Talk show host Tom Snyder dies at 71

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Tom Snyder
1936-2007

Tom Snyder, who hosted TV's first late-late-night network talk show, has died. He was 71.

Snyder died Sunday in San Francisco of leukemia complications, his longtime producer and friend Mike Horowicz told the Associated Press on Monday. He had been diagnosed with leukemia in April 2005.

Snyder hosted NBC's "Tomorrow" show from 1973-82, in the time slot following "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." His catch phrase for the show was: "Fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the pictures, now, as they fly through the air." Snyder smoked throughout his show, the cigarette cloud swirling around him during interviews.

With his percussive laugh and opinionated bent, the silver-haired Snyder defied the bland, middle-of-the-road persona of hosts and anchors. His manner bemused or annoyed late-night TV viewers through three decades.

As a talk show host, Snyder was known for his off-beat monologues and carefree discussion with the crew while on the air. His eclectic array of interviewees included John Lennon, Ayn Rand, Johnny Rotten and, via hookup, Charles Manson.

He gained more fame when Dan Aykroyd lampooned him in the early days of "Saturday Night Live."

"He was one of the best interviewers of his time, a truly gifted conversationalist who was at ease with any guest and topic," CBS said Monday. "He created a talk show that was simply about talking and listening. He spoke to his viewers, and they, in turn, felt as if they knew him personally.

"With his passing, television has lost a true broadcaster who always respected the medium and the audience it serves," the network said.

In 1995, with prodding from David Letterman, CBS hired Snyder as host of "The Late Late Show," which aired live on the East Coast and was simulcast to other time zones on radio. He fielded an eclectic array of guests for the one-on-one interview show: authors, celebrities, newsmakers, politicians. Snyder hosted "Late Late" for four years, ending with his familiar signoff: "Back soon. Same time, same station. 'Night all." After he left the program in 1999, it was reformatted for new host Craig Kilborn.

"Tom was a true broadcaster, a rare thing," said Peter Lassally, executive producer of "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson" and former executive producer of "The Late Late Show With Tom Snyder." "When he was on the air, he made the camera disappear. It was just you and him, in a room together, having a talk."

Renowned for his provocative questions and jocular style, Snyder mixed news with entertainment, often to the chagrin of network executives. In 1979, he launched "Primetime Sunday," for NBC, which was an overhaul of the network's newsmagazine "Weekend."

Snyder was born May 12, 1936, in Milwaukee. He began his radio career as a news correspondent in 1965 on WRIT-AM in Milwaukee. After a two-year stint, he moved on as radio and TV news anchor in Savannah, Ga., with WSAV. He served in various capacities in Kalamazoo, Mich., Philadelphia and Los Angeles before landing his first gig as a talk show host with "Contact" on KYW-TV Philadelphia in 1966.

"He loved the broadcast business," said Marciarose Shestack, who co-anchored a noontime newscast with Snyder at KYW. "He was very surprising and very irreverent and not at all a typical newscaster."

Snyder made his mark in TV as anchor in 1970 at KNBC Los Angeles, where his mix of humor and hard news boosted the ratings. In 1973, he launched "Tomorrow" in Los Angeles, moving it the following year to New York, where he also served as anchorman for WNBC-TV's two-hour "Newscenter 4." In 1975, Snyder inaugurated "NBC News Update," a one-minute prime-time news report.

He often jousted with NBC executives who saw no mix of news and entertainment, and when his NBC contract was near expiration in 1979, he contacted ABC. It was under those contentious circumstances that "Prime Time Sunday" was formulated.

"Tomorrow" was canceled in 1982 -- it was replaced by a new show called "Late Night With David Letterman" -- and eight months later, Snyder signed on with WABC-TV's "Eyewitness News" in New York. He served as anchor for two years before moving to Los Angeles to work as a special correspondent for KABC-TV, which gave him the opportunity to do a late-afternoon talk show. However, the show was replaced by "The Orpah Winfrey Show."

Snyder did not do another talk show until 1993, with cable's CNBC. In the interim, he filled in for Larry King in 1987 after King had a heart attack, and in November 1987, Snyder began a five-year run with a three-hour talk show on ABC Radio. It was at that juncture that CNBC approached with an offer of a one-hour talk show.

"He bridged the gap between a hard newsman, which he originally was, and a talk show person," said mentalist the Amazing Kreskin, a longtime friend of Snyder and frequent guest on his shows. "Also, he could do live shows, something that is disappearing rapidly from this business."

An avid railroad buff, Snyder had a home in Los Angeles that included a track that circled his swimming pool. In the world of train enthusiasts, he was known for having the only multilevel, scale-detailed Standard Gauge layout in the country, a system that occupied two adjacent rooms, including a two-level passenger station area.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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