Back before the age of 24-hour cable news and stations dedicated entirely to single sports teams, television was a pretty barren medium dominated by the three major networks. At night, families would gather around the tube to watch early TV talk stars like Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, and Ed Sullivan.
While those early shows set the tone for late night shows to come, they weren’t limited to sketch comedy and celebrity promotional tours. Late night hosts occasionally took on hard news and featured interviews with the serious intelligentsia of the day. I show 10 of the most interesting early late night interviews where the hosts serve more as cultural curators than comedians.
Fidel Castro on The Ed Sullivan Show (1959)
Ed Sullivan launch questions at Fidel Castro and call him “a fine young man and a very smart young man” is so jarring, the above video almost looks like a doctored forgery. But this interview is real, and it happened shortly after the Cuban Revolution and just two years before the United States tried to overthrow Castro’s government with the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
Robert F. Kennedy on The Jack Paar Program (1964)
Paar is most famous for being the second Tonight Show host—sandwiched between Steve Allen and Johnny Carson—but this clip with Robert F. Kennedy is taken from his NBC late night TV followup, The Jack Paar Program. This appearance was Robert Kennedy’s first public interview following his brother’s assassination four months earlier. The somber back-and-forth took place in March 1964, while RFK was still serving as the Attorney General.
Salvador Dali on The Merv Griffin Show (1965)
During the early days of his first-run syndicated talk show, Merv Griffin landed an interview with art legend Salvador Dali, whom he referred to as “a fine broth of a lad.” Griffin hit the Spanish surrealist with questions about his iconic moustache and the title of his autobiography, Diary of a Genius. Dali then referred to himself as the greatest painter in the world before admitting, “modesty is not my specialty.” It’s an astonishingly well-humored display of vanity that makes for television gold.
Andy Warhol on The Merv Griffin Show (1965)
Bless Merv Griffin’s poor soul as he does his best to interview Andy Warhol. The artist occasionally whispers one-word answers in Griffin’s general direction and Edie Sedgwick asks him questions like, “What is art, anyway?” The longest answer Warhol strings together to any of Griffin’s inquiries is, “Uh, yes.” That can probably be considered a modest success, however, since Sedgwick starts the interview off by saying, “I must warn you Andy won’t say a word.” This was a rare mainstream appearance for the taciturn Warhol at the height of his career.
Timothy Leary on The Merv Griffin Show (1966)
In 1966, Griffin interviewed a different kind of cultural icon when Harvard professor and countercultural leader Timothy Leary appeared on his show to discuss his controversial experiments with psilocybin and LSD. In the interview, Leary mostly comes off as bright and completely reasonable, but notes that he’s in “the unfortunate position of being 20 years ahead of [his] time” and that “in 10 to 15 years psychochemicals … will be just as common as books are today”—a timeline that turned out to be just a bit off the mark.
Jim Garrison on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1968)
Garrison is the New Orleans district attorney who prosecuted the only trial ever conducted in connection with the Kennedy assassination, as (very) loosely documented in the 1991 Oliver Stone film JFK. In 1968, Garrison appeared on a special episode of The Tonight Show to explain the conspiracy case he was building to Johnny Carson, who was, quite frankly, not buying what he was selling. The full interview lasted for 46 minutes.