Home / News / Comedian Tom Smothers, one half of the Smothers Brothers, dies at 86

Comedian Tom Smothers, one half of the Smothers Brothers, dies at 86

Tom Smothers, one half of the Smothers Brothers and host of one of the most socially conscious and groundbreaking television shows in the history of media, has died at the age of 86.

Smothers died Tuesday at his home in Santa Rosa, California, after a battle with cancer, the National Comedy Center said in a statement on behalf of his family on Wednesday.

“Tom was not only the loving big brother anyone would want in their life, but he was also a one-of-a-kind creative partner,” his brother and other half of the duo, Dick Smothers, said in the statement. “Our relationship was like a good marriage; The longer we were together, the more we loved and respected each other. We were truly blessed.”

“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” was an immediate success when it first aired on CBS in the fall of 1967; This surprised many, who assumed that the network’s expectations were so low that it positioned its programming opposite the top-rated “Bonanza.”

But the Smothers Brothers would become a turning point in television history, with their keen eye on pop culture trends and young rock stars like the Who and Buffalo Springfield, and their bold skits depicting their members mocking the establishment, opposing the Vietnam War, and others. Their portrayal as gentle, fun-loving spirits of the era’s hippie counterculture found an immediate audience among young baby boomers. The series rose to 16th place in the ratings in its first season.

It also drew the ire of network censors. After years of wrangling with the brothers over the show’s creative content, the network abruptly canceled the show in 1970, accusing the brothers of failing to submit an episode for censors’ review in time.

Nearly 40 years later, when Smothers was awarded an honorary Emmy for his work on the series, he jokingly thanked the writers who he said got him fired. She also showed that the years had not dulled her outspokenness.

“It’s very hard for me to stay silent when I keep hearing that peace can only be achieved through war,” Smothers said as his brother sat smiling in the audience at the 2008 Emmy Awards. He dedicated his award to “those who feel obliged to speak openly, who are not afraid to call out to the government, who do not remain silent and who refuse to be silenced.”

During the three years the program was on television, the brothers constantly battled CBS censors and occasionally angered viewers as well; especially when Smothers jokes that Easter is “the time when Jesus came out of his tomb and came back if he saw his shadow.” and we will have six more weeks of winter. At Christmas, while the other hosts were sending their best wishes to soldiers fighting overseas, Smothers offered to recruit deserters who had moved to Canada.

In yet another episode, the brothers welcomed blacklisted folk singer Pete Seeger back to television for the first time in years. He performed his song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”, which was widely seen as a mockery of President Lyndon Johnson. When CBS refused to air the episode, the brothers brought Seeger back for another episode and Seeger sang the song again. This time he created the mood.

Following the show’s cancellation, the brothers sued CBS for $31 million and were awarded $775,000 in damages. Their struggles with the network were chronicled in the 2002 documentary “Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”

“Tom Smothers was not only a prodigious comedic talent who, along with his brother Dick, became the most enduring comedy duo in history, entertaining the world for more than sixty years; he was also a true champion of freedom of expression; It’s a comedy that pushes boundaries and our political consciousness,” National Comedy Center Executive Director Journey Gunderson said in a statement.

Thomas Bolyn Smothers III was born on February 2, 1937, on Governors Island, New York, where his father, a Navy major, was stationed. His brother was born two years later. In 1940, their father was transferred to the Philippines and his wife, two sons, and their sister Sherry accompanied him.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the family was sent home and Major Smothers stayed. He was captured by the Japanese during the war and died in captivity. The family eventually moved to Redondo Beach, a suburb of Los Angeles; here Smothers helped take care of her brothers and sisters while her mother worked.

It seemed unlikely that the brothers would make television history. They had spent several years in nightclubs and university settings and made guest appearances on television; They had developed an offbeat comedy routine that mixed folk music with a healthy dose of sibling rivalry.

They were getting on stage, Tom holding a guitar and Dick playing the upright bass. They would quickly move on to a traditional folk song – perhaps “John Henry” or “Pretoria”. After playing a few bars, Tom, positioned as the idiot, would mess up and immediately claim that he wanted to do it. While Dick, serious and quick-tempered, scolded her for not being able to admit her mistake, she shouted angrily: “Mother always loved you best!”

They continued this nonsense in their shows, but also surrounded themselves with a talented new cast of both writers and artists.

The stellar team of writers headed by Smothers included future actor-filmmaker Rob Reiner, musician Mason Williams, and comedian Steve Martin, who presented Smothers with a lifetime Emmy. Regular musical guests included John Hartford, Glen Campbell and Jennifer Warnes.

Bob Einstein had a recurring role as Officer Judy, the surly Los Angeles police officer who once suggested that a guest Liberace was playing the piano too fast. Hippie earth mother Leigh French in the episode “Share a Little Tea with Goldie” always looked like she was drinking something brewed with more than just tea leaves.

The brothers had started their own act when Tom, then a student at San Jose State University, formed a band called the Casual Quintet and encouraged his younger brother to learn bass and join the group. Continuing as a duo after the departure of other musicians, the brothers began to intersperse comedy with their limited folk music repertoire.

Their big break came in 1959 when they performed at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, then a hot spot for new talent. They were booked for two weeks and stayed at a record 36. Booked to New York’s Blue Angel, the group received praise from The New York Times, which described them as “tart-tongued singing comedians.” But to their disappointment, they were not able to appear on “The Tonight Show,” which was then hosted by Jack Paar.

“Paar kept telling our manager that he didn’t like folk singers—except Burl Ives,” Smothers told The Associated Press in 1964. “But one night he canceled and we continued. Everything went well that night.”

The brothers later appeared on TV shows by Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan, Garry Moore, Andy Williams, Jack Benny and Judy Garland. Their comedy albums were selling well and they toured the country, especially universities.

Television first featured them in 1965’s “The Smothers Brothers Show,” a sitcom about a businessman (Dick) troubled by his late brother (Tom), a novice guardian angel. It only lasted one season.

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Shortly after CBS canceled “Comedy Hour,” ABC picked it up as a summer replacement, but the network did not bring it back in the fall. NBC gave them a show in 1975, but it failed to find an audience and lasted only one season. The brothers went their separate ways for a time in the 1970s. Among his other endeavors, Smothers also ventured into the wine business, founding Remick Ridge Vineyards in Northern California’s wine country.

“The winery was originally called Smothers Brothers, but I changed the name to Remick Ridge because when people heard Smothers Brothers wine they thought something like Milton Berle Fine Wine or Larry, Curly and Mo Vineyards,” Smothers once said.

They eventually reunited to star in the hit musical comedy “I Love My Wife,” which ran for two years on Broadway. They then got back on track, playing casinos, performing arts centers and corporate conventions across the country, remaining popular for decades.

“We keep resurfacing,” Smothers commented in 1997. “We’re not in the public eye long enough to really get old.”

After a successful 20th anniversary “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in 1988, CBS buried the hatchet and brought them back.

The program was quickly canceled but remained on the air long enough for Smothers to introduce “Yo-Yo Man,” which allowed him and his brother to show off their considerable skills with the yo-yo while steadily pattering. comedy. The piece remained in action for years.

Smothers was married three times and had three children. He is survived by his wife Marie, children Bo and Riley Rose, brother Dick and other relatives. He was preceded in death by his son Tom and sister Sherry.

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