Steve Allen: an appreciation
11/8/2000 12:00:00 AM - Brent Bozell
If a bio sheet is meant to be a human productivity report, skeptics might question Steve Allen's molecular structure. He created and hosted the "Tonight" show, created and starred in the critically-acclaimed "Steve Allen Comedy Hour," and created and hosted the PBS series, "Meeting of Minds." He starred on Broadway, wrote the drama "The Wake," and composed the score for several musicals. He spent years on the concert circuit with his wife, Jayne Meadows. The honors he collected for his work in the entertainment industry are endless.
Away from the camera he was even more prolific. He recorded 52 albums, and is in the Guinness book of records for having written over 7,900 songs. He authored 52 books, and the day he died had put the finishing touches on two more. It was not well known, but he accomplished all this while suffering from a mysterious rest disorder which required him to sleep 11 hours daily.
His passion for art was matched by his zest for public policy. As opposed to many in his industry who eschew the political limelight for fear it will affect their careers, Allen adopted the controversial, with brio. He spent years fighting organized crime (naturally, it resulted in an award-winning television documentary). He was an ardent supporter of liberal political causes and candidates, putting his professional talents to use as a blistering debater, writer and public speaker. Even on religion Allen made waves as an outspoken supporter of the humanist movement.
And yet, Steve Allen's life was full of paradoxes. I came to know Steve rather well in his final years and found myself constantly intimidated, not by who he was but by who he wasn't.
A brilliant man, Steve's hunger for knowledge was insatiable. Rarely a week went by when I didn't get one, two, five pieces of mail from him looking for my reaction to this enclosure he'd clipped from some obscure publication, or that piece he'd written for future publication somewhere. A natural teacher, Steve relished the role of student.
He was perceived as a steadfast liberal, but I found Steve to be far from dogmatic.
When the American Conservative Union bestowed on Ronald Reagan its Man of the Century Award last year, Steve submitted written remarks paying tribute to his long-time political foe: "(If my schedule had allowed me to be here) I would have explained, first, my longstanding pleasure at discovering, some 40 years ago, the simple existence of a morally respectable and strongly intellectual case for conservatism. The better-informed readers on the Right may be astonished that I actually had to go through the process of making such a discovery, while many on the Left are likely to be at least moderately annoyed that I would extend such a compliment to the Opposition." Civility meant everything to Steve.
A most public celebrity, Steve was driven by private works of charity. As his weary staff and, I am told, increasingly worried family would attest, Steve found it almost impossible to decline a request for assistance. Constantly jumping on airplanes and racing to events, Steve helped civic and religious organizations everywhere.
In the celebrity world, charitable work can be nothing more than a calculated public relations ploy, to be sure. I'm reminded of the news report some years ago dealing with the bevy of Hollywood celebrities who held a fundraising dinner atop a luxury hotel in Beverly Hills, sent the leftovers down to the homeless on the street, and publicly proclaimed this to be a wonderful thing. Steve? Steve and his family followed an annual tradition of quietly working in soup kitchens during the holidays. If you didn't know this, that's probably just how he wanted it.
A giant in Hollywood who could have spent his golden years in blissful retirement collecting lifetime achievement awards, Steve instead chose to devote his final years helping lead a national movement to confront the moral collapse of the industry he loved. As the Honorary National Chairman of the Parents Television Council, he served as spokesman for what would become the largest newspaper advertising campaign in history, rallying over 600,000 families to join the campaign to restore a sense of decency to an industry he loved, and whose degeneration so saddened him. He did so because he understood that with celebrity comes responsibility, particularly where impressionable children were concerned.
He did so because Steve, I am convinced, was madly in love, not with the good things in life, but with the goodness of life. On his final day he was at his son's home, carving pumpkins with his grandchildren, after which he lay down to rest and never awoke. Steve Allen died as he lived, gently.