Like John Travolta’s white suit, Tom Snyder became a defining icon of his time.
You think of the late 1970s and one of the images is Snyder on NBC’s late-night “Tomorrow” show, waving his cigarette while he bantered with the likes of John Lennon or Charles Manson and recounted the news of the day.
His style was informal, almost casual, but he had a voice and presence that could take over the unadorned room where he did his work.
He also had a laugh that could occasionally scare small children, and that laugh moved from an identifying trait to a national signature when Dan Aykroyd amplified it for a Snyder character on the fledgling “Saturday Night Live.”
Aykroyd’s Snyder laugh was too loud, inappropriate and unforgettable, which is why, today, Aykroyd’s Snyder as well known as Snyder’s Snyder.
For the record, Snyder said he loved the Aykroyd character, too.
By the time Snyder died Sunday at the age of 71 from complications of the leukemia with which he was diagnosed two years ago, he had faded from public view.
But he was an important news figure from a time when an interesting person would pop up on TV just because he or she was interesting, and for 30 or 60 minutes that person and Snyder would chat.
“A great interview,” Snyder said, “is a conversation in which you keep your mouth shut and the subject tells the story.”
Snyder could do that. At the same time, he was not the invisible man. If he didn’t make himself part of the story, he put his signature on interviews, which led many folks in the medium to consider him something of a self-promoter.
He was certainly upwardly mobile. Born in Milwaukee, he dropped out of med school to become a radio reporter and he had worked his way up to TV news in Los Angeles when he was tapped by NBC to host the cleverly named “Tomorrow” show that followed Johnny Carson’s “Tonight.”
When “Tomorrow” moved to New York in 1974, so did Snyder, and from 1974 to 1977 he also hosted NBC’s local NewsCenter 4.
NBC canceled “Tomorrow” in January 1982, to launch a new late-night show with a guy named David Letterman, and later that year Snyder returned to local New York news.
By the late 1980s he was back in radio, doing a syndicated talk/interview/call-in show. Some fans thought radio was his best medium, and he said he was perfectly happy there.
Still, he had one more run with television. In 1995, Letterman brought him in to host “The Late Late Show” following Letterman’s own show on CBS.
This was widely seen as a thank-you, since Letterman had always been a Snyder fan, and Snyder delivered what Letterman and others used to love: extended interviews in conversational style, just now with a little less cigarette smoke.
Snyder hosted “The Late Late Show” from January 1995 to March 1999, when Craig Kilborn took over, and this last lap served as a kind of answer to people who 20 years earlier saw Snyder as a man whose agenda was to become some combination of William Paley, Walter Cronkite and General Patton and rule the news world.
Snyder knew all about that image. He said he found it amusing. The real Tom Snyder, he said, was just a guy with a passion for stories and a talent for getting people to talk about them or delivering them himself.
“I read stories out loud. That’s basically what I do,” he said in 1982 when he was coming back to local news in New York. “And if I may be immodest, there aren’t all that many of us who do it well.”
During that same interview, 25 years ago, he lamented the softening of news - the sacrifice of hard, important information for meaningless celebrity trivia.
Specifically, he charged NBC had wrecked “Tomorrow” with a sweeping September 1980 makeover that fluffed it up with elements like a Rona Barrett gossip segment.
Snyder added that he was equally annoyed at himself for tolerating it.
“News was never intended to be a three-ring circus,” he said. “It was a terrible mistake for all of us. I shouldn’t have gone along with it, but I did.
“We were a successful show right up until then. We could have gone on forever - like Ted Koppel (of ABC’s “Nightline”), just delivering good solid basic journalism.”
Snyder was not the first journalist to register this complaint, nor will he be the last, and it seems safe to speculate he might like to be remembered as an old-school journalist, a man who delivered information.
Maybe he’ll get his wish.
But he’ll also be remembered for his style, for being a TV newsman who at times seemed bigger than the room and whose mannerisms were so widely recognized that the real Snyder sometimes played like a caricature of himself.
The late 1970s, widely ridiculed even as they were unfolding, today evoke something closer to mild, even affectionate bemusement. At some point, the statute of limitations runs out even on polyester bellbottoms.
But like any era, it keeps its touchstones - and Tom Snyder was one of them, as surely as the white suit.
The Clash - Magnificent Seven - Tom Synder Show 1981
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