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Although best known as his on-stage persona of "Tommy," the gentle but easily irked half of the folk singing duo The Smothers Brothers, actor, writer and musician Tom Smothers was also one of the most socially conscious talents in Hollywood during the 1960s. With younger brother Dick, he formed a musical act that combined easy-going humor with traditional folk songs; their popularity on the nightclub circuit led to their own series, "The Smothers Brothers Show" (CBS, 1965-66). Smothers hit his true stride as an entertainer and social commentator with "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1967-69), which began life as a typical variety program based around the duo's act. But Smothers moved the focus of the show to satiric jabs at the social and political ills of the day, including the war in Vietnam and civil rights. The show came under heavy fire from the network, which censored performances by politically-charged performers and even whole episodes before pulling the plug on the program in 1969. Smothers continued to return to television over the next three decades, both as a solo act and with his brother, though none of his subsequent efforts met the same level of quality as their 1960s variety...
Although best known as his on-stage persona of "Tommy," the gentle but easily irked half of the folk singing duo The Smothers Brothers, actor, writer and musician Tom Smothers was also one of the most socially conscious talents in Hollywood during the 1960s. With younger brother Dick, he formed a musical act that combined easy-going humor with traditional folk songs; their popularity on the nightclub circuit led to their own series, "The Smothers Brothers Show" (CBS, 1965-66). Smothers hit his true stride as an entertainer and social commentator with "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1967-69), which began life as a typical variety program based around the duo's act. But Smothers moved the focus of the show to satiric jabs at the social and political ills of the day, including the war in Vietnam and civil rights. The show came under heavy fire from the network, which censored performances by politically-charged performers and even whole episodes before pulling the plug on the program in 1969. Smothers continued to return to television over the next three decades, both as a solo act and with his brother, though none of his subsequent efforts met the same level of quality as their 1960s variety show. Their contributions to television were largely overshadowed by their enduring popularity as a comedy act, but the 2002 documentary "Smothered" and a special Emmy Award in 2008 served as excellent reminders that Tom Smothers' contributions to the level of political discourse on American television were immeasurable.
Born Thomas Bolin Smothers III on Governor's Island in New York on Feb. 2, 1937, he and brother Richard were the sons of Major Thomas Smothers, a U.S. Army officer who died in a prisoner of war camp in Japan during World War II. Smothers and his brother were raised by their mother in Redondo Beach, CA, and attended San Jose State University, where they planted the seeds of their musical act. A stint in a folk group called the Casual Quintet preceded their debut as a duo in 1959. Their act put a novel spin on the traditional folk music duo; the brothers wove comedy elements into their banter between songs, which was usually oriented around their intense sibling rivalry. Tom was congenial to the point of being slow-witted, but could be roused to ire by Dick's smooth patter; his inevitable response to losing an "argument" with Dick was a petulant cry of "Mom always liked you best!" In real life, Tom was anything but dense, and handled all of their business affairs.
The Smothers Brothers' act made them a top draw in the nation's night clubs, and they eventually released 12 albums to considerable acclaim. They made their TV debut in 1961 on "The Jack Paar Show" (NBC, 1957-1962) and soon became popular guests on variety programs, including "The Steve Allen Show" (NBC/ABC, 1956-1961), which made them regulars in 1961. Four years later, they earned their own series, "The Smothers Brothers Show." The sitcom starred Dick as a business executive who was roped into assisting his brother (Tom), an apprentice angel who bungled his attempts to perform heavenly acts on Earth. Neither brother sang or performed on the show until mid-way through the season, which may have contributed to its early demise. In subsequent interviews, Tom was vocal in his dislike for the show and its producers, Four Star Television.
Tom and Dick returned to CBS a year after their sitcom ground to a halt with a show that seemed more tailored to their talents. "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" began its network run as a quick-witted variety program that put the brothers front and center while bringing in popular but safe guest stars and musical acts as support. But the show, which employed new comedy writers Steve Martin and Rob Reiner, soon displayed its true colors by poking fun at some of the more sacred cows of the day. Comedian Pat Paulsen deflated the upcoming presidential election by nominating himself for the highest office on a promise that he would not serve if elected. Subsequent episodes took potshots at religion - which resulted in an on-air apology from Tom and Dick - as well as the escalating violence in Vietnam and in the nation's streets. The show's choice of musical guests also reflected its growing interest in the counterculture movement of the day, with rock and soul acts like the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Cream and the Who replacing the usual pop musicians and established performers. Said musical acts often generated as much controversy as the writing - Jefferson Airplane singer Grace Slick performed the band's "Crown of Creation" in blackface, while the Who famously detonated their instruments mid-set, which resulted in injuries to drummer Keith Moon and guitarist Pete Townshend. Though he continued to play the buffoon on the program, Tom Smothers cast most of the deciding votes in airing this material.
Decisions such as these made "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" wildly popular with younger audiences and the intelligentsia, but CBS was mortified by the program and actively sought to restrain its political edge. The network demanded that episodes of the show be submitted to its censors 10 days before airdate for approval, and deleted an entire performance by Harry Belafonte that was set against a backdrop of violent footage from the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Eventually, an entire episode was pulled from its airdate over perceived inflammatory comments by singer Joan Baez and comedian Jackie Mason. The show was eventually aired two months later, but the writing was clearly on the wall for the Smothers Brothers. Despite being renewed for the 1969-1970 season, CBS president William Paley cancelled the show on the grounds that the show had failed to meet deadlines for submitting episodes to the censors. A breach of contract suit was filed and won by the Smothers Brothers, but the show never returned to the air. There was some joy, however, in an Emmy win for the show's writing in 1968, though few knew that Tom Smothers - the show's de facto head writer - had removed his name from the nomination for fear that it would hurt the show's chances.
The Smothers Brothers returned to television almost immediately after their cancellation by CBS; ABC picked up "The Smothers Summer Show" in 1970, which included three episodes of their previous program that had gone unaired by CBS. The program failed to click with viewers, but Tom gave the medium another shot with "Tom Smothers' Organic Prime Time Space Ride" (syndicated, 1971), which suffered an equally sudden death. The brothers soon revived their touring act on the nightclub and casino circuit, while Tom lent his wide-eyed routine to a variety of TV and film projects. He was top-billed opposite Orson Welles as a novice magician in Brian De Palma's cult comedy "Get To Know Your Rabbit" (1971), and enjoyed supporting turns in such well-regarded if financially unsuccessful features as "Silver Bears" (1978) and "Serial" (1980). TV kept him well employed with guest shots on sitcoms and variety shows throughout the 1970s and 1980s; he also lent his voice to several animated projects. However, Smothers never lost his connection to the counterculture, as evidenced by his appearance on John Lennon's single "Give Peace a Chance" in 1971.
With Dick, Tom Smothers attempted to recapture the irreverence of the "Comedy Hour" on several occasions during the 1970s and 1980s. "The Smothers Brothers Show" (NBC, 1975) was the first, but lost its initial groundswell of interest when audiences discovered that it lacked the social edge of their previous series. They returned in 1980 with "The Tom and Dick Smothers Brothers Specials" (1980), a pair of variety one-offs that re-ignited some interest in their TV careers, as did an appearance on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) in which both brothers broke a picket line to co-host the show against the wishes of the Writers Guild. However, "Fitz and Bones" (NBC, 1981), a sitcom with Tom and Dick as inept news reporters, was a wash after just five episodes. Tom returned to features with "Pandemonium" (1982), a broad parody of horror movie conventions, and resumed a busy schedule of guest shots.
In 1988, Tom and Dick were feted by CBS with "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The 20th Reunion," which brought together many of the show's original guests and performers for a nostalgic look back. It drew considerable ratings for the network, which soon ordered a new series along the lines of the once-pilloried sixties show. The new series (CBS, 1988-89) was remarkably identical to the original - Tom and Dick were still doing their sibling rivalry act; the music acts were a balance of guests from the first program and newer bands; even Pat Paulsen was back with a new bid for the Oval Office. One new element was "The Yo-Yo Man," a silent routine which showcased Tom's impressive skills with a yo-yo. Despite the tried-and-true formula, the show lasted just one season.
In 2002, Tom's struggles with CBS were the focus of a documentary, "Smothered," which explored the controversy that swirled around the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" in the 1960s. The new millennium saw more tributes from such esteemed organizations as the Museum of Radio and Television, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the Video Software Dealers Association, which bestowed the George Carlin Freedom of Expression Award on them for their support of the First Amendment. Both Tom and Dick were later given honorary doctorates from San Jose State University.
Smothers co-starred with Carol Burnett and Tracey Ullman in the 2005 TV production of the Broadway musical "Once Upon a Mattress," and continued to lend his unique comic talents to sitcoms. He was also a frequent commentator on documentaries and news specials about the history of television and the '60s political movement, while maintaining a regular schedule of live dates with brother Dick. The duo also operated their own winery, Remick Ridge Vineyards, in Sonoma, CA. In 2008, Tom Smothers finally received his due as a writer on the original "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" with a special Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series. The award was presented to Smothers by his former writing staffer, Steve Martin.
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