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Steve Allen

Steve Allen, comedian, musician, and television personality, talks to Wallace about his rivalry with Ed Sullivan, his television show, and awards.

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Guest: Steve Allen

WALLACE: Good evening. What you're about to witness is an unrehearsed, uncensored interview. My name is Mike Wallace. The cigarette is Philip Morris.

ANNOUNCER: New Philip Morris, probably the best natural smoke you ever tasted, presents: THE MIKE WALLACE INTERVIEW.

WALLACE: Tonight we go after the story of one of television's major figures. You see him behind me. He's Steve Allen. We'll try to find out what Steve Allen thinks of Ed Sullivan, sponsors, television ratings, and Ingrid Bergman. My guest's opinions are not necessarily mine, the station's or my sponsor's, Philip Morris, Inc. but whether you agree or disagree we feel that none will deny the right of these views to be broadcast. We'll talk with Steve Allen in just a moment.


WALLACE: And now to our story from Steve Allen. Competition in the television world is normally confined to friendly rivalry but the rivalry between Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan has flared into what some columnists are calling a bitter feud. Accusations and counteraccusations have been issued by both camps and Steve Allen continues to challenge Ed Sullivan's strangle hold on the Sunday evening television ratings.

WALLACE: But so far Mr. Allen has broken that hold only five times. Steve, first of all, let me ask you this: Why in the world did you choose to go in Sunday nights at eight o'clock against one of the most strongly entrenched one of the most popular shows in television?

ALLEN: I didn't. I'm happy to be in there but I didn't actually choose that time spot, Mike. The old "Tonight" show was keeping me busy, as you recall, five nights a week and I think every comic eventually has his sights set on a once a week television hour, or half hour, as the case may be. So-- NBC and I had an understanding that eventually one would come along. When they called me up they said it's Sunday night at eight o'clock. I said Thanks a lot.

WALLACE: You said the following in the New York Journal American August 27, 1956 a little less than a year ago you said Timing is very important. There are certain periods when a given show is impregnable. But I don't feel, you said, that Ed's show is in that position right now. Well now a year has passed Sullivan beats you fairly consistently in the ratings.

ALLEN: Most often.

WALLACE: How do you explain it? In other words, what is the difference between the Allen Show and the Sullivan Show that makes Sullivan come out on top fairly consistently.

ALLEN: Well that's about nine points you raised there all in one mouthful. I still stand by my statement that I don't feel Ed's show is impregnable. That is not to claim however that my show will knock him off. That is certainly not my function in life, Ed, anyway. I mean, Mike. I'm sorry. I'm an entertainer if I don't flatter myself.

ALLEN: I am very gratified at the position currently where we're frequently in the top ten whatever that is. And we get wonderful reviews and very high ratings. And I consider myself therefore the luckiest fellow on earth. It does not surprise me at all that Ed's show most of the time gets a higher rating.

WALLACE: How so?

ALLEN: I think his show has very popular ingredients. It's an excellent show. I haven't seen it since I went on the air but I used to watch it very frequently before that.

WALLACE: Do you ever watch kinescopes of it afterwards?

ALLEN: No. And I don't think it's therefore any mystery that it's a popular show even if Ed is not on it himself when he goes on vacation; it's still an excellent show. They book the very best talent in the business, they allow them to do what they do the best.

WALLACE: You don't feel that there's anything inherently different in Ed Sullivan as opposed to Steve Allen that makes people tune a few more people --a few million more people will tune to him than to you?

ALLEN: Golly, I don't think so. I think at this particular stage of the. I use the word in quotes "rivalry" the rating is determined chiefly by the guests we have. I have visions of one day that not being true, or hopes I should say.

ALLEN: Ed is a newspaperman and predominantly and I think therefore that I don't just mean myself but I thing we by that I mean all our writers and our very capable production staff perhaps know more about how to put on a more varied and entertaining program. I don't know whether people will agree with me or not but that's my feeling. But that does not, as I say, mean that we will get the highest rating.

WALLACE: You say, I gather, that you're not in a rating war against Ed Sullivan.

ALLEN: I realize that one exists, but you'd be amazed how little it means to me as such. I'm interested in doing a good show. I love to get a good review; but a good rating is extra gravy as far as I'm concerned.

WALLACE: Let me ask you this: Sid Caesar had a very large Saturday night audience. He was taken off though because he was consistently beaten by Lawrence Welk. Jackie Gleason went off because he was being consistently beaten by Perry Como. Is it possible the same thing could happen to Steve Allen?

ALLEN: Oh yeah. I could, you know, go off because I'm consistently beaten by a taxicab next week or something. But I have done a number of things in my life up to now and if I went off next week again you might be surprised how little it would depress me because I have a number of things that keep me active and happy and interested in life.

WALLACE: We want to get to some of those too. Let's talk for a moment though, Steve, about the charges and countercharges that have been hurled back and forth by the Sullivan and Allen camps respectively. Ed Sullivan was quoted recently as calling you a "cry baby and a punk". Now you chuckle about that. Really, what's your reaction first of all, why in the world do you think that he called you that and then what was your reaction then and now to being called a "cry baby and a punk?"

ALLEN: Well, that chuckle just now was an honest one and now that I think back, as a matter of fact, it was my first reaction. I don't hold it against Ed that he called me a "cry baby and a punk". First of all, I've been called a "cry baby and a punk" before by other people. Of course they were six years old. But, I think it must have been something that Ed said while he was angry. And any of us might say any unwise thing while we're angry; so I don't hold that against him.

WALLACE: We spoke with Ed this past week and he told us: I feel badly about calling anybody a punk. He wouldn't come out and actually say that he'd called you a punk. But he said: As for "cry baby"... that sticks. And then he went on to say this: You ask Allen this for me. In eight years of vigorous competition against other shows, I've never had a fight with anybody not even when Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were pinning my ears back in the ratings. How come the fight started as soon as Allen went opposite? How come, Steve?

ALLEN: I don't know. I guess it's true when Ed says he's never had any disagreements before with people opposite him; but he has, I think, a long line of people with whom he has disagreed in his life. It would not be pertinent, of course, to go into that line at this time. But, I don't really to this moment have any disagreement with Ed personally. I don't know whether he would say the same whether he does or does not doesn't matter. But there were just a couple of issues on which we found ourselves at odds. The stories could be very long and use up too much of your time now. The James Dean incident in which we were planning something...

WALLACE: ...the Harry Belafonte...

ALLEN: The Harry Belafonte thing.

WALLACE: Well, Ed says, these fights have all been started by N. B. C. and by Allen to get publicity and they've been very successful at it. End quote.

ALLEN: As we said in our sketch tonight when we did a satire on your show, Mike, I don't question a man's right to say a thing like that but I'll break his arm if he says it about it me. I'm speaking now in the joking sense, of course. I don't deny Ed the right to feel that, but it just is not true. We don't these things for publicity. I've discovered that in this business no matter what you do if it's just the least little bit unusual somebody is bound to say you did it for publicity. You could kill yourself and they'd say he did it for publicity.

WALLACE: Let's look at a side effect of the feud between the two of you. The Sunday night audience is anxious, I'm sure, to see both shows. And so frequently they switch channels to see what's happening with Ed what's happening with. The time that they do it is during the commercials, true?

ALLEN: I wouldn't be at all surprised.

WALLACE: Well how in the world do you feel that sponsors must feel? Here are the men who spend small fortunes. For instance, we did a little re¬search this week and came up with this figure. The Sullivan show costs ten million dollars a year for time and talent on CBS. Lincoln has been picking up the tab for half of that, that's five million dollars a year. There are 50,000 Lincoln cars sold per year, according to our figures. That means $100 per car goes for the Sullivan show. How in the world would a sponsor feel when as soon as the commercial comes on they flip "Let's see what Steve Allen is doing," or vice versa.

ALLEN: Well, you're a big blabbermouth there, Charley. We got a good racket going here and you're hanging it up for us. I don't know - I guess the sponsors feel that there are enough people who are sticking and when they tune over, like for example if there's a Lincoln commercial on Ed's show, or was I should say a Kodak commercial whatever it is now and they switch over to our show they might come up in the middle of one of our commercials. See? Maybe we ought to kind of agree to work that out.

ALLEN: But, what we do - we're aware of this problem, Mike, and we try to make our commercials as entertaining as possible. We're very honored because tonight Johnson's Wax signed on as being host to our entire party every other week and they have very bright and entertaining commercials and I'll bet an awful lot of people are amused by them for their own sakes.

WALLACE: Let me ask you this about your show itself, Steve. Your manager, Jules Green, told us about the Steve Allen Show, he said: The time the show goes on the air determines what kind of show you're going to do. Steve goes on Sunday evenings and we have to appeal to nine year olds, 20 year olds, and 80 year old, all age groups right?

ALLEN: Yeah.

WALLACE: Well what kind of personal satisfaction can you get out of a show when it has to attract, if you will, the lowest common denominator, the nine year old as well as the adult? How can you as a pretty intelligent and sensitive, obviously creative guy, get real professional satisfaction out of doing that kind of a thing?

ALLEN: This would be a great spot for me I guess to do one of the lines that sounds like it comes from the Budd Schulberg script of "The Great Man," but

WALLACE: Or "Face In The Crowd".

ALLEN: Yes, "Face In The Crowd". I confused the two. Well, they're basically the same story so I'll be sued about that. Now then! This would be a great chance for me to flatter the public unduly and I don't think I'll do that right now. I don't think the public requires it. I think some nine year olds I know have a pretty sharp idea of what entertainment is. As a matter of fact I have three boys, as you know, and very often before booking a performer for our show I will solicit the opinion of my three sons as to sometimes just "Do you know them?", I'll say, "do you know so and so,"

ALLEN: and if they say "no", the fellow is going to have to work our show a little cheaper. And if they say yes and I say do you like him and if they say "oh, he's good" and they have his records I'm going to have to pay the guy a lot of money. In general, we just don't give much of a though to it. I don't mean we ignore the public. We just don't think the jokes are going to have to appeal to a nine year old and to an 80 year old lady, so we'll take out this word. We don't go into it that much just try to do the best show we know how.

WALLACE: But you do in a sense, don't you Steve, you have to water it down a little bit, you have to make a common denominator you have to flatten it out a little bit in order to appeal to not only all age groups but geographical groups.

ALLEN: It isn't really so much of a problem in doing a comedy show and that's what ours for better or worse basically is, Mike. Comedy by its very nature pertains to common interests. For example, we did a take off tonight, as you know, on your program because right now your program is hot, it's what people talk about the morning after on the subway and that sort of thing, and perhaps no nine year olds are up watching your show, I don't know then again maybe some of them are, but we never say to ourselves we can't do a satire on Mike's show because the children may not be watching us. We just went ahead and tried to satisfy the majority.

WALLACE: You mentioned "The Great Man", and "Face in The Crowd" a little while ago. How do you feel about Hollywood films like those two, for instance, which portray people in television as something less than exalted in their moral standards and in their dog eat dog ethics? Do you think these films are accurate?

ALLEN: I think these films are very good for the people but I don't think the films are quite accurate. I think a lot of people on television say, oh they're movies which should never have been made. I don't think so. I think movies like this, I think there should be almost a law passed obliging people to see a picture like "Face In The Crowd" because the people have to be careful or they will be taken, and even though the character in the "Face In The Crowd" was almost a caricature, an exaggeration, and a distortion of reality, it has still taught a very important lesson. I think a great many of us in television are tempted to take ourselves too seriously so it wasn't a bad idea even for those of us in TV to see a picture like that.

WALLACE: What about the morals? The plain and simple moral standards that are portrayed in those two films? Do you think they are fairly apt?

ALLEN: Again, they were distorted. There may he some people in television who are so morally reprehensible that their life story would be under the heading of science fiction, but in the main, I don't think television people, whether they are stars, or cameramen, or whatever they might be, are any different morally than people in any other walk of life.

WALLACE: The reason I ask it is because something happened as a result of your own show with Ingrid Bergman last year. You received a good deal of mail criticizing her appearance because she had committed adultery several years ago, and you answered that mail with a form letter which read in part: "If it became a principle to keep off TV those performers who have been guilty of adultery, then I am very much afraid that a great many of your favorite programs would disappear." You wrote that letter. You believed that then and now?

ALLEN: Yes. By that I do not necessarily mean that more than half the people in television have committed adultery, but I would guess that more than half the programs in television have somebody in their cast who at one time or another has, however dreadful the fact may be, committed adultery. Kind of what I was getting at here was not to concentrate on that particular crime or sin, but pointing out, or hoping to point out, the danger of trying to judge artistic activity through the prism of one's personal life.

ALLEN: Of course, this is a problem that has plagued mankind down through the years. I read just yesterday where at some band concert they decided not to play "The Ballad For Americans" because at the last minute it occurred to someone that the gentleman who wrote it had refused to admit whether he was or was not a communist. During the war, they wouldn't play "Japanese Sandman". As I say, it's a problem centuries old.

WALLACE: More specifically, originally Ed Sullivan had booked Ingrid Bergman, or was thinking about booking her, and did kind of a public opinion poll as to whether she should or should not be permitted on his show,and I gather more people were in favor than against, and he decided not to go ahead with it. Then you decided to go ahead with it. Were you trying to make a point with the public?

ALLEN: No, I think sometimes the fact that it appears that Ed and I are in competition is partly an accidental thing in this sense, that there are only a certain number of people in show business I don't know 928 people that you want on your show, so at one time or another, Ed and I, or for that matter, Perry Como or anybody else doing roughly the similar kind of program, are going to try to get the same people.

WALLACE: But there was no particular point in booking Ingrid Bergman because you felt that a person, an artist should be judged on her merits as an artist, and it had nothing whatever to do with it?

ALLEN: No, that was not, that was in my thinking post facto. But it had nothing to do with my booking her. As I said, she was just one of many actresses we are attempting to book for the show.

WALLACE: We’ve talked a little bit about Hollywood’s criticism of television, Steve. Have you not in a sense, joined the bandwagon with your own criticism of television, particularly in the television awards? In the current issue of Argosy Magazine, you wrote a fascinating short story portraying most television awards as meaningless gimmicks, thought up by promotion men. Now certainly you’ve been the recipient of, I would say, maybe a hundred-odd television awards. Are the awards as phony as all that?

ALLEN: Well, I do not presume to speak about all awards, but I think the great majority of them are what you have so described, Mike. I know almost all the awards I have ever received were kind of meaningless. I hope that won’t sound too ungrateful, coming to the people who gave me those awards. As I said in, I think it was TV Guide in the current issue, on the same general subject, I did enjoy appearing at the banquets, and I love the food and I liked it when the audience laughed at the jokes, and I was very honored and I dug the pictures in the newspapers, but who needed the award, or more importantly, who needed me? I happen to know that some of the awards that I have received, I was not the first person who was though of. Maybe they tried to get Jackie Gleason for this particular affair, but they found out Jackie was going to be on the coast or something that week. So it turned out that Steve Allen was voted the “Top Comic on 85th Street” or something.

WALLACE: And then they just used you to attract a crowd to the banquet and then promote some other scheme or raise some money on your name?

ALLEN: Yes, so it’s all for a good purpose and there’s no really great harm done, I just thought it might be wise for the public maybe didn’t take the things too seriously. Even some of the awards that are…that people, I think, are going to be determined to take really seriously. For example the Sylvania awards, I feel pretty much the same way about them. They are not designed chiefly to promote something, but then again I’m sure that it must have occurred to Sam Sylvania, or whoever he is, that it was going to be a wizard idea to have some awards called Sylvania awards, because he makes a line of products called Sylvania.

WALLACE: Yes, I think that you pointed out in the Argosy story that if the name of that award was to be changed from Sylvania awards to National Television Awards, you’d be curious to see if he’d want to pick up the tab for them.

ALLEN: Yeah, I think it’s a fair question anyway.

WALLACE: Steve, in just a minute or so, I would like to get capsule opinions from you, 15 to 20 second opinions.

ALLEN: I didn’t bring any capsules with me, but I’ll see what I can do for you.

WALLACE: On the following controversial people and what they stand for: Westbrook Pegler, Ted Williams, Jayne Mansfield, Eddie Cantor, Bob Harrison - the publisher of Confidential Magazine, Billy Graham and Charlie Chaplin. We’ll get the answer to that question in just one minute.


WALLACE: Now, Steve, your capsule opinions: First of all, Syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler.

ALLEN: A lot of ideas are spinning in my head at this moment. One of them is… and I have to congratulate you on the changes in your program since you came over to this network, you’ve got better glasses here – that’s a real pretty one, much thicker, and heavier, a lot of water. I think some of my liberal friends are going to be shocked at what I will say about Mr. Pegler. I disagree with most of his political viewpoints. But I think he is a great thing for this nation. You see, you raised your eyebrows – right up there they shot.

WALLACE what do you mean “a great thing.”

ALLEN: I really do. I think we need more people like Westbrook Pegler, and Thomas Payne, all the people who stir us up. We get into our little concrete mold brains and we just sit there and we think, “I know what’s going on with the world and everybody else is wrong.” And it’s people like Pegler, whether he’s right or wrong….

WALLACE: Gives us something to think about.

ALLEN: If only to stir us up, to argue with him. If he is wrong, then he’s making us work over the right answers, and he serves a very good purpose.

WALLACE: Ted Williams.

ALLEN: I may be sent out of the country right now, because I can tell you who all the guys were on the Chicago Cubs in 1936, but since I grew up I haven’t kept much track of baseball. I think Ted’s a great player, and he’s said a couple of things which I think show great courage and I don’t know much more about it.

WALLACE: Jayne Mansfield

ALLEN: (whistle)

WALLACE: Eddie Cantor

ALLEN: (laughs) All right, enough said. I’m so glad you brought up Eddies’ name because I keep reading in papers that I once said Eddie was the unfunniest comedian in the business. And since I said no such thing, I’m very happy to, as Al Kelly tonight said to have the privilege to clear this up. Those who want to know what I did say about Eddie can read a book I wrote called “the funny men” but very briefly, I said this: He was one of the most popular entertainers of all time, but sometimes you hear the younger comics say, was he as funny as the Will Rogers and Jack Benny’s, and others you know, his contemporaries, the answer is suggested being usually “no.” I went therefore on to explain his great popularity by the virtue of the fact that while he may not have been the funniest of his particular group, he still had great dynamic appeal, he was a warm human being, he was a great song and dance man, and that sort of thing. I could make a much longer speech of this, but Eddie Cantor, in my opinion, was a very funny man.

WALLACE: Bob Harrison, the publisher of Confidential Magazine.

ALLEN: I suppose Mr. Harrison would like to have the words I said about Mr. Pegler applied to him. I think Mr. Harrison has gone too far, however. I know I would be horrified to ever find myself between the pages of his publication, and it might shock you, Mike, to know that I would not ever be completely surprised if I did find myself there because I think everybody at one time or another has done something that a magazine like Confidential could make look like pretty hot potatoes.

WALLACE: And for that reason a lot of people will not sue?

ALLEN: I don't know; that's another subject we could do another program on, whether they would or would not sue. I don't know. But I think a magazine of that sort and there are quite a few of them now – I think it goes too far. I think it offends against good taste in many cases, against perhaps accuracy. There is a Commandment: Thou shalt not bear false witness about thy neighbor. Perhaps occasionally those magazines...How did I quote that…Thou shalt… Sure. Anyway, I think you will find the magazines goof on that score occasionally, magazines of that type.

WALLACE: Billy Graham

ALLEN: I think Mr. Graham is very sincere. I think he, too, is very necessary. I do not see eye to eye with him on a great many theological points, but...

WALLACE: What do you mean by that?

ALLEN: Well, we could get off there. In other words, my religious viewpoints are not his. I think the majority of people in the world probably would make that particular statement since the majority of the people in the world are not members of Mr. Graham's personal faith.

WALLACE: But you feel, do you, that he is a force for good you feel, for instance, that the Crusade here in New York has been a force for good, do you?

ALLEN: I think so in the main. He has not made the attempt to change anyone's religious view, so far as I know, and I certainly think that in this country, we must never say that he should not he allowed in town or should not he allowed to speak his mind.

WALLACE: Don't you think anybody should be given the opportunity to try to change somebody else's religious views?

ALLEN: Yes, I was just thinking there might be some people watching right now who would even resent that attempt. I don't know. I certainly wouldn't resent the attempt.

WALLACE: Steve, we won't have time for Charlie Chaplin. I thank you so much for coming on a busy Sunday night at the end of your exhausting day, for coming spending this half hour with us.

ALLEN: Thank you, Mike. It's been the fastest half hour I’ve ever and the most pleasant.

WALLACE: When asked once to explain his success on television, actor, writer, composer, and humorist Steve Allen said: I seem to have stumbled in at the right time, where a man who owns a combination of fairly mediocre abilities can do well in a peculiar medium. Television though abounds in mediocre talents. Steve Allen has reached the top because he has blended his variety of talents with wit, style and a rare intelligence. I will bring you a rundown on next week's interview in just a moment.


WALLACE: Next week we go after the story of an actress who exchanged her birth-right for some years of alcoholism, lurid newspaper headlines and professional failure. You see her behind me. She is Diana Barrymore, the daughter of the late John Barrymore. If you want to know why she blames her family for her past failures; how she now plans her new stage career, and what she thinks of Hollywood cocktail parties and psycho-analysis, we'll go after those stories next Sunday. Till then, for Philip Morris, Mike Wallace, good night.


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