for the combative style he brought to his short-lived mid-1960s show, Les
Crane was called the bad-boy of late- night television. He launched his
software company two decades later, and it made him a multimillionaire.
By Elaine Woo,
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
July 16, 2008
Les Crane, called
the "bad boy of late-night television" when he vied for ratings
against talk-show king Johnny Carson in the mid-1960s, died of natural causes
Sunday at Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, north of San Francisco. He was
74. His death was announced by his daughter, Caprice Crane.
Crane was host of
a popular radio call-in show in San Francisco when ABC tapped him in 1964 to
star in "The Les Crane Show." Attempting to be both serious and
witty, the program was touted as combining the approaches of Jack Paar, Mike
Wallace and David Susskind, and featured conversations with major news
figures, such as civil rights leader Malcolm X and Alabama Gov. George
Wallace, as well as lighter chit-chat with movie stars and other celebrities.
known for his combative style and a long-nosed microphone that he aimed at his
live audience like a shotgun. The show fizzled, but Crane had the last laugh.
In 1984 he founded a software company that made him a multimillionaire,
largely from the sales of the computer game "Chessmaster" and a
widely used typing tutorial called "Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing."
Crane helped develop both programs.
He also won a
Grammy for his 1971 spoken-word recording of the poem Desiderata. With its New
Age-y sentiments ("You are a child of the universe, no less than the
trees and the stars. . . ."), it became a counterculture hit and a
popular target for parody. The irreverent Crane later professed to prefer the
Born in New York
City on Dec. 3, 1933, Crane graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans,
where he studied communications and psychology. He spent several years in the
Air Force as a pilot and helicopter flight instructor before moving to San
Francisco. There he hosted the radio talk show on KGO-AM that caught the
attention of ABC television executives.
Les Crane Show" began a trial run in the summer of 1964, scoring some
coups right away, including the first American television interview with the
Rolling Stones. Other guests included singer Harry Belafonte on the civil
rights struggle, Freudian analyst Theodore Reik on psychiatry, William F.
Buckley on Republican politics and Wallace, the pro-segregation governor and
candidate for president. "I wouldn't vote for you for dogcatcher,"
the handsome, sharp-tongued Crane told Wallace in his most-quoted interview.
approach is entirely different from the Carson approach," UPI critic Rick
Du Brow wrote in one of several kind reviews Crane received. "Whereas
Carson offers generally neutralized chit-chat and plenty of variety-type
entertainment, Crane hits hard at interviews, conversations and sequences from
out on location. The big question is which approach has the greater lasting
power -- whether the national digestive tract is able to down an occasional
dish of meat and potatoes at midnight."
apparently, was no. Crane was fired and the show was renamed "ABC's
Nightlife" and featured a roster of rotating hosts that included Shelley
Berman, Dave Garroway and Pat Boone. When those changes did not bring the
hoped-for ratings, ABC brought Crane back with Nipsey Russell as his sidekick,
but the show fared little better than before and was canceled in late 1965.
material was so controversial in nature; we met issues head-on," Crane,
explaining the show's demise, told Newsday in 1992. "Sponsors declined to
be associated with that kind of show. Here would be Malcolm X getting a fair
hearing, and this was in a country where there was an outcry because Harry
Belafonte and Petula Clark held hands on TV."
In 1966, Crane
married actress Tina Louise, best known as Ginger on the sitcom "Gilligan's
Island." They were divorced after five years.
times, he is survived by his wife of 20 years, Ginger Crane, of Belvedere,
Calif; and Caprice, a television writer in Los Angeles who is his daughter
After the show
ended, Crane had another short-lived talk show and acted in a few television
shows and movies, including the critically panned "An American
Dream" (1966), based on the novel by Norman Mailer. He also tried medical
school in Mexico but didn't like it and started a communications consulting
interested in software after buying a personal computer to help him manage his
consulting business. In 1984 he founded the company that became Software
Toolworks. In time, the company not only developed software games but also
duplicated and packaged software for other companies. In 1994 it was sold to
the British company Pearson for $462 million. It is now owned by Learning Co.,
a leader in educational software.