News and Late-Night Pioneer Tom Snyder Dies at 71

Tom Snyder, a staple of late-night television for decades on NBC and, later, CBS, has died after a battle with leukemia. He was 71. 

The Associated Press reported that Snyder died Sunday in San Francisco from complications associated with the disease. 

“Everyone at CBS mourns the loss of Tom Snyder and our condolences go out to his family and friends,” the network said in a statement. “He was one of the best interviewers of his time, a truly gifted conversationalist who was at ease with any guest and topic. He created a talk show that was simply about talking and listening. He spoke to his viewers and they, in turn, felt as if they knew him personally. With his passing, television has lost a true broadcaster who always respected the medium and the audience it serves.” 

Peter Lassally, executive producer of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson who executive produced the show when Snyder was host, called him “a true broadcaster, a rare thing. When he was on the air, he made the camera disappear. It was just you and him, in a room together, having a talk.” 

NBC Universal President/CEO Jeff Zucker said: “Our longtime friend and colleague Tom Snyder was a news anchor, talk-show host, innovator, star -- but the description that would mean the most to him was that he was a great broadcaster. We mourn his passing and extend our condolences to his family and friends.” 

As host of NBC’s The Tomorrow Show, Snyderwas widely recognized for his casual, improvisational manner, distinctive laughter and smoke-filled interviews, which included the likes of John Lennon, Charles Manson and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. 

Snyder started out as a radio reporter in Milwaukee in the 1960s, later moving into television news as an anchor in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. In the late 1960s, Al Primo, the legendary news executive who created the “Eyewitness News” format, hired him to join KYW-TV, then located in Cleveland. 

“He was the first anchorman I ever hired in my life as the news director of KYW-TV,” Primo recalls. “He was working for KTLA as a reporter and was fired by the owner’s wife because she though he was too irreverent.” 

Primo flew Snyder to Cleveland for in-studio and stand-up auditions. “[Tom] was phenomenal,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like it, the way he stared in the camera and spoke to you.” 

When KYW moved to Philadelphia, Snyder became the Eyewitness News anchor at noon. Primo recalls telling his reporters to “watch Tom Synder and you do your reports just like him.” 

“He became the in-house teacher,” he says. “Within a few months [the reporters] had dropped their clipboards and started talking the stories to the audience instead of reading them. And of course the rest is history.” 

In 1973, Snyder took the helm of NBC’s The Tomorrow Show and remained there until 1982, when his show was replaced by Late Night With David Letterman

Snyder began his show with the catch phrase, “Fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the pictures now as they fly through the air.'' He then proceeded to light up a cigarette, leaving the host and his guests in a haze of smoke. 

His style, alternately pompous and self-deprecating, was appreciated by some viewers and grated on others—and was captured famously by Dan Aykroyd’s lampooning impersonations in the early days of Saturday Night Live

During the height of his popularity, reports suggested that Snyder was under consideration as a likely successor to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, whose program preceded Tomorrow, or as a future anchor of the NBC Nightly News

But Snyder’s ratings started to slip, and despite an effort to revamp the show in the early 1980s, NBC yanked the series in 1982 to make way for Letterman. (Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, late brought Snyder back to late-night TV as host of CBS’ The Late, Late Show from 1995-99.) 

Two years ago, Snyder, who quit smoking in 2000, announced on his Website his diagnosis with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. At the time, he said his doctors had assured him that his condition could be treated and that he had "nothing to worry about." 

''When I was a kid, leukemia was a death sentence,'' he wrote then. ''Now, my doctors say it's treatable!''

Primo says he and Snyder remained close through the years, and that he had spoken with Snyder's companion last Thursday: "She said, 'He's ready to go.'"

With additional reporting by Sarah Outhwaite