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Tommy Smothers: Las Vegas Loses Another Icon to 2023

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Posted on: December 27, 2023, 03:18h. 

Last updated on: December 27, 2023, 04:00h.

Tommy Smothers, the elder half of the legendary Smothers Brothers comedy duo died Tuesday at his home in Santa Rosa, Calif. following a battle with lung cancer. He was 86.

Tommy Smothers
Television and Las Vegas icon Tommy Smothers, shown in 2010, died the day after Christmas at age 86. (Image: Santa Rosa Democrat)

“Tom was not only the loving older brother that everyone would want in their life, he was a one-of-a-kind creative partner,” Dick Smother, 84, said in a statement. “I am forever grateful to have spent a lifetime together with him, on and off stage, for over 60 years. Our relationship was like a good marriage — the longer we were together, the more we loved and respected one another.”

The duo was best known for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” the boundary-shoving variety show that shook up the status quo from its establishment perch on CBS-TV from 1967 to 1969.

The Smothers Brothers were also Las Vegas mainstays, playing more than 20 Las Vegas resorts between 1962, when they opened for dancer Juliet Prowse at the Flamingo, and the final curtain on their career on May 16, 2010, at the Orleans.

Tom and Dick share the stage with their opening act, The Everly Brothers, at Caesars Palace in 1970. (Image: everlything.tumblr.com)

Band of Brothers

Thomas Bolyn Smothers III was born Feb. 2, 1937, in New York. His brother, Richard Remick Smothers, followed on Nov. 20, 1939. After their father died in World War II, their mother moved the brothers and their sister to Southern California.

Tom and Dick began performing together in 1954 before they each graduated separately from Redondo Union High School in Redondo Beach, Calif. Both sang, while Tommy played acoustic guitar and Dick plunked a standup bass with a folk group called the Casual Quintet.

While both students at San Jose State College in 1958, they formed a folk trio with singer Bobby Blackmore, whom the act would shed by the decade’s end.

It was at San Francisco’s Purple Onion in 1959 that comedy began creeping in. Because they only knew a few songs, Tom dragged out their introductions to increase their set time. These intros were usually long-winded lectures about folk music’s rightful place in American history.

One night, Dick politely interrupted Tommy when he got a fact wrong. Tommy reacted defensively and the audience lost it over their genuine sibling rivalry.

Astutely, the duo incorporated this back-and-forth into their act until it became their act and the music became incidental. Rarely, if ever, would they finish a tune again.

Dick was the straight man, Tommy the child-like funnyman who developed the catchphrase: “Mother always liked you best.” He usually delivered it while staring down at the floor, kicking his shoes.

Dick and Tommy Smothers in 1962. the year they debuted in Las Vegas at the Flamingo. (Image: St. Louis Dispatch)

Different Direction

Not unlike another ’60s duo, Sonny and Cher, the  Smothers Brothers detoured their musical aspirations into comedy and found gold — and a network variety show — in the process.

“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” featured anti-establishment comedians who relished poking the television bear.

Among its Emmy-winning writers were future superstars Steve Martin and Rob Reiner, and among its bookings were the Doors, Cream, and Buffalo Springfield. This was back when TV variety shows were the exclusive stomping ground of Bob Hope and Andy Williams.

Of the two brothers, Tom was the more overtly political. He befriended John Lennon during the outspoken Beatle’s protest period, strumming acoustic guitar and singing background on his 1969 single, “Give Peace a Chance.”

“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” was canceled after two years. It was far too politically charged for CBS’ old-guard executives to stomach. (Their censorship battle is documented in the 2018 film, “Smothered.”)

The brothers retreated to touring and performing Las Vegas residencies.

Though they announced that a 2010 engagement at the Orleans would be their final stand, they announced on a 2022 episode of “CBS Sunday Morning” that they would tour earlier this year.

The reunion was canceled, though, when Tom Smothers announced in July 2023 that he was diagnosed with Stage 2 lung cancer.

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