Edward Vincent “Ed” Sullivan, September 28, 1901 – October 13, 1974, was a US entertainment writer and television host, best known as the presenter of the television variety program The Toast of the Town, now usually remembered under its second name, The Ed Sullivan Show. Broadcast for 23 years from 1948 to 1971, it set a record for long-running variety show in US broadcast history.
In 1996, Ed Sullivan was ranked No. 50 on TV Guide’s “50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time”.
Sullivan was born in Harlem, New York, the son of Elizabeth F. (née Smith) and Peter Arthur Sullivan, a customs house employee. He was of Irish descent. A former boxer, Sullivan began his media work as a newspaper sportswriter for The New York Evening Graphic. When Walter Winchell, one of the original gossip columnists and the most powerful entertainment reporter of his day, left the newspaper for the Hearst syndicate, Sullivan took over as theater columnist. His theater column was later carried in The New York Daily News. His column, ‘Little Old New York’, concentrated on Broadway shows and gossip, as Winchell’s had and, like Winchell, he also did show business news broadcasts on radio. Again echoing Winchell, Sullivan took on yet another medium in 1933 by writing and starring in the film Mr. Broadway, which has him guiding the audience around New York nightspots to meet entertainers and celebrities. Sullivan soon became a powerful starmaker in the entertainment world himself, becoming one of Winchell’s main rivals, setting the El Morocco nightclub in New York as his unofficial headquarters against Winchell’s seat of power at the nearby Stork Club. Sullivan continued writing for The News throughout his broadcasting career and his popularity long outlived that of Winchell.
In 1948, the CBS network hired Sullivan to do a weekly Sunday night TV variety show, Toast of the Town, which later became The Ed Sullivan Show. Debuting in June 1948, the show was broadcast from CBS Studio 50, at 1697 Broadway (at 53rd Street) in New York City, which in 1967 was renamed the Ed Sullivan Theater (and is now the home of the Late Show with David Letterman).
Television critics gave the new show and its host poor reviews. Harriet Van Horne alleged that “he got where he is not by having a personality, but by having no personality.” The host wrote to the critic, “Dear Miss Van Horne: You bitch. Sincerely, Ed Sullivan.” Sullivan had little acting ability; in 1967, 20 years after his show’s debut, Time magazine asked “What exactly is Ed Sullivan’s talent?” His mannerisms on camera were so awkward that some viewers believed the host suffered from Bell’s palsy. Time in 1955 stated that Sullivan resembled
a cigar-store Indian, the Cardiff Giant and a stone-faced monument just off the boat from Easter Island. He moves like a sleepwalker; his smile is that of a man sucking a lemon; his speech is frequently lost in a thicket of syntax; his eyes pop from their sockets or sink so deep in their bags that they seem to be peering up at the camera from the bottom of twin wells.
The magazine concluded, however, that “Yet, instead of frightening children, Ed Sullivan charms the whole family.”Sullivan appeared to the audience as an average guy who brought the great acts of show business to their home televisions. “Ed Sullivan will last”, comedian Fred Allen said, “as long as someone else has talent”, and frequent guest Alan King said “Ed does nothing, but he does it better than anyone else in television.” He had a newspaperman’s instinct for what the public wanted, and programmed his variety hours with remarkable balance. There was something for everyone. A typical show would feature a vaudeville act (acrobats, jugglers, magicians, etc.), one or two popular comedians, a singing star, a hot jukebox favorite, a figure from the legitimate theater, and for the kids, a visit with puppet “Topo Gigio, the little Italian mouse”, or a popular athlete. The bill was often international in scope, with many European performers augmenting the American artists
Sullivan had a healthy sense of humor about himself and permitted—even encouraged—impersonators such as John Byner, Frank Gorshin, Rich Little and especially Will Jordan to imitate him on his show. Johnny Carson also did a fair impression, and even Joan Rivers imitated Sullivan’s unique posture. The impressionists exaggerated his stiffness, raised shoulders, and nasal tenor phrasing, along with some of his commonly used introductions, such as “And now, right here on our stage…”, “For all you youngsters out there…”, and “a really big shew” (his pronunciation of the word “show”). Will Jordan portrayed Sullivan in the films I Wanna Hold Your Hand, The Buddy Holly Story, The Doors, Mr. Saturday Night, Down with Love, and in the 1979 TV movie Elvis.
In 1963, Ed Sullivan appeared as himself in the film Bye Bye Birdie.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Sullivan was a respected starmaker because of the number of performers that became household names after appearing on the show. He had a knack for identifying and promoting top talent and paid a great deal of money to secure that talent for his show.
When Elvis Presley became popular, Sullivan was wary of the singer’s bad-boy style and said that he would never invite Presley on his program. However, Presley became too big a name to ignore, and Sullivan scheduled him to appear on September 9, 1956. In August, however, Sullivan was injured in an automobile accident that occurred near his country home in Southbury, Connecticut. Sullivan had to take a medical leave from the series and missed Presley’s appearance. Charles Laughton wound up introducing Presley on the Sullivan hour. After Sullivan got to know Presley personally, he made amends by telling his audience, “This is a real decent, fine boy.”
Sullivan’s failure to scoop the TV industry with Presley made him determined to get the next big sensation first. In 1964, he achieved that with the first live American appearance of The Beatles, on February 9, 1964, the most-watched program in TV history to that point and still one of the most-watched programs of all time. The Beatles appeared three more times on the Sullivan show in person, and submitted filmed performances later. Sullivan struck up such a rapport with the Beatles that he agreed to introduce them at their momentous Shea Stadium concert on August 15, 1965. The Dave Clark Five, heavily promoted as having a “cleaner” image than the Beatles, made 13 appearances on the Sullivan show, more than any other UK group.
Unlike many shows of the time, Sullivan asked that most musical acts perform their music live, rather than lip-synching to their recordings. Some of these performances have recently been issued on CD. Examination of performances show that exceptions were made, as when a microphone could not be placed close enough to a performer for technical reasons. An example was B.J. Thomas’ 1969 performance of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”, in which actual water was sprinkled on him as a special effect. In 1969, Sullivan presented the Jackson 5 with their first single “I Want You Back”, which ousted the B. J. Thomas song from the top spot of Billboard’s pop charts.
Sullivan appreciated African American talent. He paid for the funeral of dancer Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson out of his own pocket. He also defied pressure to exclude African American musicians from appearing on his show. One of Sullivan’s favorite and most frequent acts was The Supremes, who appeared 17 times on the show, helping to pave the way for other Motown acts to appear on the show such as The Temptations, the Four Tops, and Martha and the Vandellas.
At a time when television had not yet embraced country and Western music, Sullivan was adamant about featuring Nashville performers on his program. This insistence paved the way for shows such as Hee Haw and variety shows hosted by country singers like Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell.
The act that appeared most frequently through the show’s run was the Canadian comedy duo of Wayne & Shuster, making 67 appearances between 1958 and 1969.
Sullivan also appeared as himself on other television programs, including an April 1958 episode of the Howard Duff and Ida Lupino CBS sitcom, Mr. Adams and Eve. On September 14, 1958 Sullivan appeared on What’s My Line? as a mystery guest, and showed his comedic side by donning a rubber mask. In 1961, Sullivan was asked by CBS to fill in for an ailing Red Skelton on The Red Skelton Show. Sullivan took Skelton’s roles in the various comedy sketches; Skelton’s hobo character “Freddie the Freeloader” was renamed “Eddie the Freeloader.”
There was another side to Sullivan: he could be very quick to take offense if he felt he had been crossed, and could hold a grudge for a long time. This could sometimes be seen as a part of his TV personality. Jackie Mason, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, and The Doors became intimately familiar with Sullivan’s negative side.
On November 20, 1955, Bo Diddley was asked by Sullivan to sing Tennessee Ernie Ford’s hit “Sixteen Tons”. Diddley sensed the choice of song would end his career then and there, and instead sang his No. 1 hit “Bo Diddley”. He was banned from the show.
Buddy Holly and the Crickets had first appeared on the Sullivan show in 1957, singing two songs and making a favorable impression on Sullivan. He invited the band to make another appearance in January 1958. Sullivan thought their record hit “Oh, Boy!” was too raucous and ordered Holly to substitute another song. Holly had already told his hometown friends in Texas that he would be singing “Oh, Boy!” for them, and told Sullivan as much. Sullivan was unaccustomed to having his instructions disobeyed. When the band was summoned to the rehearsal stage on short notice, only Holly was in their dressing room. Sullivan said, “I guess The Crickets are not too excited to be on The Ed Sullivan Show,” to which Holly, still annoyed by Sullivan’s attitude, replied, “I hope they’re damn more excited than I am.” Sullivan, already bothered by the choice of songs, was now even angrier. He cut the Crickets’ act from two songs to one, and when introducing them mispronounced Holly’s name, so it came out vaguely as “Buddy Hollett.” In addition, Sullivan saw to it that the microphone for Holly’s electric guitar was turned off. Holly tried to compensate by singing as loudly as he could. The band was received so well that Sullivan was forced to invite them back for a third appearance. Holly’s response was that Sullivan did not have enough money. Footage of the performance survives; photographs taken that day show Sullivan looking angry and Holly smirking and perhaps ignoring Sullivan.
In 1963, Bob Dylan was set to appear on the show, but network censors rejected the song he wanted to perform, “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”, as potentially libelous to the John Birch Society. Refusing to perform a different song, Dylan walked off the set at dress rehearsal. Sullivan, who had approved the song at a previous rehearsal, backed Dylan’s decision. The incident resulted in accusations against the network of engaging in censorship. This was not the first incident of apparent network censorship on Sullivan’s show. In 1956, Sullivan flew to Europe and was able to film an interview with Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner, and Helen Hayes on the set of the film Anastasia. When he arrived home, Sullivan learned he would not be able to air the Bergman material from it.
Jackie Mason was banned from the series in October 1964 (the ban was removed a year and a half later, and Mason made his final appearance on the show). During a taping of Mason’s monologue Sullivan, off camera, gestured that Mason should wrap things up by giving him two fingers, meaning “two minutes left”, as the show was suddenly shown live following an abbreviated address by President Lyndon Johnson, which was expected to preempt the entire show. Sullivan’s two fingers distracted the audience, and so to television viewers, who could not see Ed’s hand, it seemed as though Mason’s jokes were falling flat. Mason, in a bid to get the audience’s attention back, cried, “I’m getting two fingers here!” and made his own frantic hand gesture: “Here’s a finger for you!” Videotapes of the incident are inconclusive as to whether Mason’s upswept hand was intended to be an indecent gesture (as Mason’s fingers are just barely off-camera), but Sullivan’s body language immediately afterward made it clear that he was convinced of it, despite Mason’s panic-stricken denials later, claiming that he did not know what the “middle finger” meant, and that he did not make the gesture anyways. Sullivan later invited Mason back for a return engagement, but the notoriety of the “finger” incident lingered with the studio audience.
When The Byrds performed on December 12, 1965, David Crosby got into a shouting match with the show’s director. They were never asked to return.
On January 15, 1967 The Rolling Stones were told to change the chorus of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s spend some time together”. Lead singer Mick Jagger complied, but deliberately called attention to this censorship by rolling his eyes and mugging when he uttered the new words. Michael Uslan and Bruce Solomon claim that when Sullivan asked the group back for a second appearance, he asked them to wear matching suits “for a cleaner look,” but that the Stones in response “showed up for the show in rental Nazi uniforms.” Reportedly, “Sullivan threw a fit” at this, and the group changed back their clothes for the actual telecast. Uslan and Solomon do not mention at what date this transpired, but the only time when the Stones appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show following the “Let’s Spend the Night Together” episode was on November 23, 1969.
The Doors were banned on September 17, 1967 after they were asked to remove the lyric “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher” from their song “Light My Fire” (CBS censors believed that it was too overt a reference to drug use). The band was asked to change the lyric to “girl we couldn’t get much better”. Morrison sang the original lyric.
Moe Howard of the Three Stooges recalled in 1975 that Sullivan had a memory problem of sorts: “Ed was a very nice man, but for a showman, quite forgetful. On our first appearance, he introduced us as the Three Ritz Brothers. He got out of it by adding, ‘who look more like the Three Stooges to me’.” Joe DeRita, who worked with the Stooges after 1959, had commented that Sullivan had a personality “like the bottom of a bird cage.”
Diana Ross later recalled Sullivan’s forgetfulness during the many occasions The Supremes performed on his show. In a 1995 appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman (which is filmed in Ed Sullivan Theater), Ross stated, “he could never remember our names. He called us ‘the girls’.”
In a 1990 press conference Paul McCartney recalled meeting Sullivan again in the early 1970s. Sullivan apparently had no idea who McCartney was. McCartney tried to remind Sullivan that he was one of The Beatles but Sullivan obviously could not remember and, nodding and smiling, simply shook McCartney’s hand and left. In an interview with Howard Stern around 2012, Joan Rivers said that Sullivan had been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease toward the end of his life.
Sullivan, like many American entertainers, was pulled into the Cold War fervor of the late 1940s and 1950s. In 1949, Sullivan booked dancer Paul Draper to appear on Toast of the Town. However, Draper’s scheduled appearance in January 1950 was met with opposition from Hester McCullough, a woman who involved herself in the hunt for subversives. McCullough accused Draper of sympathizing with the Communist Party, and although Draper denied the accusation, McCullough demanded that Sullivan’s lead sponsor, the Ford Motor Company, cancel Draper’s appearance. Despite McCullough’s protest, Draper was a guest on Toast of the Town, as was originally scheduled. After the program was broadcast, Ford received over a thousand angry letters and telegrams in response to Draper’s appearance. Consequently, Sullivan was obliged to write a letter of apology to Ford’s advertising agency, Kenyon & Eckhardt, promising to never again move forward with such a controversial guest. Meanwhile, Draper was forced to move to Europe to earn a living.
Another guest who never appeared on the show because of the controversy surrounding him was legendary black singer-actor Paul Robeson, who, at the time of the Draper incident, was undergoing his own troubles with the US entertainment industry’s hunt for Communist sympathizers.
After the Draper incident, Sullivan began to work closely with Theodore Kirkpatrick of the anti-communist Counterattack newsletter. Sullivan would check with Kirkpatrick if a potential guest had some “explaining to do” about his or her politics. Sullivan wrote in his June 21, 1950 New York Daily News column that “Kirkpatrick has sat in my living room on several occasions and listened attentively to performers eager to secure a certification of loyalty.” Jerome Robbins, in his PBS American Experience biography, claimed that he was forced to capitulate to the House Un-American Activities Committee, identifying eight Communist sympathizers and disgracing himself among his fellow artists, allegedly because Sullivan threatened to reveal Robbins’s homosexuality to the public.
Sullivan was engaged to champion swimmer Sybil Bauer, but she died of cancer in 1927 at the age of 23. He was married to the former Sylvia Weinstein from April 28, 1930, until her death on March 16, 1973. On December 22, 1930 their daughter, Betty Sullivan (who later married the Ed Sullivan Show’s producer, Bob Precht), was born. Sullivan was in the habit of calling Sylvia after every program to get her immediate critique.
In the fall of 1965, CBS began televising the weekly programs in color. Although the Sullivan show was seen live in the Central and Eastern time zones, it was taped for airing in the Pacific and Mountain time zones. Most of the taped programs (as well as some early kinescopes) were preserved, and excerpts have been released on home video.
By 1971, the show’s ratings had plummeted. In an effort to refresh their lineup, CBS cancelled the program along with some of its other longtime shows. Sullivan was angered by this so greatly that he refused to do a final show, although he remained with the network in various other capacities and hosted a 25th anniversary special in 1973.
In early September 1974, X-rays revealed that Sullivan had advanced esophageal cancer. Only his family was told, however, and as the doctors gave Sullivan very little time, the family chose to keep the diagnosis from him. Sullivan, still believing his ailment to be yet another complication from a long-standing battle with ulcers, died five weeks later, on October 13, 1974, at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital. His funeral was attended by 3,000 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York on a cold, rainy day. Sullivan is interred in a crypt at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
Sullivan has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6101 Hollywood Blvd.
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