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Tom Terrific

Tom Snyder died July 29, the obituaries said. Actually, he died eight years ago. The king of late late night talk rode off into the sunset, whatever you call his retirement as the host of
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Tom Snyder died July 29, the obituaries said, from complications associated with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which he had been battling since April 2005. He was 71.

Actually, Tom died eight years ago. The king of late late night talk rode off into the sunset, bit the dust, bought the farm, whatever you wanted to call his retirement as the host of The Late Late Show on CBS (1994-1999). He had gone to where all the talkers went sooner or later, talk show heaven and hell, up there in the pantheon in the ozone, with the greats, near-greats and ingrates: Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin, Pat Sajak, Chevy Chase, Alan Thicke, Joan Rivers, Arsenio Hall, Magic Johnson -- the list goes on and on in the century where it was thought that anybody will have a talk show for 15 minutes.

Most people today do not remember Tom Snyder. Nevertheless, he was a giant in the land of pygmies that is broadcasting.

TV in the Twentieth Century was awash with talkers, but not interviewers like Tom. He was a master conversationalist. His secret was that he listened. I once saw him even listening to Markie Post talk about metaphysics. He had total confidence that whatever interested him will be of interest to you.

On The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder, which followed The Tonight Show from 1973 to 1982, he had mesmerizing conversations with John Lennon, Ayn Rand, Weird Al Yankovic, Johnny Rotten (aka John Lydon) and the 1980 appearance by The Plasmatics in which lead singer Wendy O. Williams blew up a TV set in the studio, the prelude to the band blowing up a car the next year. Snyder did the classic celebrity interview Halloween 1979 when he gave the rock band KISS 25 minutes featuring a very drunk spokesman, Ace Frehley, promoting their album "Dynasty."

His strength as an interviewer was that he could peel people like an onion, get them to open up, whether they were from this planet or the others. And when there was less there than met the ear, there was always Tom himself as the attraction.

Nobody could talk better about the strange things that happened to him on the way to the studio. It was surreal the way ordinary words came out twisted.

He had a way of looking into the cameras and making you think he was talking just to you (besides the cameraman and technicians). No TelePrompTer, no studio audience, just you. Just Tom on anything. It was what they call "communicating."

It may have appeared that Tom was winging it. He actually walked the beach during the day thinking of the show. It wasn't spontaneous but mental preparation for spontaneous bits.

He also had that uproarious laugh that gave Dan Akroyd an opportunity to get his own laughs, spoofing Tom on Saturday Night Live.

Forgotten, too is Snyder's work in TV news. He was the best pure anchorman in the news I had ever seen, a skill displayed in his long years anchoring the local news in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York before he was discovered by Roger Ailes to host Tomorrow. He had pure presence, charisma, an engaging listen-to-me-I-got-something- important-to-say quality.

And why did Tom "retire" for the first time in 1999? Did Tom have a mid-life crisis? Had he decided to become a Trappist monk, taking a vow of silence? Did he have nothing more to say when quitting The Late Late Show?

Like mere mortals, Snyder was killed by ratings. At the time CBS was in the sweaty hands of Mel Karmazin, the darling of Wall Street. Despite its millions of viewers, Tom's show was sacrificed because it wasn't profitable enough.

Why weren't the ratings higher? One problem is that he did it out in LA. As Tom himself said of the Culture Capital, "They are 21 hours behind out there."

It didn't help, either, that in its formative years the show was loaded with guests from CBS lame primetime schedule, as per Karamzin's orders. But the bigger problem for CBS bean counters is that the audience did not skew young.

At a certain point entertainment figures of that certain age become campy to young people. There was the Tony Bennett Craze, for example, in the mid-1990's. But Tom -- then 62-- didn't become the Pied Piper of the 18-34's

It was bad planning on Karmazin's part if Tom truly skewed to older audiences to put him on at 12:37 in the morning. Tom's natural constituency of affluent, intelligent viewers were usually asleep at that hour. Karmazin should have put Snyder on his morning show. Articulate, smart, a great interviewer, with solid credentials as a news man and anchor, a lively, opinionated conversationalist, Snyder would have been fabulous on CBS This Morning, as it was then called. In the 212th version of the morning news show, CBS drafted Bryant Gumble instead.

After metaphorically putting the gun to Tom's head, Karmazin could have improved CBS profits by replacing Snyder with that laugh riot Mr. Juicer or feature length commercials for car waxers. Not Craig Kilburn.

But all of that is ancient history.

Tom rattled around on cable news networks for a few years doing a CNBC show that broke new ground by featuring phone calls to the guests. The Colorcast, he called it, kidding NBC hyping color in the 1960's.

For many broadcast viewers, being on cable then was tantamount to a rock falling in the lake. People stopped asking whatever happened to Tom Snyder.

But that was nothing compared to the way he disappeared after the CNBC gig. It was as if he had joined the Witness Protection Program.

I tracked him down in 2003.

I hadn't spoken to Tom since appearing on his last show at CNBC in 1999 and having reviewed his work since the 1970's on WABC/TV and been the media critic on the Tomorrow show. His first words on the phone were: "Now what do you want?"

He had fled the canyon life in LA for the even better life in Marin County outside San Francisco. He was living in a house by the bay (Belvedere) with his faithful sheep dog, his model trains, and his thoughts about the decline of western civilization. "American society all gone, " he explained. "Televisison all gone." It was terrible what was happening to network news. "Did you see what they were doing on the Today show this morning?" It was Halloween. "Those costumes. And they had accused me of running a circus."

He was too good, too vibrant a voice to be tossed in the wastebasket of history. Why had he quit?

"I'll tell you, Marvin. About four years ago, I said to myself, I'm sick of doing it. I said to myself, before they find out I'm sick of doing it, I should get out. And I did. And I've never been happier. I'm 67-years old. I'm on Social Security, Medicare. Who knew? I mean, Bob Hope gets a couple of hundred grand. I get $1,600 as month. I don't know where to spend it all."

Does he get cable in his hideaway?

"I receive it. I just don't get it. Really do we have to have three cable news networks covering the war 24/7?"

He didn't like the way cable news was turning out

"I don't want to be screamed at all the time. I'm tired of being warned, being threatened. Everything is a warning. They got this thing, the crawl. If you watch what's on the bottom of the screen, you don't watch the news. What I really hate about cable news is you don't get any news. Tell me what's the news, I yell at the screen. I watch Dan Rather, Green Bay football and 'Wheel of Fortune.' That's about it."

He was still doing his web site, Cololrtini.com, on which he promulgated his theories, including a major breakthrough in TV as an art form. He had a theory that color TV worked better when taken with a martini. He was wrong, I argued. Two martinis worked better. Kitman's Law, I explained, is the greater the number of martinis the more television programming is enhanced.

He was struggling trying to figure out how to work his new TIVO that day.

The next time we spoke, I wanted him to read my new book The Man Who Would Not Shut Up: The Rise of Bill O'Reilly. O'Reilly had told me Snyder was one his three main influences as a TV journalist, the others being Cosell and Mike Wallace.

A week later he gave me a blurb:

"I can't believe how one- sided this book is. What's the matter, you couldn't find anyone to say bad things about the man? Do I still get to keep the free book anyway?"

The publisher decided not to use Snyder's blurb. It might have been his last words.

The fat lady sang on Monday. I bet Tom's laugh is livening things up there in talk show heaven. It was great to know you, Tom.