Tom Smothers, the comedian and musician who rose to fame in the 1960s as one-half of the iconic Smothers Brothers performing duo, has died.

Farewell Tom Smothers

Tom Smothers, half of the Smothers Brothers and the co-host of one of the most socially conscious and groundbreaking television shows in the history of the medium, has died at 86.

The National Comedy Center, on behalf of his family, said in a statement Wednesday that Smothers died Tuesday at home in Santa Rosa, California. His death followed a recent battle with lung cancer, which was diagnosed at stage II. 

Thomas Bolyn Smothers III was born Feb. 2, 1937, on Governors Island, New York, where his father, an Army major, was stationed. His brother was born two years later. In 1940 their father was transferred to the Philippines, and his wife, two sons and their sister, Sherry, accompanied him.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the family was sent home and Maj. Smothers remained. He was captured by the Japanese during the war and died in captivity. The family eventually moved to the Los Angeles suburb of Redondo Beach, where Smothers helped his mother take care of his brother and sister while she worked.

“Tom was not only the loving older brother that everyone would want in their life, he was a one-of-a-kind creative partner,” said Dick Smothers in a statement published Wednesday by the National Comedy Center. “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. We were truly blessed.”

When The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour debuted on CBS in the fall of 1967 it was an immediate hit, to the surprise of many who had assumed the network’s expectations were so low it positioned their show opposite the top-rated Bonanza, reports the AP.

As folk singers and comics, the brothers conjured laughs and stirred controversy. Tom Smothers played guitar and Dick Smothers played bass as both delivered zingers on a range of topics. They were known for a trademark sibling rivalry bit and the accompanying one-liner, “Mom liked you best!” 

But the Smothers Brothers would prove a turning point in television history, with its sharp eye for pop culture trends and young rock stars such as the Who and Buffalo Springfield, and its daring sketches — ridiculing the Establishment, railing against the Vietnam War and portraying members of the era’s hippie counterculture as gentle, fun-loving spirits — found an immediate audience with young baby boomers.

“People laughing is holy,” Tom said. “And if you can be part of that, and control it, and create it, it’s the best thing ever.”

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour reached No. 16 in the ratings in its first season.

It also drew the ire of network censors, and after years of battling with the brothers over the show’s creative content, the network abruptly canceled the program in 1969, accusing the siblings of failing to submit an episode in time for the censors to review. The Washington Post reports Tom Smothers pushed back on that claim and the brothers sued. CBS was ordered to pay them more than $775,000 in damages in 1973.

Tom Smothers is survived by his wife, Marcy Carriker Smothers, two children, Bo Smothers and Riley Rose Smothers, and a grandson, Phoenix, as well as a sister-in-law and other nieces and nephews. A private memorial service will be held in 2024. 

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