This article is about Ed Sullivan, the person. For his TV show, see The Ed Sullivan Show.
For other people named Edward Sullivan, see Edward Sullivan (disambiguation).
Edward Vincent "Ed" Sullivan (September 28, 1901 - October 13, 1974) was a television personality, sports and entertainment reporter, and longtime syndicated columnist for the New York Daily News. He is principally remembered as the creator and host of the television variety program The Toast of the Town, later popularly--and, eventually, officially--renamed The Ed Sullivan Show. Broadcast for 23 years from 1948 to 1971, it set a record as the longest-running variety show in US broadcast history. "It was, by almost any measure, the last great TV show," proclaimed television critic David Hinckley. "It's one of our fondest, dearest pop culture memories."
Sullivan was a broadcasting pioneer at many levels during television's infancy. As TV critic David Bianculli wrote, "Before MTV, Sullivan presented rock acts. Before Bravo, he presented jazz and classical music and theater. Before the Comedy Channel, even before there was the Tonight Show, Sullivan discovered, anointed and popularized young comedians. Before there were 500 channels, before there was cable, Ed Sullivan was where the choice was. From the start, he was indeed 'the Toast of the Town'." In 1996 Sullivan was ranked No. 50 on TV Guide's "50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time".
Early life and career:
Sullivan was born in Harlem, New York City, the son of Elizabeth F. (née Smith) and Peter Arthur Sullivan, a customs house employee. He was of Irish descent. A former boxer, Sullivan began his media work as a newspaper sportswriter for the New York Evening Graphic. When Walter Winchell, one of the original gossip columnists and the most powerful entertainment reporter of his day, left the newspaper for the Hearst syndicate, Sullivan took over as theatre columnist. His theatre column was later carried in the New York Daily News. His column, Little Old New York, concentrated on Broadway shows and gossip, as Winchell's had and, like Winchell, he also did show business news broadcasts on radio. Again echoing Winchell, Sullivan took on yet another medium in 1933 by writing and starring in the film Mr. Broadway, which has him guiding the audience around New York nightspots to meet entertainers and celebrities. Sullivan soon became a powerful starmaker in the entertainment world himself, becoming one of Winchell's main rivals, setting the El Morocco nightclub in New York as his unofficial headquarters against Winchell's seat of power at the nearby Stork Club. Sullivan continued writing for The News throughout his broadcasting career and his popularity long outlived that of Winchell.
In 1948, Marlo Lewis, a producer, got the CBS network to hire Sullivan to do a weekly Sunday night TV variety show, Toast of the Town, which later became The Ed Sullivan Show. Debuting in June 1948, the show was originally broadcast from the Maxine Elliott Theatre on West 39th Street in New York City. In January, 1953, it moved to CBS-TV Studio 50, at 1697 Broadway (at 53rd Street) in New York City, which in 1967 was renamed the Ed Sullivan Theater (and is now the home of the Late Show with David Letterman). Studio 50 was formerly a CBS Radio studio, from 1936 to 1953, and before that was the legitimate Hammerstein Theatre, built in 1927.
Television critics gave the new show and its host poor reviews.Harriet Van Horne alleged that "he got where he is not by having a personality, but by having no personality." (The host wrote to the critic, "Dear Miss Van Horne: You bitch. Sincerely, Ed Sullivan.") Sullivan had little acting ability; in 1967, twenty years after his show's debut, Time magazine asked "What exactly is Ed Sullivan's talent?" His mannerisms on camera were so awkward that some viewers believed the host suffered from Bell's palsy.Time in 1955 stated that Sullivan resembled
a cigar-store Indian, the Cardiff Giant and a stone-faced monument just off the boat from Easter Island. He moves like a sleepwalker; his smile is that of a man sucking a lemon; his speech is frequently lost in a thicket of syntax; his eyes pop from their sockets or sink so deep in their bags that they seem to be peering up at the camera from the bottom of twin wells.
The magazine concluded, however, that "Yet, instead of frightening children, Ed Sullivan charms the whole family." Sullivan appeared to the audience as an average guy who brought the great acts of show business to their home televisions. "Ed Sullivan will last", comedian Fred Allen said, "as long as someone else has talent", and frequent guest Alan King said "Ed does nothing, but he does it better than anyone else in television." He had a newspaperman's instinct for what the public wanted, and programmed his variety hours with remarkable balance. There was something for everyone. A typical show would feature a vaudeville act (acrobats, jugglers, magicians, etc.), one or two popular comedians, a singing star, a hot jukebox favorite, a figure from the legitimate theater, and for the kids, a visit with puppet "Topo Gigio, the little Italian mouse", or a popular athlete. The bill was often international in scope, with many European performers augmenting the American artists.
Sullivan had a healthy sense of humor about himself and permitted--even encouraged--impersonators such as John Byner, Frank Gorshin, Rich Little and especially Will Jordan to imitate him on his show. Johnny Carson also did a fair impression, and even Joan Rivers imitated Sullivan's unique posture. The impressionists exaggerated his stiffness, raised shoulders, and nasal tenor phrasing, along with some of his commonly used introductions, such as "And now, right here on our stage...", "For all you youngsters out there...", and "a really big shew" (his pronunciation of the word "show"). Will Jordan portrayed Sullivan in the films I Wanna Hold Your Hand, The Buddy Holly Story, The Doors, Mr. Saturday Night, Down with Love, and in the 1979 TV movie Elvis.
Sullivan inspired a song in the musical Bye Bye Birdie, and in 1963, appeared as himself in the film.
Sullivan, the starmaker:
In the 1950s and '60s, Sullivan was a respected starmaker because of the number of performers who became household names after appearing on the show. He had a knack for identifying and promoting top talent and paid a great deal of money to secure that talent for his show.
Although Sullivan was wary of Elvis Presley's "bad boy" image, and initially said that he would never book him, Presley became too big a name to ignore; in 1956 Sullivan signed him for three appearances. In August 1956, Sullivan was injured in an automobile accident near his country home in Southbury, Connecticut, and missed Presley's first appearance on September 9. Charles Laughton wound up introducing Presley on the Sullivan hour. After Sullivan got to know Presley personally, he made amends by telling his audience, "This is a real decent, fine boy."
Sullivan's failure to scoop the TV industry with Presley made him determined to get the next big sensation first. In November 1963, while in Heathrow Airport, Sullivan witnessed Beatlemania as the band returned from Sweden. At first he was reluctant to book the Beatles because the band didn't have a single released in the US at the time. But at the behest of a friend, legendary impresario Sid Bernstein, Sullivan signed the group. Their initial Sullivan Show appearance on February 9, 1964, was the most-watched program in TV history to that point, and remains one of the most-watched programs of all time. The Beatles appeared three more times in person, and submitted filmed performances later. The Dave Clark Five, who claimed a "cleaner" image than the Beatles, made 13 appearances on the show, more than any other UK group.
Unlike many shows of the time, Sullivan asked that most musical acts perform their music live, rather than lip-synching to their recordings. Examination of performances show that exceptions were made, as when a microphone could not be placed close enough to a performer for technical reasons. An example was B.J. Thomas' 1969 performance of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head", in which actual water was sprinkled on him as a special effect. In 1969, Sullivan presented the Jackson 5 with their first single "I Want You Back", which ousted the B.J. Thomas song from the top spot of Billboard's pop charts.
Sullivan appreciated African American talent. According to biographer Gerald Nachman, "Most TV variety shows welcomed 'acceptable' black superstars like Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis, Jr. ... but in the early 1950s, long before it was fashionable, Sullivan was presenting the much more obscure black entertainers he had enjoyed in Harlem on his uptown rounds -- legends like Peg Leg Bates, Pigmeat Markham and Tim Moore ... strangers to white America." He hosted pioneering TV appearances by Bo Diddley, the Platters, Brook Benton, Jackie Wilson, Fats Domino, and numerous Motown acts, including the Supremes, who appeared 17 times. As the critic John Leonard wrote, "There wasn't an important black artist who didn't appear on Ed's show."
He defied pressure to exclude African American entertainers, and to avoid interacting with them when they did appear. "Sullivan had to fend off his hard-won sponsor, Ford's Lincoln dealers, after kissing Pearl Bailey on the cheek and daring to shake Nat King Cole's hand," Nachman wrote. According to biographer Jerry Bowles, "Sullivan once had a Ford executive thrown out of the theatre when he suggested that Sullivan stop booking so many black acts. And a dealer in Cleveland told him 'We realize that you got to have niggers on your show. But do you have to put your arm around Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson at the end of his dance?' Sullivan had to be physically restrained from beating the man to a pulp." Sullivan later raised money to help pay for Robinson's funeral.
At a time when television had not yet embraced Country and Western music, Sullivan featured Nashville performers on his program. This in turn paved the way for shows such as Hee Haw, and variety shows hosted by Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, and other country singers. The act that appeared most frequently through the show's run was the Canadian comedy duo of Wayne & Shuster, who made 67 appearances between 1958 and 1969.
Sullivan appeared as himself on other television programs, including an April 1958 episode of the Howard Duff and Ida Lupino CBS sitcom, Mr. Adams and Eve. On September 14, 1958 Sullivan appeared on What's My Line? as a mystery guest, and showed his comedic side by donning a rubber mask. In 1961, Sullivan was asked by CBS to fill in for an ailing Red Skelton on The Red Skelton Show. Sullivan took Skelton's roles in the various comedy sketches; Skelton's hobo character "Freddie the Freeloader" was renamed "Eddie the Freeloader."
Sullivan was quick to take offense if he felt he had been crossed, and could hold a grudge for a long time. As he told biographer Gerald Nachman, "I'm a pop-off. I flare up, then I go around apologizing." "Armed with an Irish temper and thin skin," wrote Nachman, "Ed brought to his feuds a hunger for combat fed by his coverage of, and devotion to, boxing."Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, Jackie Mason, and Jim Morrison were parties to some of Sullivan's most storied conflicts.
For his second Sullivan appearance in 1955, Bo Diddley planned to sing his namesake hit, "Bo Diddley", but Sullivan told him to perform Tennessee Ernie Ford's song "Sixteen Tons". "That would have been the end of my career right there," he told his biographer, so he sang "Bo Diddley" anyway. Sullivan was enraged: "You're the first black boy that ever double-crossed me on the show," Diddley quoted him as saying. "We didn't have much to do with each other after that." Later, Diddley resented that Elvis Presley, whom he accused of copying his revolutionary style and beat, received the attention and accolades on Sullivan's show that he felt were rightfully his. "I am owed," he said, "and I never got paid." "He might have," wrote Nachman, "had things gone smoother with Sullivan."
Buddy Holly and the Crickets had first appeared on the Sullivan show in 1957, singing two songs and making a favorable impression on Sullivan. He invited the band to make another appearance in January 1958. Sullivan thought their record hit "Oh, Boy!" was too raucous and ordered Holly to substitute another song. Holly had already told his hometown friends in Texas that he would be singing "Oh, Boy!" for them, and told Sullivan as much. Sullivan was unaccustomed to having his instructions disobeyed. When the band was summoned to the rehearsal stage on short notice, only Holly was in their dressing room. Sullivan said, "I guess the Crickets are not too excited to be on The Ed Sullivan Show," to which Holly, still annoyed by Sullivan's attitude, replied, "I hope they're damn more excited than I am." Sullivan, already bothered by the choice of songs, was now even angrier. He cut the Crickets' act from two songs to one, and when introducing them mispronounced Holly's name, so it came out vaguely as "Buddy Hollett." In addition, Sullivan saw to it that the microphone for Holly's electric guitar was turned off. Holly tried to compensate by singing as loudly as he could. The band was received so well that Sullivan was forced to invite them back for a third appearance. Holly's response was that Sullivan did not have enough money. Footage of the performance survives; photographs taken that day show Sullivan looking angry and Holly smirking and perhaps ignoring Sullivan.
Jackie Mason was banned in October 1964. During Mason's performance on a show that had been shortened by ten minutes due to a Lyndon Johnson speech, Sullivan, on-stage but off-camera, gestured that Mason should wrap things up by giving him two fingers, meaning "two minutes left". Sullivan's signal distracted the audience, and to television viewers, who could not see Ed's hand, it seemed as though Mason's jokes were falling flat. Mason, in a bid to get the audience's attention back, cried, "I'm getting fingers here!" and made his own frantic hand gesture: "Here's a finger for you!" Videotapes of the incident are inconclusive as to whether Mason's upswept hand (which was just off-camera) was intended to be an indecent gesture, but Sullivan made it clear that he was convinced of it. Mason insisted that he did not know what the "middle finger" meant, and that he did not make the gesture anyway. In September 1965 Sullivan (who according to Mason was "deeply apologetic") brought Mason on for a "surprise grand reunion". "He said they were old pals," Nachman wrote, "news to Mason, who never got a repeat invitation." Mason added that his earning power "...was cut right in half after that. I never really worked my way back until I opened on Broadway in 1986."
When the Byrds performed on December 12, 1965, David Crosby got into a shouting match with the show's director. They were never asked to return.
Sullivan decided that "Girl, we couldn't get much higher", from the Doors' signature song "Light My Fire", was too overt a reference to drug use, and directed that the lyric be changed to "Girl, we couldn't get much better" for the group's September 1967 appearance. The band members "nodded their assent", according to Doors biographer Ben Fong-Torres, then sang the song as written. After the show producer Bob Precht told the group, "Mr. Sullivan wanted you for six more shows, but you'll never work the Ed Sullivan Show again." Jim Morrison replied, "Hey, man, we just did the Ed Sullivan Show." Sullivan, true to his word, never invited the band back.
In 1967 the Rolling Stones famously capitulated when Mick Jagger was told to change the titular lyric of "Let's Spend the Night Together" to "Let's spend some time together". "But Jagger prevailed," wrote Nachman, by deliberately calling attention to the censorship, rolling his eyes, mugging, and drawing out the word "t-i-i-i-me" as he sang the revised lyric. Sullivan was angered by the insubordination, but the Stones made five additional appearances on the show.
Moe Howard of the Three Stooges recalled in 1975 that Sullivan had a memory problem of sorts: "Ed was a very nice man, but for a showman, quite forgetful. On our first appearance, he introduced us as the Three Ritz Brothers. He got out of it by adding, 'who look more like the Three Stooges to me'."Joe DeRita, who worked with the Stooges after 1959, had commented that Sullivan had a personality "like the bottom of a bird cage."
Diana Ross later recalled Sullivan's forgetfulness during the many occasions the Supremes performed on his show. In a 1995 appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman (which is filmed in the Ed Sullivan Theater), Ross stated, "he could never remember our names. He called us 'the girls'."
In a 1990 press conference Paul McCartney recalled meeting Sullivan again in the early 1970s. Sullivan apparently had no idea who McCartney was. McCartney tried to remind Sullivan that he was one of the Beatles but Sullivan obviously could not remember and, nodding and smiling, simply shook McCartney's hand and left. In an interview with Howard Stern around 2012, Joan Rivers said that Sullivan had been suffering from Alzheimer's Disease toward the end of his life.
Sullivan, like many American entertainers, was pulled into the Cold War anti-communism hysteria of the late 1940s and 1950s. Tap dancer Paul Draper's scheduled January 1950 appearance on Toast of the Town met with opposition from Hester McCullough, an activist in the hunt for "subversives". Branding Draper a Communist Party "sympathizer", she demanded that Sullivan's lead sponsor, the Ford Motor Company, cancel Draper's appearance. Draper denied the charge, and appeared on the show as scheduled. Ford received over a thousand angry letters and telegrams, and Sullivan was obliged promise Ford's advertising agency, Kenyon & Eckhardt, that he would avoid controversial guests going forward. Draper was forced to move to Europe to earn a living. The legendary singer-actor Paul Robeson never appeared on the show due to similar pressure from anti-communist factions.
After the Draper incident, Sullivan began to work closely with Theodore Kirkpatrick of the anti-communist Counterattack newsletter. He would consult Kirkpatrick if there were any questions regarding a potential guest's political leanings. Sullivan wrote in his June 21, 1950 Daily News column that "Kirkpatrick has sat in my living room on several occasions and listened attentively to performers eager to secure a certification of loyalty."Jerome Robbins, in his PBS American Experience biography, alleged that he was forced to capitulate to the House Un-American Activities Committee, identifying eight Communist "sympathizers" and disgracing himself among his fellow artists, after Sullivan threatened to reveal Robbins's homosexuality to the public.
In 1963 Bob Dylan was booked to appear on the show, but network censors rejected his chosen song, "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues", as potentially libelous to the John Birch Society. Dylan refused to substitute a different song, and walked off the set at dress rehearsal. Sullivan, who had approved the song, backed Dylan's decision. The incident resulted in accusations against the network of engaging in censorship. This was not the first incident of apparent network censorship on Sullivan's show: In 1956, Sullivan flew to Europe to film an interview with Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner, and Helen Hayes on the set of the film Anastasia. When he arrived home, Sullivan learned he would not be permitted to air the Bergman footage due to her Rossellini notoriety.
Sullivan was engaged to champion swimmer Sybil Bauer, but she died of cancer in 1927 at the age of 23. He was married to the former Sylvia Weinstein from April 28, 1930, until her death on March 16, 1973. On December 22, 1930 their daughter, Betty Sullivan (who later married the Ed Sullivan Show's producer, Bob Precht), was born. Sullivan was in the habit of calling Sylvia after every program to get her immediate critique.
Later years and death:
In the fall of 1965, CBS began televising the weekly programs in color. (In August, 1954, a single program was broadcast in color from the recently opened CBS-TV Color Studio 72, at 2248 Broadway (and 81st Street). At this time, CBS' color television programming was slight, and usually was done only once for each show.) Although the Sullivan show was seen live in the Central and Eastern time zones, it was taped for airing in the Pacific and Mountain time zones. Most of the taped programs (as well as some early kinescopes) were preserved, and excerpts have been released on home video.
By 1971, the show's ratings had plummeted. In an effort to refresh their lineup, CBS cancelled the program along with some of its other longtime shows. Sullivan was so angered by the show's cancellation that he refused to do a final show, although he remained with the network in various other capacities and hosted a 25th anniversary special in June 1973.
In early September 1974, X-rays revealed that Sullivan had advanced esophageal cancer. Only his family was told, however, and as the doctors gave Sullivan very little time, the family chose to keep the diagnosis from him. Sullivan, still believing his ailment to be yet another complication from a long-standing battle with ulcers, died five weeks later, on October 13, 1974, at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital. His funeral was attended by 3,000 at St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York on a cold, rainy day. Sullivan is interred in a crypt at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
Sullivan has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6101 Hollywood Blvd.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license