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A Look at Steve Allen's Career Illuminates Today's Late-Night TV

IT'S late at night and David Letterman is doing something outrageous again. In the middle of his TV show he's walking off the set and out of the studio.

Cameras follow his errant path through the halls, out onto the pavement, and over to a huge pothole on New York's West 53rd Street. In a symbolic gesture of protest, he sticks his cue cards from that evening's monologue into the hole to help fill it.

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When this happened last week on CBS's ``Late Show With David Letterman,'' it surprised no one. It was the kind real-life spontaneity for which Letterman is known, the act of a self-possessed comic who makes the medium a tool of his own creatively eccentric personality. Stunts like that help explain why Letterman is doing so well against his more predictable, micro-managed late-night competition.

Many viewers of that quirky incident may not realize that such antics - and the form of TV they represent - are the legacy of a man who preceded Letterman as a late-night host by about 40 years, and whose style is still powerfully felt in today's late-night TV scene.

The man is Steve Allen, the first host of NBC's ``Tonight!'', founding genius of the wee-hours talk-variety format, a performer whose influence Letterman acknowledges without hesitation. The closest today's viewers can come to re-experiencing Allen's brilliance in that format may be to watch ``Hi-Ho Steverino,'' an edition of ``Biography'' airing on A&E on Friday, Aug. 12, 8-9 p.m.

The program mixes old clips with interviews, including a running narrative by Allen himself. It lets commentators analyze Allen's career, and it has the host of ``Biography,'' Jack Perkins, fill in the gaps with his own narration. We also get lots of footage from Allen's lunatic prime-time comedy shows and admiring reminiscences from the many performers Allen launched.

But the most electric moments on the program are the grainy snatches from the premiere of ``Tonight!'', showing Allen as he first faced the late-night TV audience knowing that a huge block of network time depended largely on his own personal command and inventiveness. You can feel the man's intelligence, wit, decency, and originality. ``I want to give you the bad news first,'' he said in the premiere show on Sept. 27, 1954. ``This show is going to go on forever. You think you're tired now. Wait 'til 1 o'clock rolls around.... This studio sleeps about 800 people.''

You will also see clips of Allen walking downstairs and out to New York's jazz club, Birdland, speaking to the hat-check woman, sitting at the piano next to Count Basie and playing with him: Allen, a musician and composer, wrote a ridiculous number of songs - about 4,700, including a number of hits.

Mini-expeditions beyond the studio were classic Allen - taking cameras on the street when the idea was novel and when the medium still allowed for that kind of innovation. It called for a host with versatility, control, and well-justified self-confidence.

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That approach to talk shows is still effective when a talent like Letterman comes along who can pull it off. A program like this edition of ``Biography'' makes plain where it all started.

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