Edward Vincent "Ed" Sullivan (September 28, 1901 – October 13, 1974) was an American entertainment writer and television host, best known as the presenter of a popular TV variety show called The Ed Sullivan Show that was at its height of popularity in the 1950s and 1960s.
Reacting to the Cold War fervor of the time, Ed Sullivan worked closely with Theodore Kirkpatrick of the anti-communist "Counterattack" newsletter. Sullivan would check with Kirkpatrick if a potential guest had some "explaining to do" about his politics. Sullivan wrote in his June 21, 1950 New York Daily News Column that "Kirkpatrick has sat in my living room on several occasions and listened attentively to performers eager to secure a certification of loyalty." (Reference: Tube of Plenty, Eric Barnouw, Oxford University Press, 1990)
Sullivan himself had little acting ability; his mannerisms on camera were somewhat awkward and often caricatured by comedians who called him "Old Stone Face," owing to his deadpan delivery. Columnist Harriet Van Horne alleged that "he got where he is not by having a personality, but by having no personality."
Somehow, Sullivan still seemed to fit the show; he appeared to the audience as an average guy who brought the great acts of show business to their home televisions. ("He will last," comedian and frequent guest Alan King was quoted as saying, "as long as someone else has talent.") Sullivan had a healthy sense of humor about himself and permitted—even encouraged—impersonators such as John Byner, Frank Gorshin, Rich Little and especially Will Jordan to imitate him on his show. Johnny Carson also did a fair impression. The impressionists exaggerated his stiffness, raised shoulders, and nasal tenor phrasing, along with some of his commonly used introductions, such as "And now, right here on our stage..." and "For all you youngsters out there..." and "...really big shoe..." Will Jordan portrayed Sullivan in the films I Wanna Hold Your Hand, The Buddy Holly Story, The Doors, Mr. Saturday Night, Down With Love, and in the 1979 TV movie Elvis.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Sullivan was a respected starmaker because of the number of performers that became household names after appearing on the show. He had a knack for identifying and promoting top talent and paid a great deal of money to secure that talent for his show.
Sullivan appreciated African American talent. He paid for the funeral of dancer Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson out of his own pocket. He also defied pressure to exclude African American musicians from appearing on his show. In 1969, Sullivan presented the Jackson 5 with their first single "I Want You Back", which ousted B. J. Thomas's "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" from the top spot of Billboard's pop charts.
At the end of the debut episode of The Flying Nun, the convent receives a telephone call from "Mr. Sullivan" who wishes to speak to Sister Bertrille. Assuming that it's a priest, Reverend Mother gives Bertrille the phone. After addressing the person on the other end, Bertrille shouts "Ed Sullivan!"
Jackie Mason was banned from the series in 1962. During Mason's monologue Sullivan, off camera, gestured that Mason should wrap things up, as a breaking news story was developing. The nervous Mason told the audience, "I'm getting two fingers here!" and made his own frantic hand gesture: "Two fingers for you!" Videotapes of the incident are inconclusive as to whether Mason's upswept hand was intended to be an indecent gesture, but Sullivan's body language immediately afterward made it clear that he was convinced of it, despite Mason's panic-stricken denials later. Sullivan later invited Mason back for a return engagement, but the notoriety of the "finger" incident lingered with the studio audience.
The Doors were banned in 1967 after they were asked to remove the lyric "Girl, we couldn't get much higher" from their song "Light My Fire" (CBS censors believed that it was too overt a reference to drug use) but sang the song with the lyrics intact.
On January 26, 1958, for their second appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Buddy Holly and the Crickets were scheduled to perform two songs. Sullivan wanted the band to substitute a different song for his record hit "Oh Boy!", which he felt was too raucous. Holly had already told his hometown friends in Texas that he would be singing "Oh Boy!" for them, and told Sullivan as much. During the afternoon the Crickets were summoned to rehearsal on short notice, but only Holly was in their dressing room. When asked where the others were, Holly replied, "I don't know. No telling." Sullivan then turned to Holly and said "I guess The Crickets are not too excited to be on The Ed Sullivan Show" to which Holly caustically replied "I hope they're damn more excited than I am". Sullivan, already bothered by the choice of songs, was now even angrier. He cut the Crickets' act from two songs to one, and when introducing them mispronounced Holly's name, so it came out vaguely as 'Hollered' or "Holland." In addition, Sullivan saw to it that the microphone for Holly's electric guitar was turned off. Holly tried to compensate by singing as loudly as he could, and repeatedly trying to turn up the volume on his guitar. For the instrumental break he cut loose with a dramatic solo, making clear to the audience that the technical fault wasn't his. The band went down so well that Sullivan was forced to invite them back for a third appearance. Holly got on the phone and told Sullivan he didn't have enough money. Film of the performance survives. Photographs also survive of Holly and Sullivan that day with Sullivan looking angry and Holly either smirking at or ignoring Sullivan.
The Rolling Stones were a different story; they were told pretty much to change the chorus of "Let's Spend the Night Together" to "Let's Spend Some Time Together." Lead singer Mick Jagger complied, but deliberately called attention to this censorship by rolling his eyes and mugging when he uttered the new words.
Moe Howard of the Three Stooges recalled in 1975 that Sullivan had a memory problem of sorts: "Ed was a very nice man, but for a showman, quite forgetful. On our first appearance, he introduced us as the Three Ritz Brothers. He got out of it by adding, "who look more like the Three Stooges to me.
The act that appeared most frequently through the show's run was the Canadian comedy duo of Wayne & Shuster, making a total of 67 appearances between 1958 and 1969.
In 1961, Sullivan was asked by CBS to fill in for an ailing Red Skelton on The Red Skelton Show. He performed some of Skelton's characters successfully. One character was renamed "Eddie the Freeloader" (normally "Freddie the Freeloader").
In August of 1956, Sullivan was injured in an automobile accident that occurred near his country home in Southbury, Connecticut. Sullivan had to take a medical leave from the show, missing the September 8 appearance of Elvis Presley (something he earlier had stated never would happen). Charles Laughton wound up introducing Presley on the Sullivan hour. On a later Presley appearance, Sullivan made amends by telling his audience, "This is a real decent, fine boy.")
Sullivan's failure to scoop the TV industry with Presley made him determined to get the next big sensation first. In 1964, he achieved that with the first live American appearance of The Beatles, on February 9, 1964, the most-watched program in TV history to that point, and remains one of the most-watched programs of all time. The Beatles appeared several more times on the Sullivan show; Sullivan struck up such a rapport with the Beatles that he agreed to introduce them at their momentious Shea Stadium concert on August 15, 1965. Heavily promoted as having a "cleaner" image than the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five made 13 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, more than any other UK group.
In the fall of 1965, CBS began televising the weekly programs in RCA's compatible-color process. (Compatible color was developed in the early 1950s and commercially deployed in 1954 to allow colorcasts to be received on monochrome and color sets. CBS had developed a failed color television system that involved a revolving color wheel. The CBS system would have been incompatible with monochrome television sets. Until 1965, CBS rarely did colorcasts. Then, for competitive reasons, it adopted the system that NBC had employed in its widely colorcast schedule to sell RCA color television sets.) Although the Sullivan show was seen live in the Central and Eastern time zones, it was taped for airing in the Pacific and Mountain time zones. Fortunately, most of the taped programs (as well as some early kinescopes) have been preserved, and excerpts have been released on home video.
At a time when television had not yet embraced country and western music, Sullivan was adamant about featuring Nashville performers on his program. This insistence paved the way for shows such as "Hee Haw" and variety shows hosted by country singers like Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell.
Sullivan was married to the former Sylvia Weinstein from April 28, 1930, until her death on March 16, 1973. They had one daughter, Betty Sullivan (who married the Sullivan show's producer, Bob Precht). Sullivan was in the habit of calling Sylvia after every program to get her immediate critique.
Sullivan has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6101 Hollywood Blvd.