Jack Paar, witty, outspoken `Tonight Show' pioneer, dead at 85; Carson's predecessor

Tuesday, January 27th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GREENWICH, Conn. (AP) _ 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 home as a result of a long illness, said Stephen Wells, Paar's son-in-law. Paar's daughter and wife 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.

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.