Jack Paar kept millions of Americans up past their bedtimes as the mercurial host of "The Tonight Show" in the late 1950s and early '60s and set the standard for the talk-show format with his eclectic mix of urbane and witty guests. He was the original "King of Late Night."
"Jack was the beginning of talk," said entertainer and entrepreneur Merv Griffin. Paar "was the first to sit down and really have conversations. He made small talk huge."
"I have little or no talent," Paar once observed with a sly grin. "I can't sing and I can't dance, but I can be fascinating." Indeed, Paar was, by turns, charming, volatile and sentimental — he was famously given to tearing up on camera and had public feuds with variety show host Ed Sullivan (over the fees paid guest stars on their television programs) and newspaper columnists Walter Winchell and Dorothy Kilgallen. Paar would tell humorous, self-deprecating anecdotes, often prefacing his stories of the unusual things that happened to him with his famous catchphrase, "I kid you not."
Paar was at his best chatting with his guests — a colorful blend of actors, entertainers, writers, politicians and zanies — in what he once likened to a "verbal barroom brawl." Among the more frequent visitors were the folksy raconteur Charley Weaver (played by comedian and pianist Cliff Arquette); the misanthropic artist-writer Alexander King; the rapier-witted pianist-composer Oscar Levant; the French chanteuse Genevieve; British actress Hermione Gingold; and the incomparable Jonathan Winters, who once walked on stage wearing a horned goat hat and clutching a small branch while announcing that he was the Voice of Spring.