boxing champion Muhammad Ali reciting his poetry to piano accompaniment by Liberace, an occasionally funny Judy Garland, Jonathan Winters, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby (whose nickname for Paar was "The Boss"), Bette Davis, Robert Morley, Cliff Arquette (as his Charley Weaver character), Dick Gregory, and many others. The final closing segment of the series, broadcast on June 25, 1965, featured Paar sitting alone on a stool, sharing a discussion that he had with his daughter Randy, who called Paar's departure a sabbatical. He said that his own field was, though not completely used up, "a little dry recently." Then he called to his German shepherd, who came to him from the seats of what was, for once, an empty studio, and walked out. (Johnny Carson used this format, without a dog, for his own farewell episode of The Tonight Show in 1992.)
Paar continued to appear in occasional specials for the network until 1970.
Paar came back to television on a regular basis beginning in January 1973, with Jack Paar Tonite which aired monthly as one of several rotating shows on ABC's Wide World of Entertainment. Paar noted that it was the most he was willing to appear, and that he would not have appeared at all unless ABC had committed to keeping Dick Cavett, one of his former writers, on the air. Paar's announcer for this series was comic actress Peggy Cass, and perhaps its most notable aspect was the national television debut of comic Freddie Prinze. Paar stayed on the show, which was in direct competition with Tonight, for one year before he quit. Dissatisfied with the one-week-per-month formula, he complained that even his own mother did not know when he was on. Paar later expressed discomfort with developments in the television media and once said he had trouble interviewing people dressed in "overalls," a reference to young rock acts.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Paar made rare guest appearances on Donahue, The Tonight Show (hosted by Johnny Carson then Jay Leno), and Late Night with David Letterman, as well as on Charles Grodin's CNBC talk show.
In 1984, Paar came out of retirement once again for the Museum of Broadcasting's "Tribute to Jack Paar,"produced by Kevin Doherty, making two live appearances in New York. This led to his 1986 NBC special Jack Paar Comes Home. The following year, a second special, Jack Paar Is Alive and Well, was broadcast by the network. Both were largely made up of black-and-white kinescoped clips used at the tribute from Tonight and from Paar's prime time program, to which he maintained the copyright. Although most of Paar's Tonight Shows were pre-taped (in color from 1960), only a few moments are known to exist in this format.
In 1997, PBS television devoted an edition of the American Masters series to Paar's career, and in 2003 revisited the topic with another hour-long examination of the Paar phenomenon, entitled "Smart Television." That program featured clips of Paar with such guests as Jonathan Winters, Woody Allen, Judy Garland, Bill Cosby in his first network appearance, Peter Ustinov, Richard Burton, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy in his first interview after his brother's assassination, Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, and others compiled from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as more recent interviews with people who worked with Paar.
In the spring of 2004, a memorial for Paar was held at The Museum of Television & Radio in New York City. Ron Simon, one of the museum's television and radio curators, was host and moderator with appearances and speeches by television talk show host Dick Cavett, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) television host Robert Osborne, and Paar's daughter, Randy.
Paar was nominated for an Emmy award for Best Performance by a Continuing Character in a Musical or Variety Series in 1951, and nominated again in 1958 for an Emmy for Best Continuing Performance in a Series by a Comedian, Singer, Host, Dancer, M.C., Announcer, Narrator, or Panelist. He did not win either time.
Paar was twice married to his first wife, Irene Paar (née Gubbins). After divorcing, the couple remarried, only to divorce again. He was married to his second wife, Miriam Wagner from 1943 until his death in 2004. They had one daughter, Randy Paar (March 2, 1949–June 2, 2012).
Paar's health declined in the late 1990s. He died at his Greenwich, Connecticut home on January 27, 2004, with his wife and daughter Randy by his side. He had long been in ill health, having undergone triple-bypass heart surgery in 1998. He also suffered a stroke a year before he died at age 85, just a year before his Tonight Show successor Johnny Carson died from emphysema. Paar was cremated, and his ashes were given to his family.