Tom Snyder, king of very late-night TV, dies at 71
Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Tom Snyder (left) went to the California Medical Facility in Vacaville in 1981 to
interview convicted murderer Charles Manson.
Tom Snyder, the late-night talk show host whose free-form program and intimate interviewing style influenced a generation of broadcasters, died in his Tiburon home nearly two years after he announced he had chronic lymphatic leukemia.
Snyder, who was 71, died Sunday of complications from leukemia, associates said. Funeral arrangements are pending and will be private.
Best known for his 1973-82 stint as host of NBC's "The Tomorrow Show," which aired after Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," Snyder showed that the wee hours of weeknight mornings didn't have to ceded to B-grade movies and reruns. There he showed how conversation - be it goofy, serious, provocative and occasionally edgy - could be compelling on its own.
With the camera pulled in tight on his face, the screen filled with the cigarette smoke from the host and often his guests, Snyder created a living-room atmosphere that allowed conversation partners such as John Lennon or Howard Stern to relax in ways they didn't on other programs.
"There was a quality about him that was electric - and yet there was this intimacy on his program," Public Broadcasting System talk show host Charlie Rose told The Chronicle on Monday. Rose, whose dimly lit interview program is one of television's last bastions of the same style of intimate, albeit usually more serious, chat, said, "I never tried to copy Tom, because nobody ever could. To have that electricity and that intimacy, that was unique."
Born in Milwaukee, Wis., Snyder began his career as a radio reporter there in the 1960s before anchoring local television news broadcasts in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. In 1973, long before the advent of 24-hour news channels and cable television, Snyder began "Tomorrow," and late night was never the same.
Working live without a script and talking directly into the camera, Snyder created an arresting image for the late-night audience on "The Tomorrow Show." Conversations would veer from Snyder offering his personal opinions to hard-hitting questions, to him displaying photographs from a July Fourth barbecue he attended.
Over the years, he hosted a parade of guests - including Charles Manson - that few prime-time programmers would touch. Several of his legendary interviews - with the makeup-wearing band Kiss and the punk rockers the Plasmatics, who once blew up a car on his show - live on on the video-sharing site YouTube.com. There fans can still see Snyder, wearing a tie tucked under a V-neck sweater, smoking and laughing and jousting with the provocateurs of the era.
"His show was a home for the rock 'n' roll sensibility," said Wally Podrazik, a television historian and author of "Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television." "It was a free-wheeling place where you let your guard down.
"Tom was a personality unto himself. He'd go off on his own personal opinion, then laugh about how ridiculous something was, and then ask his guest a pointed, serious question about that topic - it's sort of the same thing Jon Stewart does, in a way," Podrazik said.
Television producer and writer "David Milch used to say that coming on Tom's show was like his therapy," said Michael Naidus, a producer on CBS' "The Late, Late Show" who worked with Snyder there as a publicist during his mid-1990s late-night talk show and remained in touch since. "You'd see Dennis Miller relax and behave differently on our show than he would any place else."
Over the years, Snyder's mannerisms - from his chain-smoking, to his staccatoed form of questioning, to his booming guffaw of a laugh, which surfaced frequently at his own jokes - became part of the cultural conversation, thanks to Dan Aykroyd's spot-on Snyder impersonation on "Saturday Night Live" in the mid-1970s. "Tom got a kick out of it," said his longtime lawyer and agent Ed Hookstratten.
Snyder's NBC show left the air in 1982, and his spot was taken by another late-night groundbreaker, David Letterman. After stints as a newscaster in New York, a nationally syndicated radio program and his own program on CNBC, Snyder returned to network television, thanks to a man who long idolized him: Letterman.
In 1995, after Letterman moved to CBS and was given control to create what would appear in the time slot after his, he invited Snyder to host "The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder." It ran for three years on CBS.
"Tom was the very thing that all broadcasters long to be - compelling," Letterman said Monday in a statement. "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 as a friend."
"Tom was a true broadcaster, a rare thing," said Peter Lassally, executive producer of Snyder's CBS show, in a statement released by the network. "When he was on the air, he made the camera disappear. It was just you and him, in a room together, having a talk."
Or, as Snyder told his audience in his catch phrase, "Fire up a colortini, sit back, relax and watch the pictures, now, as they fly through the air."
Several years ago, Snyder moved to the Bay Area and made it his primary residence. "He loved San Francisco," said Naidus. "He said 'it had no bad angles.' "
He is survived by a daughter and his longtime companion, Pamela Burke, according to his Hookstratten.
To view excerpts from Tom Snyder's interviews, go to -
E-mail Joe Garofoli at email@example.com