Thursday, August 4, 2016

If You Like Johnny Carson on 'The Tonight Show,' Thank Bob Crane!

When most people think of The Tonight Show, they think of legendary Johnny Carson, who brought entertainment and laughter to millions over his thirty years as host (1962-1992). Carson became a late night television talk show phenomenon. But what most people don't realize is that in 1962, instead of Carson taking over as host, the then-reigning "King of the LA Airwaves" almost became the "King of Late Night."

Bob Crane wraps up a portion of his KNX-CBS
Radio Show (May 1964).
In 1962, right at about the same time Jack Paar was stepping down from The Tonight Show, Bob Crane was blazing a radio trail at KNX in Hollywood. He had built a dynamic name for himself in broadcasting, having maintained a successful radio career since 1950 on both U.S. coasts. After several years at KNX, Bob was given a new component to his popular morning show: live, unrehearsed celebrity interviews that aired daily. Bob was personable, smart, quick-witted, charismatic, funny, and a gifted interviewer. When a celebrity or notable person went on the air with Bob, informative hilarity ensued. He captivated his guests, who clamored to be on his show for the public and professional exposure he guaranteed them. It didn't take long for Bob to command the new hour-long segment and be hailed as the premiere celebrity interviewer of the time. 

Bob Crane with Jerry Lewis on his
KNX-CBS Radio show (c. 1963).
Used with permission from Scott Crane.
"The Bob Crane Show" was a tremendous hit for KNX, and according to salesmen working at KNX at the time, Bob made a ton of money for the station. Television studio producers noticed and had their eye on him, and when The Tonight Show producers started searching for a replacement for Paar, they approached Bob. Not only was Bob a natural behind the mic, but he was also no stranger to The Tonight Show, having appeared as a guest during Jack Paar's tenure and during the interim between hosts.

Bob balked at their offer, not wanting to transition his radio show to television and become pigeonholed as an emcee or TV talk show host because of his ambition to pursue an acting career. They were persistent, however, even paying for Bob to travel to New York (with his wife, Anne) to guest host for a week in 1962.

But when he returned to Los Angeles, his answer was still the same. No.

Bob didn't want to host a television talk show. He wanted to act. So instead of jumping at the chance to become the official host The Tonight Show, he accepted small, lesser-paying roles on television, such as on The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Donna Reed Show, all so he could hone his acting skills.

Bob Crane as a guest on The Merv Griffin Show
January 1966
In 1965, just before the premier of Hogan's Heroes, Bob told the press: "Art Linkletter and a lot of other good friends in broadcasting told me I was a fool not to branch out into the television emcee business and maybe become another Jack Paar or Johnny Carson. But I couldn't see it. Once you become identified as a TV emcee, you're dead as an actor, and actor is what I wanted to be more than anything else."

NBC considered other hosts for succeeding Jack Paar, but it was only after Bob Crane turned down their offer—repeatedly—did they give Carson serious consideration. I often say to people, if you like Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, thank Bob Crane!

I always enjoyed Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. I liked Jay Leno and also enjoy watching Jimmy Fallon as host. But when I watch, I catch glimpses of what could have been Bob's wit and humor in the host's antics and interview traits. And I can't help but wonder what The Tonight Show would have been like if Bob Crane had said yes.

~~~

Bob Crane on The Tonight Show, with Jack Paar (c. 1960):




Bob Crane interviews Jerry Lewis over KNX-CBS Radio (recorded c. 1962; re-aired 1976):



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For more about Bob Crane, visit http://www.vote4bobcrane.org

For more about Bob Crane: The Definitive Biography, which was published on September 17, 2015, visit http://www.vote4bobcrane.org/book.html