Before there was Charlie Rose, there was Tom Snyder.
Tom Synder, like Dick Cavett, provided an adult alternative to Johnny Carson. Whereas Carson was content to entertain and amuse his audience (a job at which he was brilliant), Tom Snyder often tried to provide something more. Snyder was host of "The Tomorrow Show," the program which followed Carson in the 70s. At the outset it ran for one hour, from 1:00 – 2:00 a.m. in the East. Seated against a primarily black backdrop, without a studio audience, Snyder would go one-on-one with a single guest in interviews which would often run for the entire hour. They could be penetrating or frivolous, but there was always something intimate about these interviews, as if Snyder and his guest were having their conversation in your living room, with you as
Unencumbered by an audience in the studio, Snyder would often break down the barrier between himself and the viewers at home, speaking directly to them, sharing his infectious laugh with them, not afraid to try something absurd (here I recall “Sink the Titanic” night) or different (his six-hour mini-marathon on July 3-4, 1975, to commemorate the start of the year-long bicentennial celebration). Synder was, by turns, egocentric, engaging, frustrating, fascinating, pompous and self-effacing, but he was seldom boring. (Dan Aykroyd’s parody of him on the early SNL was always a favorite.) He was a frequent target of critics, and wasn’t afraid to fire back.
Besides being a talk-show host, Snyder was also a newsman, anchoring the local news in LA before moving to NBC, where he often filled in on the nightly news and inaugurated the prime-time “newsbrief” that provided, in the pre-CNN days, an update on the headlines since the evening news.
Snyder’s downfall began in 1980, when Carson cut back to an hour from 90 minutes. NBC sought to fill the gap by adding 30 minutes to Snyder’s show and, more disastrously, adding Rona Barrett as co-host of what was now known as “Tomorrow Coast-to-Coast.” The move was an utter failure – there was absolutely no positive chemistry between Snyder and Barrett – and the show never recovered, eventually being replaced by David Letterman.
That appeared to be the end of Tom Snyder, and many were glad of it, having sickened of his grating personality. But Snyder was not quite done yet, returning to host an overnight radio show before coming back to television with a Tomorrow-like show on CNBC. Eventually, he made a triumphant comeback on CBS in 1995 as Letterman’s hand-picked choice to host the "Late Late Show" that followed Letterman. Snyder held down the slot for three years before leaving, this time having the last laugh on his critics.
In those pre-PC 70s, Synder was invariably surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke during his interviews, and one would not have been surprised to hear that it was lung cancer that had finally done what the networks couldn’t quite accomplish. However, it was instead chronic lymphocytic leukemia which claimed him on Sunday, at the age of 71, a true television original.