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

Jul 26, 2012

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.

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img width="450" height="300" src="http://www.tvweek.com/blogs/assets_c/2012/07/tom snyder and friends-thumb-450x300-3686.jpg" style="text-align: center; margin: 0px auto 20px; display: block;" alt="tom snyder and friends.jpg" class="mt-image-center" />

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.

26 Comments

  1. Great work, Michael, thank you for sharing. I was and am a huge fan of Tom. Miss him to this day. Thought he was not only an incredible interviewer, from “Tomorrow” to his CNBC show to his CBS show, but also an incredible newsman. I will never forget his coverage of the Eastern Airlines crash in ’75 — where I really got to see his professionalism and his humanity. If he were alive today and I was in programming at a news channel, I’d pair him with someone somewhat similar to him who also left us too soon, Mark Haines, and I’d put real martinis in their hands on-air.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful rememberence of a guy who truly deserves it. I remember the first time I saw Tom Snyder on TV. I was in my early twenties, and I happened upon CNBC where I saw Tom interviewing rapper Ice-T. “Who’s this old guy interviewing Ice-T?” I thought. I was sure he would be shaking his finger at Ice-T, telling him what a bad influence he was on the poor children. Instead, I was immediately struck by Tom’s intelligence, honesty, an humor. A true give and take interview ensued, and I was hooked on Tom Synder for life. I watched him whenever I had the time, on whatever channel he happened to be on, and was never disappointed. TV and America truly lost something when we lost him. I can only hope he has moved on to a better place, where every late night he can still fire up the colortini and watch the pictures as they fly through the air…

  3. Nice article. I interned for Tom Snyder at CNBC. I remember CZ, the producer and author of this piece. By coincidence, just yesterday I attended a Late Late Show taping in studio 58 in TV City, and yesterday was the show’s final day of taping in that studio (they are moving to a new studio across the hall). I noted while I was there the side walls still contain the skyline Snyder used as host of the show.
    If I’m honest, Tom Snyder was more of a role model to me than my own father. He valued honesty and loyalty, and he seemed to stand for something. He treated everybody with respect, even those who openly disrespected him.
    There probably aren’t many people who have the chance to meet someone they genuinely look up to, and there are probably fewer still who have the chance to work for such a person. I feel privileged to have done both.
    To paraphrase the man himself: There was a time in history when Tom Snyder did not exist, and sadly that time is upon us again; how fortunate were those of us who lived in his time.

  4. Loved Snyder, loved the article – stories of a great newsman from a great producer.

  5. I am amazed nobody ever wrote a biography on Tom Snyder – hopefully down the line someone will!-)

  6. I WILL, I WILL !!!
    I would love to write, or ghost write, a book about one of my broadcasting heroes.
    If Michael Horowicz, or anyone else, would be willing to help me than please drop me a note at overnightjoe@gmail.com
    Great article Micheal! I have spent half my life working overnights in broadcasting. I use to board op Tom’s ABC radio show. Later on I was responsable for making sure Upstate NY saw The Late Late Show. I really miss him!
    I will never forget all the times off air (And on.) that Tom thanked all the people at the local levels for keeping him on the air. A true gentlemen that IS missed.

  7. hi, great stories of a great man. miss him every time i see what is left in his wake. i had a brush w/ his greatness way back in ’78. i was in LA visiting a friend. we had tix to see Johnny Carson. after the show, my buddy and i stayed in our seats because there was some activity over by the band area. turns out it was the setup for the minimalist Tomorrow Show set. couple of chairs and palm trees. we befriended a cameraperson and were given a tour. afterward, he said “i’ve got to go. stick around. just look like you belong.” we tried that. it worked. as we were watching palm trees being positioned, we heard the heartfelt laugh of the one and only. we walked in that direction. behind the set were a few folks sitting at a table playing poker. we cozied up behind Tom and watched. one guy said “i’m putting in my check.” i was taken aback until Tom picked it up. it was an NBC check for 15 cents. Tom let out one of those primal laughs that makes me smile just thinking about it. rest in peace, Tom. thank you for your passion…..to Mr. Horowicz…i don’t know who put together the David Steinberg/Bonnie Hunt apres Oscars shows with Tom, but that was genius. i love to watch masters who fly without a script or a net. those should be put out on DVD.

  8. Yes!! I would own definitely own a set of Tom Snyder programs on DVD. Make it so!

  9. To really understand Tom Snyder’s appeal and influence….I was up to watch the Ramones on Tomorrow one night, and it was a guest host. And Joey Ramone says…”I feel kids gypped Tom isn’t here”.
    It wasn’t just the audience that wanted to see Tom Snyder, the guests wanted to be interviewed by him, because they got a fair shake.

  10. Excellent and nostalgic piece. Loved Tom. In a strange way, he made me relax while watching him … maybe it’s because I believed that what we were seeing was exactly what he was. Write a bio. Make some DVD’s. My money’s on the table.

  11. like Justin responded I’m in shock that some people able to earn $9740 in 1 month on the computer. have you read this webpage (Click on menu Home more information) http://goo.gl/dFrqO

  12. Great piece, Michael! Thanks for sharing…

  13. great to read this, michael. happy birthday yourself; it’s always a good day to remember and celebrate tom.

  14. A very touching tribute. The late night “pictures flying through the air” haven’t been the same without him!

  15. I go further back with my Tom Snyder memories-back to when he worked for KYW in Philadelphia. The prototype for Tomorrow and the Late Late Show was Toms Snyder and the Wave Machine, a Saturday night interview show that featured Tom and guests in a conversation pit with an infinity background-even the RCA TK42 cameras were draped in black!
    I didn’t see this but I did read an article in a Philadelphia publication about the time Tom was interviewing a local politician live on air. He asked a very pointed question of the man, one for which answering would be embarrassing. The pol didn’t answer, so Tom just sat there looking at the man. They sat there in silence for about 45 seconds before the guy finally said something. Who else would have the guts to sit silent on air for that long?

  16. Thanks Chuck for taking us back to better days. Right after Tom left WABC, he moved back to LA and worked at KABC doing a daytime talk show. Oprah had just launched on WLS, and the powers that be thought Tom might be a sucess like Oprah. We all know how that worked out. It was my job to produce the promos for his new show. The first day we met in his office he pointed to a poster on the wall of a print campaign from New York. “Whatever you do, don’t use these lines. It killed me in New York.” We went on to talk about Tomorrow. I had been a big fan of the show duirng college. Never missed it. I told him how one day I was inspired to write a fan letter about the interview he did with Hitchcock. At the time I hoped me might take notice and send me back a little note of some kind. Maybe a photo, or a Tomorrow tee shirt. Do you know what I got? “Zippo! Nothing!” He howled with laughter at this story. He threw his head back and laughed hard like we’ve all seen him do a hundred times. Then he put his arm around me and said he hoped I would not hold it against him when cutting his promos. You kidding me?! I was working with Tom Synder! It was the coolest thing I could think of. He called me Zippo the rest of the time we worked together. “Zippo! How you doing?!” Then he’d chuckle. He wss quite a guy.

  17. I loved, loved loved Tom Snyder. Back in the days before TIVO and DVRs, I was often late to jobs, but I didn’t care because I learned so much every time I watched him. Doe anyone remember when he used to have Robert Blake on? It was always terrific TV.

  18. In the mischief category, I heard third hand that when Snyder was anchoring the news at KNBC he delighted in saying things like “I really have to urinate” w/in seconds of being given the clear signal, just to keep the audio operators on their toes.

  19. I watched his interviews with Robert Blake the other day on Youtube. Be brought the best out of his subjects and let them be themselves at the same time.

  20. So Tom Snide was “hip and cool and cutting-edge,eh?” When the “Ugly George Hour Of Truth,Sex & Violence” hit NYC-cableTV in late 1976, this Reality-TV show about picking up girls & video-ing them nude shot to the top, capturing 66% of cable viewers. Not only the NYC press, but the global press started to interview UG. One who did NOT was the phony-liberal Snide. He and UG would run into each other at many events, and he would make the classic phony-lib fob-off that ‘his bosses wouldn’t let him do it’. So Mike Horowicz must have been the ‘Bible-Belt fundamentalist Christian prude’ holding back Snide from jumping on the Hipster Bandwagon, right?

  21. Thank you Michael for this rememberance. I live in Columbus, OH but grew up in NYC and would watch Tom on WNBC-TV. The one thing I always remember about Tom was his camera presence. His connection with the camera whether reporting the news, or interviewing others as on “Tomorrow.” was unbelievable. He was talking right to you. I use him as an example when advising people of how to do video’s for their online work – just watch a clip of him on YouTube to see what his presence was like. You probably had the time of your life working with him. Great rememberance.

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  26. I’ve been desperately trying to get a copy of the November 7th 1997 episode with Ice T.I managed to get through but was so flustered I called Ice Mr. T!We went on to have a great conversation about censorship.I’ve been writing again and my editor has asked me to track down all my media appearances,this was the only voluntary one.Any help would be appreciated.

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