Les Crane, Talk-Show Host, Dies at 74
July 15, 2008
By BRUCE WEBER
Les Crane, a provocative talk-show host who was the first to challenge the primacy of Johnny Carson on late-night television — and lose — died Sunday in Greenbrae, Calif., north of San Francisco. He was 74 and lived in Belvedere, Calif.
Mr. Crane’s daughter, Caprice Crane, confirmed his death.
Personable, cocky and well-attuned to the tenor of the times, Mr. Crane predated Howard Stern as a “king of all media”; his multifaceted career began in radio, moved to television and ended in computer software, with a stop in between as a Grammy-winning recording artist, though even he would have shuddered at calling his recording art.
An early, and by later standards, tame incarnation of a shock jock, Mr. Crane was a radio star in San Francisco in the early 1960s. From a studio in the hungry i, a nightclub that was a launching pad for performers like Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand and Lenny Bruce, he took listeners’ calls from all over the West Coast, fielding their questions, sometimes with a celebrity guest, and often dismissing callers’ comments on current events and culture with brusque wit or outright disdain, simply hanging up on some in what was then a startling breach of accepted etiquette.
His station, KGO, was owned by ABC, and the parent company transferred Mr. Crane first to the local television affiliate and then to its flagship station, WABC in New York. The show, initially with the title “Night Line … With Les Crane” and later as “The Les Crane Show” was first broadcast in September 1963, beginning at 1 a.m. Within two months it was the object of civil rights picketers protesting the appearance on the show of Gov. George Wallace of Alabama.
Calling him “the bad boy of late night television,” The New York Times described Mr. Crane’s role on the show as “public relations expert, complaint-department chief, psychiatrist and tough hero to the callers.”
The show was well-received, and Mr. Crane, telegenic, blithely confrontational and at least partly hip — he conducted the first American television interview with the Rolling Stones, in June 1964 — was attractive enough that the following summer the network gave him a weeklong tryout in the 11:30 p.m. slot with a more conventional talk show, again called “The Les Crane Show,” which was broadcast in five big cities. The week featured interviews with Richard Burton, Shelley Winters, Melvin Belli and Marguerite Frances Claverie, the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald
“We’re sitting here in the studio of a major broadcasting company in America and we are talking to the mother of a man it is alleged assassinated our President,” he said on the air, adding: “It’s pretty wonderful, isn’t it? Pretty exciting.”
The tryout was successful, but the show was not. On Nov. 9, 1964, Mr. Crane, just 30 years old, went up against Carson, who had taken over NBC’s “Tonight” show from Jack Paar two years earlier. The Crane show was canceled just a few months later, in spite of Mr. Crane’s interview with Bob Dylan, during which Mr. Crane asked Mr. Dylan, then 23, about the songwriters who influenced him and about the overall message of his songs. Hank Williams and Cole Porter were the answers to the first question. To the second, Mr. Dylan said: “Eat?” Mr. Crane returned to the show in June but lasted only until November.
Mr. Crane was born on Dec. 3, 1933, but sources about his birthplace conflict. His name at birth, his daughter said, was Lesley Stein, adding that she thought he was born in New York. According to an ABC biography, he was born in Long Beach, N.Y. The Daily News in New York once reported that he was born in the Bronx, and various Web sites say San Francisco.
Mr. Crane graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans and spent four years in the United States Air Force as a jet pilot and helicopter flight instructor; for years afterwards, he wore a bracelet with his Air Force wings on it, a reminder, he said, “that whatever I’m doing is safer than what I used to do.”
Mr. Crane married five times. His fourth wife was the actress Tina Louise whom he met and married while she was at the height of her popularity as the glamorous sexpot on the 1960s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island.” They divorced in 1971 after a five-year marriage. Besides his daughter, a television writer who lives in Los Angeles, he is survived by his wife of 20 years, Ginger Crane.
After the demise of his Carson challenge, in 1968 Mr. Crane had another short-lived talk show, this time on WNEW-TV in New York. He also worked as an occasional actor on television, appearing on “The Virginian,” “Burke’s Law” and “Love, American Style.”
In 1980, Mr. Crane went into the burgeoning computer software business, becoming chairman of the Software Toolworks, whose successes included “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.” But of all his endeavors, the most well-known was one he later wanted to forget.
In 1971, his recording of the inspirational poem “Desiderata” became a cultish hit and even won a Grammy for best spoken-word recording. A cross between flower-child naïveté and New Age dreaminess, it hit a chord at the time, but by 1987, Mr. Crane had changed his tune.
“I can’t listen to it now without gagging,” he told The Los Angeles Times.