May 05, 1997 12:00 PM

PBS (Wed., May 7, 9 p.m. ET)


Emotional, unpredictable and not especially humble, Jack Paar was one of the most fascinating figures on television between 1957, when he began a five-year run as host of The Tonight Show (renamed The Jack Paar Show during his reign), and 1965, when he ended a three-year run on the weekly Jack Paar Program. In contrast to the practiced jollity of Jay Leno or the practiced irony of David Letterman, Paar was known for spontaneous self-revelation. Veteran director Hal Gurnee, who worked with Paar and later Letterman, sums up the Paar style on this two-hour American Masters tribute: “If it’s on his mind, it’s got to be on the screen.”

Although Gurnee, writer Paul Keyes and announcer Hugh Downs contribute interesting reminiscences, only Bill Cosby looks back at the old show from a guest’s perspective. There’s a need for more voices here, including a Paar critic or two. The subject, now 79, does his talking in a theater seat a Little distance from the camera, as if he were just visiting a medium he once owned. Still, the many clips transport us to the time when Paar personified must-see TV on NBC, with his rambling, personal monologues as well as free-flowing conversation that proved the loquacious host was also a superior listener. Discreetly unmentioned is Paar’s ill-starred ABC comeback in 1973.

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