The weird part about The Sammy Davis Jr. Show is how often Sammy wasn’t on it. Sammy had been a frequent guest on other variety shows and specials and hosted a few, all to great success so NBC arranged to give him his own show. The first show aired on January 7, 1966 and got tepid reviews despite a guest list that included Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Nancy Wilson, Corbett Monica, the dance team of Augie & Margo, and The Will Mastin Trio. Davis himself was reportedly unhappy with the show.
Then the next three weeks, guest hosts filled in for Sammy. Months earlier, he had taped a variety special for ABC that had not been aired. When the network finally scheduled it, they reminded Davis of a clause in his contract that said that he would not appear on any other TV program for three weeks preceding the broadcast of the special. NBC and Davis were furious and accused ABC of slotting the show in a deliberate effort to sabotage his new series. That was probably the idea but it worked. Sammy Davis Jr. had to stay off The Sammy Davis Jr. Show for three weeks which were hosted, one per week, by Johnny Carson, Sean Connery and Jerry Lewis. Davis used that time to work on future shows and to try and revamp the format. It helped a lot and the show got better when he returned to it but the momentum was gone…or something. It was cancelled and the last episode — a one-man show with just Sammy — aired on April 22.
The last three or four episodes of the 15 episodes were produced after the cancellation notice. They were looser with more ad-libbing and Sammy booked guests that he wanted on the show as opposed to guests he was told would help the ratings. Many TV critics thought the series had finally found itself and urged NBC to give it another chance but that didn’t happen. There was talk of another network picking it up but that didn’t happen either. Sammy did a lot of television but didn’t have his own series again until his 1975 talk show, Sammy & Company, which was notorious for how much its guests fawned over each other.
When CBS tapped Pat Sajak for a late-night talk show in 1989, a lot of industry folks wondered about the selection. He seemed awfully lightweight to compete against the mighty Johnny Carson. Then again, Sajak was the host of the enormously popular game show, Wheel of Fortune…and Carson himself had gone from hosting a game show to hosting The Tonight Show. Later on, everyone would say, “We knew it would never work” but not many were predicting that before Sajak’s debut on January 9 of that year.
Initial ratings were strong the first week, less strong the second…and by the time the first month was out, all talk of knocking Johnny off his throne had ceased. Most critics felt the show was Johnny Lite — too much the same format only not done as well. Within CBS, the complaint was that Sajak wasn’t giving it his all; that he still regarded hosting Wheel of Fortune as his “real” job and that hosting a 90-minute late night series was something he did in his free time. Sajak had given up hosting the daytime Wheel of Fortune but had kept the much more lucrative evening syndicated version.
In October of 1989, the show was cut from 90 minutes to an hour. Several CBS affiliates had bumped it to a later hour or were not carrying it at all…and from October on, that was happening at an accelerated pace. It became less a question of whether it would be cancelled as when. Sajak began working four days a week or skipping weeks completely and the show had a succession of guest hosts who were more or less auditioning for the time slot. By February of ’90, CBS was reportedly renewing the show a week or two at a time and on April 13, the last one aired with guest host Paul Rodriguez.
The show was regarded as a large failure but its initial tune-in did convince CBS that it was viable to compete with Carson; that they’d merely picked the wrong guy to do it. They began quietly scouting for the right guy and soon made an offer to Jay Leno, who was then Carson’s permanent guest host. When Leno instead opted to sign a contract with NBC that guaranteed him The Tonight Show upon Johnny’s eventual retirement, CBS went after David Letterman. He did a lot better in the time slot.
Regis Philbin got his start in broadcasting as a writer for the local news at KCOP TV in Los Angeles. His first on-air opportunity came at a station in San Diego and that’s where he was offered his own talk show. Steve Allen had been doing a syndicated show for the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company and when it went off in 1964, Westinghouse hired Philbin, moved him back to L.A. and offered That Regis Philbin Show to the many stations that had been programming The Steve Allen Show. Some took it, some didn’t…and then those that did began dropping it and That Regis Philbin Show ended in three or four months (accounts differ). Philbin bounced around between small TV and radio jobs until April of 1967 when he was hired as the sidekick on The Joey Bishop Show which ran late night on ABC and which was done from the same building as Philbin’s failed syndicated series. It was the first of many comebacks for the man who would eventually log more hours on television than anyone else.