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Steve Allen Biography

Home > Actors > A > Allen, Steve > Biography

Birth Name: Steve Allen
Born: 12/26/1921
Birth Place: New York City, New York, USA
Death Place: Encino, California, USA
Died: 10/30/2000

Born Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen on Dec. 26, 1921 in New York City, he was the son of Carroll and Isabelle Allen, a husband and wife vaudevillian team. Sadly, Allen's father died before he reached the age of two, necessitating the boy's relocation to Chicago's South Side, where he was raised by his mother's family. After high school graduation, he briefly attended Des Moines' Drake University on a journalism scholarship before transferring to Arizona State Teacher's College. During his sophomore year, Allen left college and took a job in radio at Phoenix's Station KOY for a short time before enlisting in the U.S. Army. Stationed at Camp Roberts, CA, Allen saw no combat and was eventually discharged due to his asthma. Back in Phoenix, he returned to KOY in 1943, where he picked up duties as an announcer. Having gained a few years of valuable experience, he pulled up stakes and moved his young family to Los Angeles, where he soon landed a weekly radio show called "Smile Time" on the Mutual Broadcasting Company. Two years later, Allen switched over to KNX, CBS's L.A. affiliate, where his half-hour nighttime show - comprised of music and celebrity chit-chat - became one the most popular on-air offerings in town.

By 1950, Allen's growing reputation as a consummate host and adroit ad-libber made him a perfect candidate for the emerging medium of television. At CBS' invitation, he moved once again, this time to New York, where he hosted his own half-hour television talk show until 1952. Although not terribly successful, the experience proved useful as a test run for "Tonight Starring Steve Allen" (NBC, 1953-57), a precursor to Johnny Carson's long-running program and the show widely regarded as the originator of the contemporary late night talk show format. Allen quickly made the show his own, molding NBC's original concept into a combination of monologues, guest appearances, skits, and ongoing characters played by a repertory of actors that included Louis Nye and Tom Poston. Never overbearing, but always in control, Allen sat behind a desk, asked softball questions and offered quick, witty comebacks. The show was such a success that, with the demise of Milton Berle's variety show, Allen became NBC's hottest property and the network added a 1956 Sunday night primetime variety show starring Allen as the host. Now immensely popular and perfect for the part in appearance, he was given the title role in the feature film biopic "The Benny Goodman Story" (1955), one of his few serious acting roles. It was also at about this time that the recently divorced talk show host met the woman he would spend the rest of his life with, actress Jayne Meadows.

Within a year, the intense work load of hosting two shows proved overwhelming for Allen. Encouraged by the network to focus on his variety program, "The Steve Allen Show" (NBC, 1956-1960), he left "Tonight" and went head-to-head in ratings combat with broadcasting giant Ed Sullivan. As he had done with great success on the prior show, Allen offered frequent skits with his cast of recurring players, including Poston and Don Knotts, whose careers were launched as a result. Musical guests were, of course, another staple of the show, and although Allen was known to be exceptionally vocal in his distain for the new genre of rock-n-roll, some exceptions were made when booking guests. The most memorable of these acts came with the infamous appearance of a young Elvis Presley. Wearing a tuxedo and tails, the uncomfortable-looking rocker was forced to croon his hit "Hound Dog" to an actual basset hound. Avid young fans were incensed by the perceived humiliation of Presley, although in the years that followed, Allen insisted it had been all in good fun, and was merely intended to jive with the show's overall irreverent, comedic tone. For his part, Elvis would always refer to it as the most ridiculous performance of his career.

Despite its initial success, Allen's show eventually succumbed to the American television institution that was Ed Sullivan's revered variety program and he left NBC in 1960. He returned to the "Tonight" format once again with a new version of "The Steve Allen Show" (syndicated, 1962-64), which, unfortunately for him, found itself in direct competition with the newly-crowned King of Late Night, Johnny Carson. A prolific songwriter and composer since his early days on Los Angeles radio, Allen scored a hit with the song "This Could Be the Start of Something Big" and later won a Grammy for his jazz composition "The Gravy Waltz" in 1963. Additional efforts included the music and lyrics for the short-lived 1963 Broadway musical "Sophie," as well as composing the theme music for the B-movie spy-spoof "A Man Called Dagger" (1967). Moving into the 1970s, Allen frequently appeared as the host of various game shows, like "I've Got a Secret" (CBS, 1964-1973), and reincarnations of his original talk show, although none would sustain lengthy runs. One notable endeavor was the scripted discussion show "Meeting of Minds" (PBS, 1977-1981), which allowed historical figures such as Plato, Shakespeare and Cleopatra (played by various actors) to discuss philosophy, history, science and other topics. Produced and hosted by Allen, the educational program garnered several awards - a Peabody and Emmy among them - during its four-year run.

An incredibly prolific writer, Allen was the author of more than 50 volumes of fiction, non-fiction, essays, plays and poetry. Examples included his examination of humor and comedians, Funny People (1981) and the first in a series of popular comedic-mystery novels, The Talk Show Murders (1982). Work in all aspects of television continued with the musical adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland" (CBS, 1985), for which he wrote the lyrics, as well as a recurring acting role on the popular medical drama "St. Elsewhere" (NBC, 1982-88). Admitted to the Television Hall of Fame in 1986, Allen was far from content to rest on his laurels, continuing to write books and plays, occasionally act - usually as himself, in such films as Martin Scorsese's "Casino" (1995) - in addition to performing live as a noted jazz pianist. Unfortunately, on Oct. 30, 2000, while driving to visit his son and grandchildren, Allen was involved in a minor car collision. Although he initially felt certain that he had sustained no serious injury, the 78-year-old entertainer suffered a fatal heart attack brought on by the trauma later that same day. Always interested in social-political issues, Allen's treatise on what he saw as the decline of decency in popular entertainment Vulgarians at the Gate: Trash TV and Raunch Radio - Raising the Standards of Popular Culture was published posthumously in 2001.

By Bryce Coleman