By Alex Tresniowski
Updated November 13, 2000 12:00 PM

It was Steve Allen the doting grandfather, not the comic giant, who turned up with a Halloween cake at his son Bill’s home in Encino, Calif., on Oct. 30. There Allen admired the mask Hand costume of Bill’s daughter Amanda, 6, and helped the little girl carve a pumpkin. Then “Dad said he was tired and wanted to go rest in the other room,” says Bill, who later checked in on Allen. “He tends to snore when he sleeps, but I didn’t hear him. I realized he wasn’t breathing.”

Allen, a true American original, had died of a massive heart attack at 78. Best known as the TV pioneer with the professorial specs who paved the way for Letterman and Leno as the very first host of Tonight from 1954 to 1957—he’d hurl himself into vats of Jell-O and interview hapless people on the street, wacky bits that are now late-night staples—Allen cut a unique and varied swath through the cultural landscape. An accomplished jazz pianist and prodigious tunesmith, he composed as many as 8,000 songs—including “This Could Be the Start of Something (Big)” and other standards. He also wrote 53 books and was working on another, Vulgarians at the Gate, about his distaste for sex and smut on TV, his pet cause, when he died. “We lost a heavyweight,” says Milton Berle, 92, who remained a close friend for more than 60 years. “He was one of the most talented and kindest men we had in the industry.”

Allen, a 17-year survivor of colon cancer, did not appear to be ailing of late. “I saw him about a month ago at a benefit and he seemed fine,” says Don Knotts, the veteran actor who got his start on Tonight in 1956 before his turn as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show. Allen’s sudden death devastated Jayne Meadows, 74, his wife of 46 years, says their son Bill, 42. “The paramedics brought my mom to the hospital, and she was with him for most of the night,” he says. “She spent quite a few hours with Dad last night and said her goodbyes. But she spent the day watching old friends talk about Steve on TV and felt a lot better.”

There was certainly much to reminisce about. Born in New York City on Dec. 26, 1921, Allen had a turbulent childhood after his father, Billy Allen, a vaudevillian, died when Steve was 18 months old. His mother, Belle Montrose, also a vaudevillian, entrusted her only child to relatives in Chicago so she could continue performing. “She had an innate wit,” Allen, who attended 18 different schools, said of Belle. But “she was really not ideally cast for the role of mother.”

Allen inherited the wit and found an outlet as a radio broadcaster at Iowa’s Drake University, which he attended on a journalism scholarship in 1941. A seamless ad-libber, he soon dropped out to work as a disc jockey at a Phoenix radio station. In 1943 he married his college sweetheart, Dorothy Goodman, with whom he had three sons—Steve Jr., a pediatrician in New York; Brian, 53, a real estate broker in Portland, Ore., who briefly joined a Seattle cult and rechristened himself Logic Israel in 1979; and David, 50. The couple’s divorce in 1952 was, Allen said, the one great heartache of his life.

The next year, though, the quick-on-his-feet comic found his perfect venue. Plucked from the panel of What’s My Line? and tabbed to host a nascent nighttime talk show—an unproved format few had high hopes for—Allen turned Tonight into a jazzy, invigorating kick in the pants to the fussy strictures of early TV: a little piano playing, some goofy bits (his Question Man presaged Johnny Carson’s Carnac) and groundbreaking guest spots by the likes of Lenny Bruce and Elvis Presley. “He was the Beatles of talk shows,” says Politically Incorrect‘s Bill Maher, who worked with Allen in the ’80s. “Anybody could get his comedy, and he touched audiences in a powerful way. Everything that came after was just a variation.”

Allen hosted Tonight for only three years, leaving in 1957 to focus on his own Steve Allen Show, scheduled for Sunday nights to go against Ed Sullivan. Allen’s personal life was soaring as well: In 1954 he married Jayne Meadows, sister of The Honeymooners‘ Audrey Meadows and a TV and movie actress he met at a dinner party. “She was very gregarious and he was very shy,” says their son Bill, who runs two Internet software companies in Los Angeles. “But I’ve never known two people more right for each other. They were partners.”

After his NBC show went off the air in 1960, Allen remained a vibrant presence on the entertainment scene. He created and hosted the PBS series Meeting of the Minds—a fanciful, actors-as-historical-figures show and the work of which he was most proud—from 1977 to 1981. Though he couldn’t read music, his ear for melodies earned him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific songwriter of modern times. And he constantly dictated great chunks of prose into his trusty tape recorder. “I do about 14 things for a living,” Allen once said. “One nice thing about that is, you can be out of work in three professions altogether and never even notice it.”

A longtime activist who championed such causes as migrant workers’ rights in the ’60s, Allen had recently signed on as a chairman of the Parents Television Council, a conservative watchdog group, and campaigned against sex and vulgarity on shows like Married…with Children “to prevent my grandchildren from being brainwashed by this filth,” he explained to PEOPLE last year. The stance, which some saw as censorship, “was from the heart,” says his friend, comedian Freddie Roman. “He loved the television industry, and he wanted it to be above the line.”

More than anything, Allen was driven by a fierce creativity. Late at night he’d awaken in his home in Encino, grope for the flashlight on his nightstand and quietly make his way from the bedroom to his den. There, he’d jot down some idea for a joke, or a song, or a poem or book or letter or speech. “I don’t seem to have much control over it,” Allen observed not long ago. “There’s always a certain excitement that accompanies the creative impulse, and that energy always gets me going.” Every day of his life. “It kills me that someday I’ll have to die,” he said in 1979. “I don’t see how I’ll ever get it all done.”

Alex Tresniowski

Lorenzo Benet and Ulrica Wihlborg in Los Angeles and Fannie Weinstein in New York City