SAN FRANCISCO -- Tom Snyder, who pioneered the late-late television talk show with a personal yet abrasive style and his robust, trademark laugh, died in San Francisco Sunday from complications of leukemia. He was 71.
Prickly and ego-driven, Mr. Snyder conducted numerous memorable interviews as host of NBC's "Tomorrow," which followed Johnny Carson's "Tonight" show from 1973 to 1982. A signature was the constant billowing of cigarette smoke around his head.
Mr. Snyder's style, his show's set, and the show itself marked an abrupt change at 1 a.m. from Carson's program. Mr. Snyder might joke with the crew in the sparsely appointed studio, but he was more likely to joust with guests, such as the irascible science fiction writer Harlan Ellison.
Mr. Snyder had John Lennon's final televised interview, in April 1975, and U2's first US television appearance, in June 1981.
One of his most riveting interviews was with Charles Manson, who would go from a calm demeanor to that of a wild-eyed, insanity-spouting mass murderer and back again.
Another wacky moment came when Plasmatics lead singer Wendy O. Williams blew up a television in the studio; in another appearance she demolished a car.
In 1982, the show was canceled after a messy attempt to make it into a talk-variety show called "Tomorrow Coast to Coast." It added a live audience and cohostess Rona Barrett, all of which Mr. Snyder clearly disdained.
The time slot was taken over by a young comedian named David Letterman.
"Tom was the very thing that all broadcasters long to be -- compelling," David Letterman, whose production company produced the show that marked Mr. Snyder's return to late-night TV in the 1990s, said in a statement yesterday. "Whether he was interviewing politicians, authors, actors, or musicians, Tom was always the real reason to watch."
CNN talk-show host Larry King said in a statement: "Tom Snyder was one of a kind; he had a unique personality. He changed anchoring in television news; his approach was like no one else."
Born in Milwaukee, Mr. Snyder began his career as a radio reporter in his hometown in the 1960s and then moved into local TV, anchoring newscasts in Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles before moving to late night.
Al Primo, a former TV news director who gave Mr. Snyder one of his first TV jobs, said Mr. Snyder was the "ultimate communicator," able to look directly into a camera and tell viewers a story without looking at notes.
As an interviewer, Mr. Snyder "always used to tell me, I listen to what they're saying and I ask the questions that the average guy would want to ask, not a formulated question," Primo said.
On "Tomorrow," Mr. Snyder's catch phrase: "Fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the pictures now, as they fly through the air."
"I told (network executives) in the beginning, 'Don't put me in a monkey suit. Don't put me in front of a band. I'm a newsman. I don't tell jokes. I just talk about issues,' " Mr. Snyder recalled in a 1979 interview with Newsweek magazine.
"It's sort of a little hip shoot," Mr. Snyder said of his show. "Something's got to happen or they'll turn off the box at this hour. What will make the program will be when people begin to say, 'Did you hear what that s.o.b. said at 1:20 this morning?' "
Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, authors of "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows," wrote of Mr. Snyder: "Tom could be sweet and ingenuous one moment, relentlessly probing the next."
Letterman, a longtime Snyder admirer, brought him back to network television, creating "The Late Late Show" on CBS to follow his own program. (Subsequently, the format and hosts have changed, with Craig Kilborn and now Craig Ferguson.)
Mr. Snyder gained fame in his heyday when Dan Aykroyd spoofed him in the early days of "Saturday Night Live." His chain-smoking, black beetle brows, mercurial manner, and digressive way of asking questions, as well as his clipped speech pattern, made for a distinctive sendup.
Briefly in the late 1970s, Mr. Snyder was considered a potential successor to John Chancellor as anchor of the "NBC Nightly News." Tom Brokaw got the job instead, as some in NBC management were worried that Mr. Snyder's quick and occasionally sharp tongue would get them in trouble, said Joe Angotti, who produced NBC's weekend news then.
Mr. Snyder announced on his website in 2005 he had leukemia.
Material from the Los Angeles Times was used in this obituary.