Allen, Steve (1921—)

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Allen, Steve (1921—)

As an actor, talk show host, game show panelist, musician, composer, author, and social commentator, Steve Allen helped define the role of television personality in the early days of the medium. No less a personage than Noel Coward dubbed Allen "the most talented man in America." An encyclopedic knowledge of a variety of subjects combined with a remarkable ability to ad-lib has made him a distinctive presence on American TV sets since the 1950s.

Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen was born in New York City on December 26, 1921 to vaudeville performers Billy Allen and Belle Montrose. Allen grew up on the vaudeville circuit, attending over a dozen schools in his childhood even as he learned the essence of performing virtually through osmosis. He began his professional career as a disk jockey in 1942 while attending the University of Arizona, and worked in West Coast radio throughout the decade. His first regular TV work was as host of Songs for Sale on NBC, beginning in 1951.

In September 1954, Allen was chosen to host NBC's The Tonight Show. The brainchild of NBC executive Pat Weaver, The Tonight Show was developed as a late-night version of the network's Today Show, a morning news and information series. Allen confidently took television to new vistas—outside, for example, where a uniformed Allen would randomly stop cars on Manhattan highways. Allen would frequently make elaborate prank phone calls on the air, or read the nonsensical rock lyrics of the era ("Sh-Boom," "Tutti Frutti") in a dramatic setting. Allen's potpourri of guests ranged from Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg to beat comic Lenny Bruce. Allen even devoted broadcasts to discussions of serious subjects, including organized crime.

After two years on late night television, Allen shifted to a Sunday night variety series on NBC, opposite the then-reigning Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. Allen and Sullivan fiercely competed to land top guests. In his most memorable coup, Allen brought Elvis Presley on his show first, where the 21-year-old rock star sang "Hound Dog" to an actual basset hound. Allen's NBC show lasted until 1960.

The group of comedic sidekicks Allen introduced to a national audience included Tom Poston, Don Knotts, Louis Nye (whose confident greeting, "Hi-ho, Steverino," became Allen's nickname), Don Adams, Bill Dana, and Pat Harrington, Jr. His Tonight Show announcer, Gene Rayburn, became a popular game show host in the 1970s. Allan Sherman, who would later achieve Top Ten status with such song parodies as "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah," originally produced Allen's 1960s syndicated talk show.

In public and private, Allen exhibited one of the quickest wits in show business. When told that politician Barry Goldwater was half-Jewish, Allen replied, "Too bad it's not the top half." Addressing a drug rehabilitation clinic, Allen said he hoped his presence would give "a real shot in the arm" to the organization. As a panelist on the What's My Line? game show, Allen's question (used to identify a product manufactured or used by the contestant), "Is it bigger than a breadbox?" entered the national language.

Allen's irreverent demeanor was a direct influence upon David Letterman; Letterman acknowledged watching Allen's 1960s television work while a teenager, and many of Allen's on-air stunts (wearing a suit made of tea bags, and being dunked in a giant cup) found their way onto Letterman's 1980s series (Letterman once wore a suit of nacho chips, and was lowered into a vat of guacamole).

Allen's ambitious Meeting of Minds series, which he had developed for over 20 years, debuted on PBS in 1977. Actors portraying world and philosophical leaders throughout history—on one panel, for example, Ulysses S. Grant, Karl Marx, Christopher Columbus, and Marie Antoinette—would come together in a forum (hosted by Allen) to discuss great ideas. The innovative series was among the most critically acclaimed in television history, winning numerous awards during its five-year span.

Allen has written over 4,000 songs, more than double Irving Berlin's output. His best known composition is "The Start of Something Big," introduced by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, who were themselves introduced to one another by Allen. Allen also composed several Broadway musical comedy scores, including the 1963 show Sophie. His more than 40 books run the gamut from mystery novels to analyses of contemporary comedy and discussions on morality and religion. The sardonic Oscar Levant once remarked, "When I can't sleep, I read a book by Steve Allen."

Allen's best-known movie performance was the title role in the 1956 hit The Benny Goodman Story, and he has made cameo appearances in The Sunshine Boys (1975) and The Player (1992). He also played himself on two episodes of The Simpsons, including one in which Bart Simpson's voice was altered by computer to sound like Allen's.

While attaining the status of Hollywood elder statesman, he remained an outspoken social and political commentator through the 1990s, and lent his name to anti-smoking and pro-family values crusades. After Bob Hope called Allen "the Adlai Stevenson of comedy," Allen said he preferred to describe himself as "the Henny Youngman of politics."

—Andrew Milner

Further Reading:

Allen, Steve. Beloved Son: A Story of the Jesus Cults. New York, Bobbs-Merrill, 1982.

——. Funny People. New York, Stein and Day, 1982.

——. Hi-Ho, Steverino!: My Adventures in the Wonderful Wacky World of TV. New York, Barricade, 1992.

Current Biography Yearbook 1982. Detroit, Gale Research, 1982.

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Allen, Steve (1921—)

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