Veteran comedian and late-night pioneer Steve Allen died Monday evening at his son Bill’s Encino, Calif., home of an apparent heart attack. Allen was 78. The comedian was at his son’s home to visit his grandchildren when he passed away in his sleep soon after having dinner.
“He said he was a little tired after dinner,” Bill Allen said. “He went to relax, peacefully, and never reawakened.”
Allen is best known for creating and hosting the first incarnation of “The Tonight Show” in 1953 as well as starring in “The Steve Allen Show” in 1956 on NBC.
As the first host for “Tonight,” Allen would typically start the show by playing the piano, usually his own compositions, then walk over to the desk and interview some of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the day. He also took part in the show’s many skits, including his “Man on the Street Interview” featuring new comics Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Bill Dana and Pat Harrington.
“Steve Allen‘s death saddens me greatly,” Carson said in a statement released to the press. “All of us who have hosted ‘The Tonight Show’ format owe a debt of gratitude to Steve Allen. He was a most creative innovator and brilliant entertainer.”
Allen‘s quick wit and musical talent opened many doors for him in Hollywood. There was virtually no area of entertainment left untouched by Allen. He composed thousands of songs, recorded 40 albums and wrote 40 books. Allen also starred in Broadway shows, soap operas, sat in as a commentator for wrestling match broadcasts and wrote for plays and TV series.
His years of hard work in TV paid off on a professionally level when he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1986. He also won a Grammy for “Gravy Waltz” and wrote the score for the 1968 film “A Man Called Dagger.”
Comedy came easy to Allen. His parents, Billy Allen and Belle Montrose, were vaudeville comedians and toured with Allen when he was young. His father died when Allen was 18 months old, but his mother continued her touring scheduled as a single act with Allen in tow.
Allen later studied journalism in college but dropped out to work as a disc jockey and entertainer at a Phoenix radio station. He was drafted into the Army in 1943 but later discharged because of asthma. He returned to his Phoenix radio station and married his college sweetheart, Dorothy Goodman. Together they had three sons, Steve Jr., David and Brian. The couple divorced, however, in 1952.
Allen made the move to Los Angeles when he was offered to host a midnight radio show on KNX. The show won Allen the attention of CBS execs, whom expanded the show nationally. When the networks were moving into television, Allen was then invited to New York for “The Steve Allen Show,” which appeared five evenings a week on CBS.
Allen was married to actress Jayne Meadows for 46 years. They had one son, Bill. Allen‘s former publicist and close family friend of 40 years, Dale C. Olson, described the comedian as “the quintessential man.”
“He never said no to any charitable cause I or anyone was ever involved with,” Olson said. “I can think of no other public figure who best holds the mantle of the quintessential man and no other public figure who has given of himself more for the betterment of mankind. Steve Allen was always the first one to volunteer his services for a human cause. He will be sorely missed.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.