Tom Snyder, who pioneered the late-late network TV talk show with a personal yet abrasive style, robust laugh and trademark cloud of cigarette smoke billowing around his head, has died from complications associated with leukemia. He was 71.
Snyder died Sunday in San Francisco, his longtime producer and friend Mike Horowicz told The Associated Press on Monday.
“Tom was a fighter,” Horowicz said. “I know he had tried many different treatments.”
Prickly and ego-driven, Snyder conducted numerous memorable interviews as host of NBC’s “Tomorrow,” which followed Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” show from 1973 to ’82.
Snyder’s style, his show’s set and the show itself marked an abrupt change at 1 a.m. from Carson’s program. Snyder might joke with the crew in the sparsely appointed studio, but he was more likely to joust with guests such as the irascible science fiction writer Harlan Ellison.
Snyder had John Lennon’s final televised interview (April 1975) and U2’s first U.S. television appearance in June 1981.
One of his most riveting interviews was with Charles Manson, who would go from a calm demeanor to acting like a wild-eyed, insanity-spouting mass murderer and back again.
Another wacky moment came when Plasmatics lead singer Wendy O. Williams blew up a TV in the studio; in another appearance she demolished a car. Yet another time, Johnny Rotten decided he really wasn’t in the mood to be on a talk show, leading to an excruciating 12 minutes of airtime.
In 1982, the show was canceled after a messy attempt to reformat it into a talk-variety show called “Tomorrow Coast to Coast.” It added a live audience and co-hostess Rona Barrett — all of which Snyder disdained.
The time slot was taken over by a hot young comedian named David Letterman.
“Tom was the very thing that all broadcasters long to be — compelling,” Letterman said. “Whether he was interviewing politicians, authors, actors or musicians, Tom was always the real reason to watch. I’m honored to have known him as a colleague and a friend.”
‘He loved the broadcast business’
Born in Milwaukee, Snyder began his career as a radio reporter in his home town in the 1960s, then moved into local television news, anchoring newscasts in Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles before moving to late night.
“He loved the broadcast business,” said Marciarose Shestack, who co-anchored a noontime newscast with Snyder at KYW-TV in Philadelphia in the 1960s. “He was very surprising and very irreverent and not at all a typical newscaster.”
Al Primo, a former TV news director who gave Snyder one of his first TV jobs, said Snyder was the “ultimate communicator,” able to look directly into a camera and tell viewers a story without looking at notes.
As an interviewer, Snyder “always used to tell me, I listen to what they’re saying and I ask the questions that the average guy would want to ask, not a formulated question,” Primo said.
He returned to local anchoring in New York after “Tomorrow” left the air. He eventually hosted an ABC radio talk show before easing back into television on CNBC.
His catch phrase: “Fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the pictures, now, as they fly through the air.”
Letterman, a longtime Snyder admirer, brought him back to network television, creating “The Late Late Show” on CBS to follow his own program. (Subsequently, the format and hosts have changed, with Craig Kilborn and now Craig Ferguson.)
Snyder gained fame in his heyday when Dan Aykroyd spoofed him in the early days of “Saturday Night Live.” His chain-smoking, black beetle brows (contrasting with his mostly gray hair), mercurial manner and self-indulgent, digressive way of asking questions as well as his clipped speech pattern made for a distinctive sendup.
Briefly in the late 1970s, Snyder was considered a potential successor to John Chancellor as anchor of the “NBC Nightly News.” Tom Brokaw got the job instead, as some in NBC management were worried that Snyder’s quick and occasionally sharp tongue would get them in trouble, said Joe Angotti, who produced NBC’s weekend news then.
“There was a friendly but intense competition between the two of them,” Angotti said.
Snyder announced on his Web site in 2005 that he had chronic lymphocytic leukemia.