Smothers Brothers Member Tom Smothers Dies at 86

Tom Smothers, half of the Smothers Brothers and the co-host of one of the most 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 Wednesday statement 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. I am forever grateful to have spent a lifetime together with him, on and off stage, for over 60 years,” 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.


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The show 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. It reached No. 16 in the ratings in its first season.

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

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.”

Smothers was awarded an honorary Emmy for his work on the show in 2008.

Did you watch “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”?

Thomas Bolyn Smothers III was born Feb. 2, 1937, on Governors Island, New York, where his father, an Army 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.

Before the show’s debut, the pair had seemed unlikely to make television history.

They had spent the previous 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.


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

Among the writing crew that Smothers headed were future actor-producer Rob Reiner, musician Mason Williams and comedian Steve Martin, who presented Smothers with the lifetime Emmy in 2008. Regular musical guests included John Hartford, Glen Campbell and Jennifer Warnes.

The brothers had begun their act when Tom, then a student at San Jose State University, formed a music group called the Casual Quintet and encouraged his younger brother to learn the bass and join.

The brothers continued as a duo after the other musicians dropped out, but because their folk music repertoire was limited, they began to intersperse it with comedy.

Their big break came in 1959 when they appeared at San Francisco’s Purple Onion, then a hot spot for new talent. Booked for two weeks, they stayed a record 36.

At New York’s Blue Angel, they won praise from The New York Times, which described them as “a pair of tart-tongued singing comedians.” But to their disappointment, they couldn’t get on “The Tonight Show,” then hosted by Jack Paar.

“Paar kept telling our agent he didn’t like folk singers — except for Burl Ives,” Smothers told The Associated Press in 1964. “But one night he had a cancellation, and we went on. Everything worked right that night.”

The brothers went on to appear on the TV shows of Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan, Garry Moore, Andy Williams, Jack Benny and Judy Garland. Their comedy albums were big sellers and they toured the country.

Television first came calling in 1965 with “The Smothers Brothers Show,” a sitcom about a businessman (Dick) who is haunted by his late brother (Tom), a fledgling guardian angel. It lasted just one season.

Shortly after CBS canceled the “Comedy Hour,” ABC picked it up as a summer replacement but didn’t bring it back in the fall. NBC gave them a show in 1975, but it failed to find an audience and lasted only a season.

The brothers went their separate ways for a time in the 1970s. Among other endeavors, Smothers got into the wine business, launching Remick Ridge Vineyards in Northern California’s wine country.

He and his brother eventually reunited to star in the musical comedy “I Love My Wife,” a hit that ran on Broadway for two years. After that they went back on the road, remaining popular for decades.

After a successful 20th anniversary “Comedy Hour” in 1988, CBS buried the hatchet and brought them back. As with the 1970 and 1975 shows, however, the magic seemed to be missing this time and the show was quickly canceled.

Smothers married three times and had three children. He is survived by his wife Marie, children Bo and Riley Rose, and brother Dick, in addition to other relatives. He was predeceased by his son Tom and sister Sherry.

The Western Journal has reviewed this Associated Press story and may have altered it prior to publication to ensure that it meets our editorial standards.

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