NEW YORK - Jack Paar, who held the nation's rapt attention as he pioneered late-night talk on "The Tonight Show," then told his viewers farewell when still in his prime, died Tuesday. He was 85.
Paar died at his Greenwich, Conn., home as a result of a long illness, said Stephen Wells, Paar's son-in-law. Paar's wife of more than 60 years, Miriam, and daughter, Randy, were by his side, Wells said.
"We're in a bit of a fog," he said. "There were a lot of people who knew Jack and loved him."
Since the mid-1960s, Paar had kept mostly out of the public eye, engaging in business ventures and indulging his passion for travel.
But Paar's years on NBC enlivened an otherwise "painfully predictable" TV landscape, wrote The New York Times' Jack Gould in 1962. "Mr. Paar almost alone has managed to preserve the possibility of surprise."
Johnny Carson took over "The Tonight Show" in 1962. Paar had a prime-time talk show for three more seasons, then retired from television in 1965.
Carson was at his Malibu, Calif., home when he got word of Paar's death. In a statement, he said he was "very saddened to hear of his passing. He was a unique personality who brought a new dimension to late night television."
Paar had taken over the flagging NBC late-night slot in July 1957; Steve Allen had departed some months earlier. Allen's show was a variety show; Paar's a talk show.
"Like being chosen as a kamikaze pilot," Paar wrote in "I Kid You Not," a memoir. "But I felt sure that people would enjoy good, frank and amusing talk."
They did. Viewers loved this cherubic wiseguy, someone once referred to as "like Peter Pan, if Peter Pan had been written by Mickey Spillane."
Soon, everyone was staying up to watch Paar, then talking about his show the next day. Even youngsters sent to bed before Paar came on parroted his jaunty catch phrase, "I kid you not," with which he regularly certified his flow of self-revealing stories.
Just why he walked away from such a breakthrough career at age 47 would become an enduring source of conjecture, possibly even for Paar. His explanation would have to suffice: that he was tired and ready to do other things.
But off the air, as on, he never stopped doing the thing he did best: talk.
"The only time I'm nervous or scared is when I'm NOT talking," he told The Associated Press in 1997. "When I'm talking, I know that I do it well."
What he accomplished with the spoken word — not only his words but those he wooed from fellow raconteurs like Peter Ustinov, Elsa Maxwell, Hans Conried and Genevieve — proved irresistible to his audience.
Paar also played host to Muhammad Ali when he was still known as Cassius Clay, to a pleasantly pickled Judy Garland, and to the outrageous pianist-composer Oscar Levant. Entertainers Paar championed included Jonathan Winters, Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby.
Paar's circle of guests included leading politicians. During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy made a triumphant appearance — so much so, that a few days after the election, Paar got a letter from Joseph P. Kennedy, the proud father, gushing, "I don't know anybody who did more, indirectly, to have Jack elected than your own good self."
But Paar was a show all by himself, just talking about himself. "I'm against psychiatry — for me, anyway," he told viewers. "I haven't got any troubles I can't tell standing up."
A man of boundless curiosity and interests, he was charming, gracious and famously sentimental: He could shed tears, as he put it, just from "taking the Coca-Cola bottles back to the A&P."
He could also be volatile, pettish and confounding. And never so much as in February 1960, when, making headlines, he emotionally told his thunderstruck audience that he was leaving his show. It was the night after a skittish NBC executive had judged obscene, and edited out, a story by Paar where the initials "W.C." were mistaken for "wayside chapel" instead of "water closet."
A month later, the network managed to lure Paar back. Returning on the night of March 7, he was greeted with generous applause as he stepped before the cameras. Then he began his monologue on a typically cheeky note: "As I was saying, before I was interrupted ... "
Born in Canton, Ohio, in 1918, Jack Harold Paar left school at 16 for a job as a radio announcer, and soon found success on various stations as a comic-disc jockey.
Then, in the U.S. Army special services during World War II, he entertained troops in the South Pacific as a standup comedian. His specialty was poking fun at officers for an appreciative audience of enlisted men. ("I don't care what you think of the colonel," he would chide, "stop using your thumbs when you salute.")
In 1947, a magazine poll chose him as "the most promising star of tomorrow," but as the 1950s wore on, he had scored only as a temporary replacement on radio for Jack Benny and Arthur Godfrey, as a failed B-movie actor and a shortlived daytime TV personality.
Then, within weeks of his "Tonight" debut, he was being hailed as "one of America's most popular indoor pastimes."
The talkfest came to an end in 1965. By then Paar had traded in his "Tonight Show" desk for a Friday prime-time hour. But he had made no secret that his third season of "The Jack Paar Program" would be his last. With little fanfare and — against all odds — no tears, he signed off with his June 25 show.
"I have been — forgive me — I have been a success," Paar could declare three decades later, still exhibiting his blend of modesty and brashness. Then he added puckishly, "I'm as amazed as you are."
Wells said Paar was hospitalized after suffering a stroke last year. Viewers came to know daughter Randy as a youngster thanks to Paar's family-oriented tales and globe-spanning "home movies."