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Jack Paar was born in 1918 in Canton, Ohio, and spent most of his formative years in Jackson, Michigan. After overcoming early physical challenges caused by tuberculosis and stuttering, Paar left school at 16 to begin an unlikely career as a local radio announcer, then honed his craft, entertaining WWII troops in the South Pacific. After the war, Paar dabbled in the burgeoning medium of television and motion pictures, appearing alongside a then unknown Marilyn Monroe in 1951's "Love Nest."
After several well-received appearances as guest host on Steve Allen's "Tonight!", NBC tapped Paar to take over as permanent host on July 29, 1957. Paar brought in Jose Melis to lead his band through the show's theme songs, "I Am For You" and "Ev'rything's Coming Up Roses." Hugh Downs came aboard as announcer; Dick Cavett would later join the writing team. Known as a "bull in his own china shop," Paar was iconoclastic, witty and emotional, a mercurial and innovative force in the brave new world of late night television. Not one for sketch comedy, Paar utilized his opening monologue - memorized from handwritten notes - to expound upon his singular and expansive view of the world and set the tone for the kind of relaxed and intimate storytelling he enjoyed from his guests.
The show's format was loose, with an emphasis on sparkling conversation. Paar assembled an eccentric cast of regulars, including Betty White, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Cliff Arquette, (grandfather of Patricia, Rosanna, David and Alexis) as well as Dody Goodman, Alexander King, Genevieve, and Hermione Gingold.
Beginning a Tonight Show tradition that Johnny Carson would uphold, Paar sought out young comedians, like Jackie Mason, Jonathan Winters, Oscar Levant and Dick Gregory, Bob Newhart, the Smothers Brothers and Carol Burnett. Paar would go on to nurture the fledgling careers of Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Liza Minnelli, and Barbra Streisand. Unlike most shows of the moment, Paar searched for guests beyond the world of entertainment, into the headlines and around the globe. He talked politics with the likes of JFK, Richard Nixon and newcomer Fidel Castro.
But it was Paar's unpredictable and dramatic presence that transformed The Tonight Show into must-see TV, with over seven million Americans tuning in every night. No stranger to controversy, Paar picked feuds with powerful gossip columnists Walter Winchell and Dorothy Kilgallen; was sued by legendary Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa after an interview with his nemesis Robert Kennedy; and triggered a U.S. Department of Defense inquiry after filming shows from the newly erected Berlin Wall. One infamous night, an emotional Paar walked off his own set to protest the previous night's censorship of his lengthy joke about a W.C. (aka a toilet), tame by today's standards. Claiming, "There must be a better way of making a living than this," Paar abandoned the live show, leaving a stunned Hugh Downs to continue the show alone. After a three-week absence—during which newspapers speculated almost endlessly on possible fates for the late-night star—Jack returned to the show, having extracted assurances from NBC management that there'd be no such ham-handed censorship again, not without consulting him and seeking a mutually acceptable compromise. When the cheers died down in Paar's NBC studio, he quoted his own remark about there being a better way of making a living and told the crowd, "Well I looked—and there isn't." The great water closet controversy was over, and Jack had for all practical purposes won the battle.
Back in the bare-boned early days of late night, the labor involved in creating five 90-minute shows every week was staggering. Paar began broadcasting four nights a week in 1959 to ease the load, but by 1962 he was "bone tired." Having forever transformed the late night landscape, and institutionalized The Tonight Show in over 62 markets, the king of Tonight relinquished his throne to Johnny Carson. Paar went on to host his own prime time weekly talk series on NBC for several years, which continued to make headlines and ratings until 1965. On his final show, a sentimental Paar called to his pet dog Leica, the sole audience member, and retired to run a small TV station in Portland, Maine. Although Paar would occasionally return to NBC for a network special or rare guest appearance on the Tonight Show, his golden years were spent quietly at home in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he died in 2004.