Jack Paar Biography

Born Jack Harold Paar, May 1, 1918, in Canton, OH; died January 27, 2004, in Greenwich, CT. Television personality, actor, and radio-show host. Jack Paar took over as host of The Tonight Show in 1957 and in five brilliant years revolutionized late-night television. Before Paar, most programs in that time slot featured a variety-show atmosphere, where guests came to perform various acts, comic skits, songs, and dances. Paar, however, changed all that. He required guests to do more than simply perform—he made them sit and chat while the cameras rolled, entertaining viewers with colorful dialogues. Paar also introduced the idea of the opening monologue, as well as the sofa-and-desk set still popular on late-night television. He is remembered by fans as the original "King of Late Night."

Jack Harold Paar was born May 1, 1918, in Canton, Ohio, to Howard and Lillian Paar. He grew up mostly in Michigan, though the family moved around a lot because Paar's father transferred locations frequently for his job with the New York Central Railroad.

Paar learned about misfortune early in life. When he was five, his older brother died in an accident and five years later, his best friend died. When Paar was 14, he contracted tuberculosis, which left him bed-ridden for eight months. To help pass the time during his illness, Paar tinkered with radios and other simple electronics at a bedside workbench built by his father. He also spent a lot of time reading about historical figures. As Paar began to recover, he took a job with a railroad crew to help strengthen his body.

During childhood, Paar also had to overcome a stuttering problem. To improve his speech, Paar said he spent many hours reading aloud with buttons in his mouth. Paar wrestled in high school but never graduated, dropping out to take a job announcing station breaks at a local radio station. Radio suited him well and Paar worked his way up through the ranks, becoming a fairly well-known comic disc jockey. He spent time in small radio stations in Youngstown (Ohio), Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo.

After the United States became involved in World War II, Paar joined the Army and was assigned to a special services unit whose mission was to entertain the troops stationed in the South Pacific. Working as a stand-up comic for the Army, Paar hit his stride as he dashed off joke after joke that tickled the soldiers, most often at the expense of the officers. According to the Los Angeles Times, Paar once told an officer who was talking during the show, "Lieutenant, a man with your IQ should have a low voice, too." His Army antics caught the eye of war correspondent Sidney Carroll, who wrote a rave review of Paar for Esquire magazine, earning him national exposure.

Paar left the Army in 1946 and took his act to Hollywood, where he landed roles as minor characters in several films. He played the part of Marilyn Monroe's boyfriend in the 1951 comedy Love Nest. He also appeared in 1950's Walk Softly, Stranger, and 1953's Down Among the Sheltering Palms. Paar also tried his hand at television, hosting a couple of failed television game shows and quiz shows. His only real success during this period came in 1947, when he was chosen as the summer replacement for Jack Benny's wildly popular Sunday evening radio show. In 1954, Paar replaced Walter Cronkite as host of CBS's The Morning Show in an attempt to grab viewers from NBC's The Today Show. The show did not attract enough sponsors, so Paar left.

Paar's big break came in 1957, when he took over from Steve Allen as host of The Tonight Show. Allen had favored sketch comedy, but the quick-witted Paar turned the program into a talk show. Paar became famous for the incredulous anecdotes he told about his family and his life, which he always introduced with his famous catch phrase, "I kid you not."

From his set, Paar helped launch the careers of dozens of unknowns like Bill Cosby, Carol Burnett, and Woody Allen. Intrigued by the personalities of the day, Paar brought in a range of guests, from pianist-composer Oscar Levant to 1960 presidential hopefuls John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Actress Judy Garland was often in the mix. Paar also took his audience outside the studio. He traveled to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro and to Africa to speak with medical missionary Albert Schweitzer. During the time Paar hosted the show, it became known as The Jack Paar Tonight Show.

Paar could be charming and sentimental, but also edgy and unpredictable. Sometimes he cried; other times he blew up. In 1960, Paar left the show for a month when NBC censored a segment about a toilet. According to the Los Angeles Times, Paar returned four weeks later, opening with, "As I was saying before I was interrupted."

Paar left the show in 1962, much to the dismay of his fans. He was replaced by Johnny Carson, who stayed for nearly 30 years. Next, Paar hosted a prime-time interview program for three more seasons before retiring. In summing up Paar's career, Ron Simon of the Museum of Television and Radio told the Times of London, "Anyone who saw him when he was in his prime knew he was a great television original. You never knew what was going to happen . He was the catalyst for ways the talk show would go."

After Paar left television, he kept his life mostly out of the public eye. He died on January 27, 2004; he was 85. Paar's health had been declining in the months prior to his death. A year earlier, he had suffered a stroke. Paar had been previously married and divorced twice to a pianist named Irene. He is survived by his second wife, Miriam Wagner Paar, whom he married in October of 1943; his daughter, Randy; and a grandson.


Chicago Tribune, January 28, 2004, sec. 1, p. 11.

CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2004/SHOWBIZ/TV/01/27/obit.paar.ap/index.html (January 28, 2004).

Los Angeles Times, January 28, 2004, p. B10.

New York Times, January 28, 2004, p. A21.

Times (London), February 5, 2004, p. 40.

Washington Post, January 28, 2004, p. B6.

—Lisa Frick

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