Tom Smothers, Known for Half of the Smothers Brothers, Passes Away at 86

Tom Smothers, half of the Smothers Brothers and the co-host of one of the most socially conscious and groundbreaking television shows in the history of the medium, has died at 86. The National Comedy Center, on behalf of his family, said in a statement Wednesday that Smothers died Tuesday at home in Santa Rosa, California, following a cancer battle. “I’m just devastated,” his brother and the duo’s other half, Dick Smothers, told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday. “Every breath I’ve taken, my brother’s been around.” When The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour debuted on CBS in the fall of 1967 it was an immediate hit, to the surprise of many who had assumed the network’s expectations were so low it positioned their show opposite the top-rated “Bonanza”. But the Smothers Brothers would prove a turning point in television history, with its sharp eye for pop culture trends and young rock stars such as the Who and Buffalo Springfield, and its daring sketches — ridiculing the Establishment, railing against the Vietnam War and portraying members of the era’s hippie counterculture as gentle, fun-loving spirits — found an immediate audience with young baby boomers. Evan Ellingson Dies at 35; Actor Was Best Known For His Roles in CSI-Miami, My Sister’s Keeper, 24, and More.

“We were moderate. We were never out there,” Dick Smothers said. “But we were the first people through that door. It just sort of crept in as the ’60s crept in. We were part of that generation.” The show reached No 16 in the ratings in its first season. It also drew the ire of network censors. After years of battling with the brothers over the show’s creative content, the network abruptly cancelled the program in 1970, accusing the siblings of failing to submit an episode in time for the censors to review. Nearly 40 years later, when Smothers was awarded an honorary Emmy for his work on the show, he jokingly thanked the writers he said had gotten him fired. He also showed that the years had not dulled his outspokenness. “It’s hard for me to stay silent when I keep hearing that peace is only attainable through war,” Smothers said at the 2008 Emmy Awards as his brother sat in the audience, beaming. He dedicated his award to those “who feel compelled to speak out and are not afraid to speak to power and won’t shut up”. During the three years the show was on television, the brothers constantly battled with CBS censors and occasionally outraged viewers as well, particularly when Smothers joked that Easter “is when Jesus comes out of his tomb and if he sees his shadow, he goes back in and we get six more weeks of winter.”

Tom Smothers, Smothers Brothers Star, Dies at 86:

 

 

 

At Christmas, when other hosts were sending best wishes to soldiers fighting overseas, Smothers offered his to draft dodgers who had moved to Canada. In still another episode, the brothers returned blacklisted folk singer Pete Seeger to television for the first time in years. He performed his song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”, widely viewed as ridiculing President Lyndon Johnson. When CBS refused to air the segment, the brothers brought Seeger back for another episode and he sang it again. This time, it made the air. After the show was cancelled, the brothers sued CBS for USD 31 million and were awarded USD 775,000. Their battles with the network were chronicled in the 2002 documentary Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

“Tom Smothers was not only an extraordinary comedic talent, who, together with his brother Dick, became the most enduring comedy duo in history, entertaining the world for over six decades — but was a true champion for freedom of speech,” National Comedy Center Executive Director Journey Gunderson said in a statement. Thomas Bolyn Smothers III was born February 2, 1937, on Governors Island, New York, where his father, an Army major, was stationed. His brother was born two years later. In 1940 their father was transferred to the Philippines, and his wife, two sons and their sister, Sherry, accompanied him. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the family was sent home and Major Smothers remained. He was captured by the Japanese during the war and died in captivity. The family eventually moved to the Los Angeles suburb of Redondo Beach, where Smothers helped his mother take care of his brother and sister while she worked. Matthew Perry Dies at 54: Throwback to When Chandler Bing Almost Missed On Getting the Gig in FRIENDS.

“Tommy was the greatest older brother. He took care of me,” Dick Smothers said. “His maturity was amazing. Sometimes you lose part of your childhood.” The brothers had seemed unlikely to make television history. They had spent several years on the nightclub and college circuits and doing TV guest appearances, honing an offbeat comedy routine that mixed folk music with a healthy dose of sibling rivalry. They would come on stage, Tom with a guitar in hand and Dick toting an upright bass. They would quickly break into a traditional folk song — perhaps “John Henry” or “Pretoria”. After playing several bars, Tom, positioned as the dumb one despite being older, would mess up, then quickly claim he had meant to do that. As Dick, the serious, short-tempered one, berated him for failing to acknowledge his error, he would scream in exasperation, “Mom always liked you best!” “It was the childlike enthusiasm through ignorance, and me, the teacher, correcting him — sometimes I’d correct him even if I was wrong,” Dick Smothers said. “I was the perfect straight man for my brother. I was the only straight man for my brother.”

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