Billy Harbach, First Producer of 'The Tonight Show,' Dies at 98

William O. Harbach - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Lisa Setos

Working often with Steve Allen, he also guided the variety show 'The Hollywood Palace' and gave Raquel Welch her big career break.

Billy Harbach, a two-time Emmy winner who served as the first producer of The Tonight Show and ran the fabled 1960s variety program The Hollywood Palace for all six of its seasons, had died. He was 98.

Harbach died Dec. 18 after a brief illness at his home in Fairfield, Connecticut, his daughter Lisa Setos told The Hollywood Reporter.

Inducted into the Producers Guild of America Hall of Fame in 1992, Harbach gave singers Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme, Jack Jones and Andy Williams their starts in television on NBC's The Tonight Show, then hosted by Steve Allen.

Harbach also cast Raquel Welch as the "Billboard Girl" in 1966 on the first season of ABC's The Hollywood Palace; she placed the names of the acts on a placard, similar to how it was done at a vaudeville house. The actress remained indebted to Harbach and attended his 95th birthday party at the Bel-Air Bay Club in Pacific Palisades.

Harbach also co-produced ABC's The Julie Andrews Show in the 1970s and shepherded the television coverage of the first three Kennedy Center Honors (1978-80) from Washington.

His father was the famed Broadway lyricist — and Oscar Hammerstein II mentor — Otto A. Harbach, known for such hits as "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."

Allen was hosting a local New York program called the Knickerbocker Beer Show (later The Steve Allen Show) when the idea for a nationwide late-night show came to NBC executive Pat Weaver.

"Weaver had started the Today show with Dave Garroway in the mornings," Harbach recalled in a 2012 interview with Kliph Nesteroff. "[Garroway] said to himself, 'I've done that, and we've got the Home show with Arlene Francis in the afternoon. I ought to put the network to sleep with some zany show.' Hmmm, that little local Knickerbocker show. … Give them more money, put it on and we'll call it The Tonight Show. That's how that started."

Harbach was then called on to produce the show for Allen. That morphed into Tonight! which went nationwide and live from New York City in June 1953.

In 1957, Harbach left The Tonight Show to produce another Allen show for NBC, a variety program that eventually went up against The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS on Sunday nights and was clobbered in the ratings. Harbach, though, won a Peabody Award in 1958 for his work.

In January 1964, Harbach and producing partner Nick Vanoff launched the glamorous Saturday night hit The Hollywood Palace, which had replaced a failed — and very expensive — two-hour talk show hosted by Jerry Lewis.

"When they asked us to do [The Hollywood Palace], we wanted to have real producing control, and we wanted a different host each time for this giant vaudeville show," he told Nesteroff. "ABC said no. They said, 'People like to have the same man in their living room every week.'

"We said, 'Then get yourself another producer. We want to do it this way or not at all.' And they were desperate, so they said, 'Oh Jesus. OK. We think you're wrong, but go ahead.' We had every goddamn giant on the show. Bing Crosby. Bette Davis. Joan Crawford. Hosting. Edward G. Robinson. Dean Martin. The world!"

Harbach stood in the back of the audience during taping, and his laugh was heard on virtually every show.

Born on Oct. 12, 1919, in Yonkers, New York, Harbach attended Brown University and spent five years in the Coast Guard patrolling for enemy subs during World War II.

He came to California and was signed as a stock player by MGM, and he showed up in a few films, including Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), Song of the Thin Man (1947) and Killer McCoy (1947).

Back in New York, Harbach managed one of the biggest nightclub acts of its day, Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers (Andy Williams was the youngest). He then started at NBC, editing, directing and eventually producing shows like Francis' Blind Date program before his association with Allen began.

After he decided to work with Allen, the host asked him to observe his program for a week, Harbach told Nesteroff.

"My first show — I'm watching — and at the end of the show, [Allen] says, 'I would like to read a letter. It's from a bigot," he recalled.

"And he reads this letter on live television. Lena Horne had been on the show a couple weeks earlier, and at the end of her number he kissed her on the cheek and said, 'Please come back again, you're marvelous.'

"He reads this unbelievable letter. 'How dare you kiss this [racial slur,]' and he reads the letter exactly as it was written with all the awful words. It went on and on. The audience was silent, and my mouth was wide open. 

"There was dead silence. He looked at the camera and took his glasses off. He said, 'If anybody happens to know who wrote this letter — he didn't have the guts to sign his name — find him a doctor. He's the sickest man in America.' The house came down with applause.

"I fell in love with Steve Allen that night. I said to myself, 'I will work with this guy for the rest of my life.'"

Harbach also produced shows and TV specials starring the likes of Crosby, Morey Amsterdam, Glenn Miller, Milton Berle, Maurice Chevalier and John Wayne. He won a second Emmy for his work on Gypsy in My Soul, a 1976 special that featured Shirley MacLaine and Lucille Ball and was written by Fred Ebb.

Jimmy Fallon made Harbach an honored guest on the first night he hosted The Tonight Show, now back in New York, in 2014.

Harbach also produced and directed ASCAP celebrations for Johnny Mercer, Ira Gershwin, Arthur Schwartz, Howard Dietz, Harold Arlen, Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe and Jimmy Van Heusen. Held in Broadway theaters, they featured songs performed by Andrews, Barbara Cook, Kitty Carlisle Hart and others.

An avid sailor, Harbach and his dear friend, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, took annual trips on their respective boats each summer, and he competed in yacht races and was a member of several yacht clubs.

Harbach also loved croquet. He was inducted into the U.S. Croquet Hall of Fame in 1983 and brought the game to the Sheep Meadow in New York's Central Park.

Harbach was married to Laurie Douglas from 1948-51, to Fay Caulkins Palmer from 1954-73 and to Barbara Schmid Vought from 1981 until her death in 2016.

Survivors include his daughters Lisa and Pamela, his step-daughters Victoria and Leslie and his grandchildren George, Tyler, Jessica, Peter, William and Matthew.