Steve Allen was a zany comedian and witty social commentator whose career zipped at warp speed from one occupation to the next.
The son of vaudeville actors, Allen charmed radio and television audiences for decades with his inspired shtick, most of it ad-libbed. In 1953 he signed up to host "Tonight" from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., live from New York City.
"I want to give you the bad news first, folks," he told the national audience. "This show is going to go on forever." He had no idea.
As the original host of "Tonight," Allen invented the genre of late-night TV and redefined the art of comedy, serving up screwball skits featuring such characters as the Question Man and antics such as the very emotional reading aloud of letters to the editor.
But Allen was equally comfortable with serious material. In 1977, he created television's "Meeting of Minds," which won an Emmy in 1981 for best informational series. The show presented imaginary debates between historic figures such as Charles Darwin, Attila the Hun and Marie Antoinette.
In perhaps his most memorable acting role, Allen portrayed a legendary jazz clarinetist in the 1955 motion picture "The Benny Goodman Story," with Goodman himself dubbing the clarinet soundtrack.
Allen's versatility astounded his admirers. He dived into nine feet of Jell-O on "Tonight" and penned a weighty book on religious cults. He composed the song "This Could Be the Start of Something Big" and published a murder mystery, a musical and books of poetry. He pioneered the concept of taking a hand-held microphone into a TV show audience, and wrote about migrant farm workers in the 1966 book "The Ground Is Our Table."