Les Crane - Television

Television

In late August 1963, Crane moved to New York City to host a 1:00 a.m. talk show on WABC-TV, the American Broadcasting Company flagship station. The first American TV appearance of The Rolling Stones was on Crane's program in June 1964 when only New Yorkers could see it. The program debuted nationwide with a trial run (telecast nightly for two weeks) in August 1964 starting at 11:15 p.m. on the ABC schedule and titled The Les Crane Show. It was the first network program to compete with The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. ABC used kinescopes of two episodes from that month to pitch the show to affiliates that hadn't yet signed up to carry the series. One featured the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald debating Oswald's guilt with Melvin Belli, Crane and audience members. The other featured Norman Mailer and Richard Burton. Burton encouraged Crane to recite the "gravedigger speech" from Hamlet, and Crane did. More affiliates signed up for a November relaunch of The Les Crane Show, and Look (American magazine) ran a prominent feature story with captioned still photographs from the August episodes. One image shows Shelley Winters debating a controversial issue with Jackie Robinson. While some critics found the late-night series innovative (indeed, five years later The Phil Donahue Show would follow a similar format to much greater success in daytime), it never gained much of an audience. In late June 1965, following a three-month hibernation, it was retitled ABC's Nightlife with network executives having removed most of the controversy and emphasizing light entertainment. Producer Nick Vanoff was another interested party who started forbidding guests from broaching controversial topics. After the summer 1965 run, they relocated the show from New York to Los Angeles. The Paley Center for Media has available for viewing the first 15 minutes of one of the last episodes before ABC finally cancelled ABC's Nightlife in November 1965. Crane can be seen and heard delivering his monologue, joking about words that could be censored and bantering with his sidekick Nipsey Russell.

The two kinescopes that ABC used to pitch The Les Crane Show to its affiliates in 1964 constitute the only surviving video and audio of Crane's controversial show. An archive of source material on Malcolm X has audio only of the civil rights leader's December 1964 appearance with Crane. Audio only of Bob Dylan talking to Crane in February 1965 has circulated and been transcribed. The National Archives has a transcript of the Oswald/Belli episode in its documents related to the JFK assassination that were declassified and released publicly in 1993 and 1994. Most Les Crane Show episodes pictured in the Look feature story, such as the one with Winters and Robinson, were completely destroyed, and what the participants said is not known.

Les Crane's confrontational interview technique, along with a "shotgun" microphone he aimed at audiences, earned him the name "the bad boy of late-night television." In truth, critical opinion was divided. Some critics, like The New York Times' media critic Paul Gardner, thought he was an incisive interviewer who asked tough questions without being insulting. One of the critics who did not like his show also found Crane's trademark shotgun microphone distracting. "Each time he points this mike into the audience, it looks as though he's about to shoot a spectator." (Laurent, 1964) The one thing nearly every critic agreed with was that Crane was very photogenic—or as one critic described him, he was "a tall, handsome and personable lad..." (Smith, 1964) In fact, expectations for Crane had been quite high, but like many others, Crane would not be able to make a dent in Carson's ratings, and his new show lasted just 14 weeks before ABC executives transformed it into the more show-business-oriented ABC's Nightlife. Although his ratings proved disappointing, Crane was able to get some outstanding guests. Bob Dylan, who rarely appeared on American television, was one of them. Along with such offbeat subjects as the voice of radio's The Shadow, Bret Morrison, Crane also interviewed (in addition to the aforementioned Malcolm X) leading figures such as Richard Burton, Martin Luther King, Jr., George Wallace and Robert F. Kennedy.

Because of his good looks, it was not surprising that he tried his hand at acting, but his acting career was brief, with an appearance in the film An American Dream (1966), based on the Norman Mailer novel, and a few guest roles on television shows. Folksinger Phil Ochs mentioned him in the lyrics of his satirical 1966 song "Love Me, I'm a Liberal." Some sources say that Crane gave the rock group The Mamas & the Papas their name, but this is disputed in other sources, which say John Phillips came up with the name. (see Bronson, 2003)

Crane was one of the first interviewers to have an openly gay person, Randy Wicker, on his television show, in January 1964. But when Crane tried to invite members of a lesbian advocacy group, the Daughters of Bilitis to be guests on his show in June 1964, WABC ordered him to cancel the show, and he did. ("Homosexual Women", 1964) Crane was also known as an advocate for civil rights, and was praised by the black press for his respectful interviews with such black newsmakers as Muhammad Ali. (Young, 1968)

After Crane's final television appearance in the 1970s, he refused to discuss his television career and did not respond to queries about his copies of the two surviving kinescopes from 1964.

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