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The younger, "smarter," and according to brother and longtime performing partner Tom, the "one that Mom always liked best," Dick Smothers was one half of the popular music-comedy duo, The Smothers Brothers. Launched as a folk act in 1959, Dick and Tom soon won over audiences by adding comic bits between the songs, usually focused around their alleged sibling rivalry. Their popularity on stage led to appearances on television and their own network series, "The Smothers Brothers Show" (CBS, 1965-66). But it was their next TV attempt that elevated the brothers from mainstream comedians to political satirists and counterculture heroes. "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1967-1969) was earmarked by fierce jabs at all manner of social and political ills, which raised the hackles of their parent company. The brothers' choice of musical guests, which were culled from the cream of the rock and folk movements of the period, put them in deeper hot water with the powers that be. "The Comedy Hour" was eventually cancelled by the network, and the duo would spend much of the next 20 years attempting to recapture that series' lightning-in-a-bottle energy in subsequent efforts. In between guest appearances and...
The younger, "smarter," and according to brother and longtime performing partner Tom, the "one that Mom always liked best," Dick Smothers was one half of the popular music-comedy duo, The Smothers Brothers. Launched as a folk act in 1959, Dick and Tom soon won over audiences by adding comic bits between the songs, usually focused around their alleged sibling rivalry. Their popularity on stage led to appearances on television and their own network series, "The Smothers Brothers Show" (CBS, 1965-66). But it was their next TV attempt that elevated the brothers from mainstream comedians to political satirists and counterculture heroes. "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1967-1969) was earmarked by fierce jabs at all manner of social and political ills, which raised the hackles of their parent company. The brothers' choice of musical guests, which were culled from the cream of the rock and folk movements of the period, put them in deeper hot water with the powers that be. "The Comedy Hour" was eventually cancelled by the network, and the duo would spend much of the next 20 years attempting to recapture that series' lightning-in-a-bottle energy in subsequent efforts. In between guest appearances and live dates with his brother, Dick Smothers also enjoyed a career as a solo actor, which included a fine supporting turn in Martin Scorsese's "Casino" (1995) as a crooked Nevada senator, as well as an amateur drag racer. His lasting legacy, however, was as both a popular entertainer and one of the most active supporters of free speech and political discourse in television history.
Born Richard Remick Smothers on Governors Island, NY on Nov. 20, 1939, he and brother Tom were the sons of Major Thomas Smothers, a U.S. Army officer who died while interred in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II. The Smothers relocated to Redondo Beach, CA, where Dick and Tom received an education at San Jose State University. Their partnership as a folk music duo got its start while at college, and after a brief stint as part of the Casual Quintet, the brothers launched their own act at the Purple Onion in San Francisco in 1959. The act, which featured Tom on guitar and Dick on standup bass, was built around traditional folk songs, but with one added bonus: frequent breaks and even interruptions of songs in which Dick and Tom would argue over various matters. Said debates would usually conclude with Dick silencing his brother in one manner or another, only to have Tom angrily add the "mom always liked you best" punch line or a variation on that theme. Their bright banter and clear harmonies made them a favorite on the nightclub circuit, eventually leading to 12 top-selling albums beginning in 1961.
Their popularity eventually brought the Smothers Brothers to television, where they made their debut in 1961 on "The Jack Paar Show" (NBC, 1957-1962). More guest shots soon followed, as well as a regular stint on "The Steve Allen Show" (NBC/ABC, 1957-1961). Eventually, the brothers got their own series, a wan sitcom called "The Smothers Brothers Show" with Dick as a businessman who spent most of his time bailing out his brother (Tom), an apprentice angle who struggled to complete his heavenly tasks. Singing - one of the key elements of the brothers' appeal - was curiously kept out of the show until midway through the season, but it arrived too late to save it from cancellation.
A year after "The Smothers Brothers Show" left the air, Dick and Tom were tapped by CBS for what was designed as a traditional variety show built around their comedy. But "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" surpassed that lightweight description almost immediately after its launch. Under the direction of head writer Tom Smothers, the show targeted the social and political issues of the day with unerring satire; among the regular sacred cows on the chopping block were matters of race, the war in Vietnam, the counterculture movement, and the upcoming presidential election. Religion, too, was skewered, which resulted in an on-air apology from Dick and Tom. But rather than damper down their comedy, the Smothers Brothers continued to wage war against the establishment, both with their humor and their choice of musical guests. Both Dick and Tom were highly instrumental in bringing such acts as the Doors, Janis Joplin, the Temptations and the Who to network television audiences in an era when such acts were considered in the poorest of taste for primetime. Even more daring was inviting politically charged performers like folk legend Pete Seeger, who had been blacklisted from television since the 1950s, and Harry Belafonte, whose entire musical contribution to an episode was wiped from its broadcast by the network censors.
Eventually, CBS grew tired of the controversy and began demanding that all episodes be submitted to them 10 days before airdate. This only escalated the squabbles between the network and the brothers, so by mid-1969, CBS pulled the plug on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." Reasons cited for the cancellation included failure to adhere to the submission deadlines, but most of the show's younger viewers knew that its political stance was the key to its demise. Dick and Tom were soon snapped up by ABC for "The Smothers Summer Show" (1970), but it failed to bring along its audience. The pair soon returned to active duty as a touring act, while Dick and Tom explored acting opportunities on their own.
While Tom enjoyed a brief movie career and even his own short-lived comedy series - "Tom Smothers' Organic Prime Time Space Ride" (syndicated, 1971) - Dick stayed close to television and enjoyed regular rotation on various variety shows, comedy showcases and game shows. He also developed a passion for amateur racing and competed in numerous road racing and drag racing events. But he never strayed too far from his brother, and the duo made several returns to television in an attempt to recapture their success with the "Comedy Hour." "The Smothers Brothers Show" (NBC, 1975) was the first of these revivals, and while it enjoyed initial success due to public curiosity, the lack of biting satire that earmarked their previous effort was missing here, causing audiences to tune out.
A pair of network specials in 1980 and 1981 - "The Tom and Dick Smothers Brothers Special 1" and "2" - generated some interest, as did a hosting stint on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) which saw Dick and Tom breaking Writers Guild picket lines to appear on the show. But their subsequent return to series work again failed to strike pay dirt. "Fitz and Bones" (NBC, 1981) was patterned after the brothers' comedy act - Dick as intrepid reporter; Tom as sweetly addled cameraman - but failed to find a viewership. In 1988, they got another shot at a series after "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The 20th Reunion" generated high ratings for CBS. A variety series patterned after their '60s show was quickly ordered up, and while it bore a strong resemblance to the original, it again fought an uphill battle to find an audience. It was yanked after just one season.
In 1995, Dick enjoyed critical acclaim for his portrayal of a Las Vegas senator on the take in Martin Scorsese's drama "Casino." There were occasional solo turns after it, including an appearance in Evi Quaid's infamous "The Debtors" (1999), but for the most part, he remained loyal to the Smothers Brothers, which continued to draw audiences at nightclubs and casinos around the country. Their efforts to bring politics to mainstream television audiences were the stuff of history until 2002, when a documentary titled "Smothered," which recounted the story of their struggles with network censorship, was aired on the Bravo network. The rest of the entertainment community soon fell into line to praise Dick and Tom for their efforts, which included a tribute by the Museum of Radio and Television and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2008, both Dick and Tom were awarded honorary doctorates from their alma mater at San Jose State University.
Dick Smothers remained a regular commentator on television history and comedy for much of the new millennium while continuing to perform with his brother. He also reaped the rewards of a vineyard in Sonoma, California that he shared with Tom. And in 2008, he beamed proudly from the audience at the 60th Annual Emmy Awards, where his brother received his belated Emmy for writing "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." Tom had left his name off the ballot in 1968, fearing that the association might jinx his fellow writers' chances to win the award. In a curious turn of events, Smothers' son Dick Jr. emerged as a performer and director in adult films. Unlike most involved in the industry, Smothers Jr. retained his real name, much to the surprise of his father. Smothers Sr. later commented that while he was dismayed by his son's career choice, he was supportive of his efforts to produce quality work.
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