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Les Crane; talk-show host challenged Johnny Carson

During a taping of 'The Les Crane Show' in December 1964, Mr. Crane (right) interviewed Mario Savio, leader of the 'Free Speech' movement at the University of California at Berkeley. During a taping of "The Les Crane Show" in December 1964, Mr. Crane (right) interviewed Mario Savio, leader of the "Free Speech" movement at the University of California at Berkeley. (United Press International)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bruce Weber
New York Times News Service / July 16, 2008

NEW YORK - Les Crane, a provocative talk-show host who was the first to challenge the primacy of Johnny Carson on late-night television and lose, died Sunday in Greenbrae, Calif., north of San Francisco. He was 74 and lived in Belvedere, Calif.

Mr. Crane's daughter, Caprice Crane, confirmed his death.

Personable, cocky, and well-attuned to the tenor of the times, Mr. Crane predated Howard Stern as a "king of all media"; his multifaceted career began in radio, moved to television, and ended in computer software, with a stop as a Grammy-winning recording artist, though even he would have shuddered at calling his recording art.

An early, and by later standards, tame incarnation of a shock jock, Mr. Crane was a radio star in San Francisco in the early 1960s. From a studio in the hungry i, a nightclub that was a launching pad for performers like Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, and Lenny Bruce, he took listeners' calls from all over the West Coast, fielding their questions, sometimes with a celebrity guest, and often dismissing callers' comments on current events and culture with brusque wit or outright disdain, simply hanging up on some in what was then a startling breach of accepted etiquette.

His station, KGO, was owned by ABC, and the parent company transferred Mr. Crane first to the local television affiliate and then to its flagship station, WABC in New York. The show, initially with the title "Night Line . . . With Les Crane" and later as "The Les Crane Show" was first broadcast in September 1963, beginning at 1 a.m.

The show was well-received, and Mr. Crane, telegenic, blithely confrontational and at least partly hip - he conducted the first American television interview with the Rolling Stones, in June 1964 - was attractive enough that the following summer the network gave him a weeklong tryout in the 11:30 p.m. slot with a more conventional talk show, again called "The Les Crane Show," which was broadcast in five big cities.

The tryout was successful, but the show was not. On Nov. 9, 1964, Mr. Crane, just 30 years old, went up against Carson, who had taken over NBC's "Tonight" show from Jack Paar two years earlier. The Crane show was canceled just a few months later.

Mr. Crane graduated from Tulane University and spent four years in the US Air Force as a jet pilot and helicopter flight instructor; for years afterward, he wore a bracelet with his Air Force wings on it, a reminder, he said, "that whatever I'm doing is safer than what I used to do."

Mr. Crane married five times. His fourth wife was the actress Tina Louise, whom he met and married while she was at the height of her popularity as the glamorous sexpot on the 1960s sitcom "Gilligan's Island." They divorced in 1971 after a five-year marriage. Besides his daughter, a television writer who lives in Los Angeles, he leaves his wife of 20 years, Ginger Crane.

After the demise of his Carson challenge, Mr. Crane had another short-lived talk show in 1968, this time on WNEW-TV in New York. He also worked as an occasional actor on television, appearing on "The Virginian," "Burke's Law," and "Love, American Style."

In 1980, Mr. Crane went into the burgeoning computer software business, becoming chairman of Software Toolworks, whose successes included "Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing."

But of all his endeavors, the most well-known was one he later wanted to forget. In 1971, his recording of the inspirational poem "Desiderata" became a cultish hit and even won a Grammy for best spoken-word recording.

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