LOS ANGELES -- During a career that spanned a half-century, Steve Allen left his mark in virtually every field of entertainment -- from pioneering TV's late-night talk show to appearing on Broadway to writing thousands of songs and dozens of books.
The Renaissance man, who turned his hand brilliantly to comedy, acting and social commentary, died Monday of an apparent heart attack at age 78.
"He was a most creative innovator and brilliant entertainer," former "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson said.
Allen starred as the King of Swing in the 1956 movie "The Benny Goodman Story," acted in soap operas, wrote newspaper columns, commented on wrestling broadcasts, made 40 record albums and wrote plays and a TV series featuring historical figures in round-table discussions.
But it was Allen's introduction of the "The Tonight Show" in 1953 that became his most enduring achievement. The show began as "Tonight" on the New York NBC station WNBT, then moved to the network on Sept. 27, 1954.
"His early work is really the foundation for what late-night shows have become," said "Late Show" host David Letterman.
Amid the formality of early TV, "Tonight" was a breath of fresh air. The show began with Allen noodling at the piano, playing some of his compositions and commenting wittily on events of the day. He moved to a desk, chatted with guests, taking part in sketches, doing zany man-in-the street interviews.
Allen wrote a multitude of songs -- his son estimated 8,500 -- including the pop hit "This May Be the Start of Something Big." His books ranged from autobiography ("Hi-Ho, Steverino: My Adventures in the Wonderful Wacky World of TV") to philosophy ("Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion and Morality") to murder mystery ("Die Laughing.")
"His mind was like a jet plane, breaking records at unbelievable speeds," said Carol Conors, a friend and songwriter.
Allen was proudest of his 1976-79 PBS series, "Meeting of Minds." He moderated a panel of actors impersonating historic figures such as Galileo, Cleopatra and Attila the Hun, who explained their diverse philosophies.
A self-styled advocate of "radical middle-of-the-roadism," Allen often spoke out on political matters such as capital punishment, nuclear policy and freedom of expression.
In books, lectures and talk show appearances, he also railed against what he saw as the dumbing down of American culture and TV's descent into smut and violence.
He joined with the Parents Television Council, a nonprofit, conservative group based in Los Angeles, to speak out against TV content. His bespectacled photo was in a full-page Los Angeles Times ad on Tuesday that warned: "TV is leading children down a moral sewer."
"We'll miss him. He left us too early," comedian Bob Hope said.
Flowers were placed on Allen's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and accolades poured in from show business colleagues.
"I admired and respected him so much. He was a wonderful gentle man," comedian Phyllis Diller said.
Allen was born to vaudeville comedians Billy Allen and Belle Montrose in New York City on Dec. 26, 1921. Steve was 18 months old when his father died, and his mother continued touring the theater circuits alone while Steve grew up in the care of relatives.
In the early 1940s, Allen dropped out of college to work as a disc jockey and entertainer at radio station KOY in Phoenix before he was drafted in 1943.
He was soon released because of asthma, returned to KOY and married his college sweetheart, Dorothy Goodman. They had three sons, Steve Jr., David and Brian, and divorced in 1952.
Allen moved to Los Angeles, where a midnight show on KNX brought him a small but enthusiastic audience and attracted national attention in 1950 when it was carried on the CBS network as a summer replacement for "Our Miss Brooks." The networks were converting to television, and he was invited to New York for "The Steve Allen Show," which appeared five evenings a week on CBS.
At a dinner party in 1952, Allen was seated next to his future wife, actress Jayne Meadows. Uncharacteristically, he was speechless.
At the end of the evening, she turned to him and said: "Mr. Allen, you're either the rudest man I ever met or the shyest." His reddened face indicated the latter. They married in 1954, and have one son, Bill Allen.
"He was my best friend and my partner on stage and off for more than 48 years. He was the most talented man I've ever known and the one true love of my life," Meadows said.
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