GREENWICH, Conn., Jan. 27 (UPI) -- Jack Paar, who brought sophisticated humor to late-night TV as the host of "The Tonight Show" nearly 50 years ago, has died following a long illness. He was 85.
Paar -- who suffered a stroke in 2003, and had quadruple bypass surgery in 1999 -- was a high school dropout whose sharp wit and keen disregard for conventional thought helped him stand out during the development of the talk show format on TV. He was the host for "The Tonight Show" from 1957-62 -- welcoming such guests as John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater and Dr. Albert Schweitzer.
During Paar's tenure, "Tonight" enjoyed phenomenal success and changed the nation's viewing habits. The show was occasionally controversial, featuring guests who tested the limits of what could be discussed on public airwaves.
In 1960 -- when the network censored a joke Paar made referring to a "water closet" -- the host announced on the air that he was quitting the show.
"I am leaving 'The Tonight Show,'" he told viewers. "There must be a better way of making a living than this."
NBC lured him back several weeks later, but Paar did leave the show in 1962 -- turning the late-night crown over to Johnny Carson.
From 1962-65, Paar hosted "The Jack Paar Program," a prime time variety show on NBC. He subsequently retired to his farm in upstate New York.
The list of stars whose careers were boosted by appearances with Paar included Woody Allen, Carol Burnett, Bill Cosby, Liza Minnelli, Bob Newhart, and Phyllis Diller.
Paar was born May 1, 1918, in Cleveland. He dropped out of high school to take a job as a man-on-the-street interviewer for a radio station in Canton, Ohio. Then he drifted around the country, taking jobs on radio stations whenever they were available.
During World War II, Paar served with the U.S. Army Special Services, appearing in military shows in the Pacific theater and winning the favor of fellow enlisted men by ribbing the officers. Apparently he was not considered a threat to Army discipline because the officers also laughed at his jokes.
Paar's affected impudence prompted a magazine writer to write a profile on this wayward G.I. As a result of the magazine article, Paar received a film contract with RKO studios in Hollywood after his discharge from the Army.
He acted in movies such as "Walk Softly, Stranger" (1950), "Love Nest" (1951) and "Down Among the Sheltering Palms" (1953).
While in Hollywood, Paar was hired to replace Jack Benny on his summer show. The engagement led to other, similar jobs and Paar said he began to feel like a relief pitcher on a baseball team -- wondering whether he ever would win recognition as a personality in his own right.
His big break came on July 29, 1957, when he took over the "Tonight" show and turned it into one of the biggest attractions in television.
Paar was also the author of several books, including "Three on a Toothbrush" and "PS Jack Paar."