ENTERTAINMENT NEWS

Comedian Tom Smothers, half of the Smothers Brothers, dies at 86

Dec 27, 2023, 10:31 AM | Updated: 10:32 am

Image: Writer/actor Tom Smothers accepts a commemorative writing achievement for "The Smothers Brot...

Writer/actor Tom Smothers accepts a commemorative writing achievement for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" during the 60th Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles on Sept. 21, 2008. (Photo: Kevin Winter, Getty Images)

(Photo: Kevin Winter, Getty Images)

Tom Smothers, half of the Smothers Brothers and the co-host of one of the most socially conscious and groundbreaking television shows in the history of the medium, has died at 86.

The National Comedy Center, on behalf of his family, said in a statement Wednesday that Smothers died Tuesday at home in Santa Rosa, California, following a cancer battle.

“Tom was not only the loving older brother that everyone would want in their life, he was a one-of-a-kind creative partner,” his brother and the duo’s other half, Dick Smothers, said in the statement. “Our relationship was like a good marriage — the longer we were together, the more we loved and respected one another. We were truly blessed.”

When “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” debuted on CBS in the fall of 1967 it was an immediate hit, to the surprise of many who had assumed the network’s expectations were so low it positioned their show opposite the top-rated “Bonanza.”

But the Smothers Brothers would prove a turning point in television history, with its sharp eye for pop culture trends and young rock stars such as the Who and Buffalo Springfield, and its daring sketches — ridiculing the Establishment, railing against the Vietnam War and portraying members of the era’s hippie counterculture as gentle, fun-loving spirits — found an immediate audience with young baby boomers. The show reached No. 16 in the ratings in its first season.

It also drew the ire of network censors. After years of battling with the brothers over the show’s creative content, the network abruptly canceled the program in 1970, accusing the siblings of failing to submit an episode in time for the censors to review.

Nearly 40 years later, when Smothers was awarded an honorary Emmy for his work on the show, he jokingly thanked the writers he said had gotten him fired. He also showed that the years had not dulled his outspokenness.

“It’s hard for me to stay silent when I keep hearing that peace is only attainable through war,” Smothers said at the 2008 Emmy Awards as his brother sat in the audience, beaming. He dedicated his award to those “who feel compelled to speak out and are not afraid to speak to power and won’t shut up and refuse to be silenced.”

During the three years the show was on television, the brothers constantly battled with CBS censors and occasionally outraged viewers as well, particularly when Smothers joked that Easter “is when Jesus comes out of his tomb and if he sees his shadow, he goes back in and we get six more weeks of winter.” At Christmas, when other hosts were sending best wishes to soldiers fighting overseas, Smothers offered his to draft dodgers who had moved to Canada.

In still another episode, the brothers returned blacklisted folk singer Pete Seeger to television for the first time in years. He performed his song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” widely viewed as ridiculing President Lyndon Johnson. When CBS refused to air the segment, the brothers brought Seeger back for another episode and he sang it again. This time, it made the air.

After the show was canceled, the brothers sued CBS for $31 million and were awarded $775,000. Their battles with the network were chronicled in the 2002 documentary “Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”

“Tom Smothers was not only an extraordinary comedic talent, who, together with his brother Dick, became the most enduring comedy duo in history, entertaining the world for over six decades — but was a true champion for freedom of speech, harnessing the power of comedy to push boundaries and our political consciousness,” National Comedy Center Executive Director Journey Gunderson said in a statement.

Thomas Bolyn Smothers III was born Feb. 2, 1937, on Governors Island, New York, where his father, a Navy major, was stationed. His brother was born two years later. In 1940 their father was transferred to the Philippines, and his wife, two sons and their sister, Sherry, accompanied him.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the family was sent home and Maj. Smothers remained. He was captured by the Japanese during the war and died in captivity. The family eventually moved to the Los Angeles suburb of Redondo Beach, where Smothers helped his mother take care of his brother and sister while she worked.

The brothers had seemed unlikely to make television history. They had spent several years on the nightclub and college circuits and doing TV guest appearances, honing an offbeat comedy routine that mixed folk music with a healthy dose of sibling rivalry.

They would come on stage, Tom with a guitar in hand and Dick toting an upright bass. They would quickly break into a traditional folk song — perhaps “John Henry” or “Pretoria.” After playing several bars, Tom, positioned as the dumb one, would mess up, then quickly claim he had meant to do that. As Dick, the serious, short-tempered one, berated him for failing to acknowledge his error, he would scream in exasperation, “Mom always liked you best!”

They continued that shtick on their show but also surrounded themselves with a talented cast of newcomers, both writers and performers.

Among the crack writing crew that Smothers headed were future actor-filmmaker Rob Reiner, musician Mason Williams and comedian Steve Martin, who presented Smothers with the lifetime Emmy. Regular musical guests included John Hartford, Glen Campbell and Jennifer Warnes.

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