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Tom Smothers, one half of TV comedy legends the Smothers Brothers, dies at 86

Tom Smothers does yo-yo tricks during arrivals at CBS' 75th anniversary celebration on Nov. 2, 2003, in New York. 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 age 86.
Louis Lanzano
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AP
Tom Smothers does yo-yo tricks during arrivals at CBS' 75th anniversary celebration on Nov. 2, 2003, in New York. 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 age 86.

Updated December 27, 2023 at 1:12 PM ET

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.

"Tom was not only the loving older brother that everyone would want in their life, he was a one-of-a-kind creative partner. I am forever grateful to have spent a lifetime together with him, on and off stage, for over 60 years," his brother and the duo's other half, Dick Smothers, said in the statement. "Our relationship was like a good marriage — the longer we were together, the more we loved and respected one another. We were truly blessed."

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."

A surprise TV hit that ran into the censors

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. The show reached No. 16 in the ratings in its first season.

It also drew the ire of network censors, and after years of battling with the brothers over the show's creative content, the network abruptly canceled 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 and refuse to be silenced."

During the three years the show was on television, the brothers constantly battled with CBS's 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." At Christmas, when other show hosts were sending best wishes to soldiers fighting overseas, Smothers offered his to draft dodgers who had moved to Canada.

The Smothers Brothers, Tom (left) and Dick, appear at the Kennedy Center in Washington for the Mark Twain Prize for Humor Award ceremony honoring Bob Newhart on Oct. 29, 2002.
Lawrence Jackson / AP
/
AP
The Smothers Brothers, Tom (left) and Dick, appear at the Kennedy Center in Washington for the Mark Twain Prize for Humor Award ceremony honoring Bob Newhart on Oct. 29, 2002.

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 for the Vietnam War. 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 canceled, the brothers sued CBS for $31 million and were awarded $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, harnessing the power of comedy to push boundaries and our political consciousness," National Comedy Center Executive Director Journey Gunderson said in a statement.

Thomas Bolyn Smothers III was born Feb. 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 Maj. 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.

On the nightclub circuit, a mix of folk music and sibling rivalry

The brothers had seemed unlikely to make television history. They had spent the previous 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, would mess it up, and 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!"

They continued that shtick on their show but also surrounded themselves with a talented cast of newcomers, both writers and performers.

Among the crack writing crew that Smothers headed were future actor-producer Rob Reiner, musician Mason Williams and comedian Steve Martin, who presented Smothers with the lifetime Emmy in 2008. Regular musical guests included John Hartford, Glen Campbell and Jennifer Warnes.

Bob Einstein, now better known as stuntman Super Dave Osborne, had a recurring role as Officer Judy, a dour Los Angeles police officer who once cited guest Liberace for playing the piano too fast. Leigh French, as the hippie earth mother in the segment "Share a Little Tea With Goldie," always appeared to have been drinking something brewed through more than just tea leaves.

The brothers had begun their own act when Tom, then a student at San Jose State College, formed a music group called the Casual Quintet and encouraged his younger brother to learn the bass and join. The brothers continued on as a duo after the other musicians dropped out, but because their folk music repertoire was limited, they began to intersperse it with comedy.

Their big break came in 1959 when they appeared at San Francisco's Purple Onion, then a hot spot for new talent. Booked for two weeks, they stayed a record 36. Booked into New York's Blue Angel, they won praise from The New York Times, which described them as "a pair of tart-tongued singing comedians." But to their disappointment, they couldn't get on "The Tonight Show," then hosted byJack Paar.

"Paar kept telling our agent he didn't like folk singers — except for Burl Ives," Smothers told The Associated Press in 1964. "But one night he had a cancellation, and we went on. Everything worked right that night."

The brothers went on to appear on the TV shows of Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan, Garry Moore, Andy Williams, Jack Benny and Judy Garland. Their comedy albums were big sellers and they toured the country, especially colleges.

Television first came calling in 1965, casting them in "The Smothers Brothers Show," a sitcom about a businessman (Dick) who is haunted by his late brother (Tom), a fledgling guardian angel. It lasted just one season.

Shortly after CBS canceled the "Comedy Hour," ABC picked it up as a summer replacement, but the network didn't bring it back in the fall. NBC gave them a show in 1975 but it failed to find an audience and lasted only a season.

The brothers went their separate ways for a time in the 1970s. Among other endeavors, Smothers got into the wine business, launching Remick Ridge Vineyards in Northern California's wine country.

"Originally the winery was called Smothers Brothers, but I changed the name to Remick Ridge because when people heard Smothers Brothers wine, they thought something like Milton Berle Fine Wine or Larry, Curly and Mo Vineyards," Smothers once said.

"We just kept resurfacing"

He and his brother eventually reunited to star in the musical comedy "I Love My Wife," a hit that ran on Broadway for two years. After that they went back on the road, playing casinos, performing arts centers and corporate gatherings around the country, remaining popular for decades.

"We just keep resurfacing," Smothers commented in 1997. "We're just not in everyone's face long enough to really get old."

After a successful 20th anniversary "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" in 1988, CBS buried the hatchet and brought them back.

The show was quickly canceled, though it stayed on the air long enough for Smothers to introduce the "Yo-Yo Man," a bit allowing him to demonstrate his considerable skills with a yo-yo while he and his brother kept up a steady patter of comedy. The bit remained in their act for years.

Smothers married three times and had three children. He is survived by his wife Marie, children Bo and Riley Rose, and brother Dick, in addition to other relatives. He was predeceased by his son Tom and sister Sherry.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 26, 2023 at 10:00 PM MST
An previous version of this story said Smothers' father was a Navy major. In fact, he was an Army major. And a reference to San Jose State University should have said San Jose State College.
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