A Fond Remembrance of Tom Snyder on the 5th Anniversary of His Death. A Larger Than Life Personality. A Favorite of Many, From Letterman to O'Reilly. He Appealed to 'the jokers and the smokers, the drinkers and the thinkers' Who Watch TV Late at Night
NOTE: This remembrance of Tom Snyder is by Michael Horowicz
Tom Snyder died on my birthday, July 29th, 2007, and I’m still pissed at him for that. Did he think I’d forget him? I was Tom’s producer at ABC, CBS and NBC. (We couldn’t hold a job.) He was the biggest single influence in my professional life.
Tom’s name has come up a lot lately. Most prominently, Bill O’Reilly is quoted in Douglas Brinkley’s new biography of Walter Cronkite as saying when he was growing up, Snyder was a bigger influence on him than Cronkite.
Tom was the greatest TV interviewer. From the first time I ever saw him on the "Tomorrow" show while doing my homework, he held me spellbound.
Tom’s spirit made a TV appearance earlier this month on CNN during Ashleigh Banfield’s now famous exchange with Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh. (“Ashleigh, Ashleigh, Ashleigh.” If you haven’t seen it, go to YouTube.) Banfield held her ground, didn’t get angry, and never got flustered. As I watched it, I thought Tom would’ve been proud of her. He would’ve handled the situation the same exact way. If he were still on the air, he would’ve phoned me and ordered Banfield to be booked on that night’s show.
Snyder would’ve thought Will McAvoy -- the news anchor portrayed by Jeff Daniels on the new HBO/Aaron Sorkin series “The Newsroom” -- was an asshole. Despite all of Tom’s pomposity, he genuinely wanted people to like him, unlike McAvoy. Tom would’ve watched one episode of “The Newsroom” and given up. He didn’t like to be reminded of work when he wasn’t working.
I first met Tom on Labor Day 1982, when he debuted as the anchor on WABC-TV’s 11 p.m. "Eyewitness News" and I was one of his young producers. His assignment was a bad fit from that very first day, when the newscast led with a story by Louis Young about dead gerbils in a pet store fire in Queens. To make matters worse, Lou had no b-roll, so I asked our courtroom sketch artist to drive in from the Hamptons to draw an artist’s conception of dead gerbils on the floor of a charred pet store. It seemed like a good idea at the time. In spite of it, Tom and I became fast friends.
Tom had an amazing ability to ad lib, which I saw firsthand on December 31st, 1982, when four bombs blew up in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, all between 10:30 and 11 p.m. It was the work of the FALN, the Puerto Rican terror group that demanded independence from the U.S. I couldn’t keep up with the changing details, and at 11 p.m. we had no script. Tom just said, “Mikey, don’t worry. Give me the latest wire copy and I’ll wing it.” That night, he gave an incredible performance.
But the very next night, Tom couldn’t bear the indignity of having to work New Year’s Eve AND New Year’s Day. When he came up from the studio back to the newsroom, Tom threw his script up in the air, kicked a trash can across the room and shouted, “Well, at least my FICA’s paid off for the year!”
Tom Snyder was great because he knew his audience well. He loved late-night. He said the late-night audience was made up of “the jokers and the smokers, the drinkers and the thinkers.” He respected the audience.
Tom demanded thorough pre-interview notes from all his producers, and then once on the air he would go off on a tangent no one could’ve predicted. When former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was doing his “mea culpa” book tour, Snyder chose to spend the entire segment asking him about his days running the Ford Motor Company. (“Mr. Secretary, tell me -- how’d you come up with the Ford Falcon?”) When I complained about not asking McNamara about Vietnam, Tom told me he’d already heard McNamara talk about that on other talk shows. “I’m not going over old ground,” he said. “I’d rather talk about Ford.” And so he did.
With Courtney Cox from “Friends,” Tom spent eight minutes talking about the challenges of renovating homes, which both of them were doing at the time. And he made it great television. If a guest was from Chicago, they’d talk about the steak at Gene and Georgetti. But somewhere in that roundabout way of conducting an interview, Tom would come up with gold. The night Dinah Shore died, Burt Reynolds broke down and confided in Tom that he always regretted not marrying her. Tom's Midwestern sincerity and hearty laugh got people to open up. And to Tom, “Mr. Brisket” was as good a guest as David Letterman.
Most of all, Tom loved mischief and to rebel against management. In a story he loved to tell over and over, Snyder was sent to Paris by NBC News during the Iran hostage crisis. He was told not to venture far from his suite at the George V Hotel because in a matter of days a top aide to the Ayatollah would come to Paris for an interview. Needless to say, the $10,000 cash advance he was given evaporated quickly while Tom wined and dined his fellow NBC staffers. So he called back to 30 Rock with a story. “I told them my room was robbed. They said, ‘What did they steal? The money?’ I said, ‘No -- the receipts!’ And it flew!” Within a few hours, the company wired him another ten grand. Note to Brian Williams, one of Tom’s biggest fans -- don’t try that now. The Comcast people probably won’t go for it.
When CBS executives agonized over what the set of “The Late Late Show” would look like, Tom got fed up and told them off. “Nobody ever left a Broadway show humming the set!!”
For years, Tom convinced WNBC weatherman Frank Field that the “network coffee” in the “Tomorrow” show offices at 30 Rock was better than the “local coffee” in the WNBC newsroom. Every afternoon, without fail, Frank visited his friend Tom and grabbed a cup of “network” coffee. Frank still swears it was better than the “local coffee.”
When we were based in L.A., every Thursday Tom would treat me to dinner at the Bel Air Country Club. It wasn’t because he liked me. Members had to spend $300 a month at the club’s restaurants whether they actually ate there or not. I didn’t complain. We’d be joined by other members such as Vin Scully, Jack Wagner, James Woods and Al Michaels, among others. The conversation was salty, and I never dared open my mouth.
Tom also loved dining at the old-time places, such Musso and Frank, The Smoke House in Burbank, The Grill on the Alley and Giambela’s in Manhattan. Once every six weeks or so we’d go to back to New York to do shows. Snyder was a nervous flyer and after landing we’d head straight for P.J. Clarke’s for a burger and a few adult beverages, and Regis Philbin, Kaity Tong, Andy Friendly or Spencer Christian would join us. I have no doubt that if he were alive today, Tom would be a regular at Fresco, and that special chopped salad that’s not on the menu would be his regular dish.
Those trips to New York were magical -- especially for Tom, once he discovered the suites at the Waldorf Towers. He stayed in the kind of apartment Hoover did when he left the White House. So they had to put me around the corner at the Waldorf, and I was happy too.
Anyone who has worked with Tom Snyder will tell you that every moment with him was a treasure. (Except on days he went to the dentist. On those days he was unbearable.) Now, whenever any one of us suffers a career setback, we console each other by saying, “Tom never would’ve let this happen.” He was as loyal to his staff as we were to him.
If you’ve ever been touched by an interview he did, on July 29th, make yourself an adult beverage and salute the master.
PJ Clarke's, New York, summer 1994. From left: Then NBC executive Andy Friendly, WPIX anchor (and one time Snyder co-anchor) Kaity Tong, WCBS-TV reporter Louis Young, producer Mike Horowicz (the author of this remembrance), Tom Snyder.