Ex-TV Host Scores With Computer Game : Les Crane, Once a Rival to Johnny Carson, Is a Hit in Software

Times Staff Writer

Les Crane was ABC's hope in 1964 to topple Johnny Carson. At 26, the critics called him "the bad boy of late-night television."

Seated on a revolving stool in the middle of an arena-like stage, nicknamed the "bear pit" by his crew, Crane grilled guests five nights a week before a live studio audience. He had two trademarks: an acerbic, confrontational style of interviewing that led one critic to call him "the insult darling of the insomniac set" and a microphone made to look like a shotgun, which he aimed at audience members asking questions.

Like so many others, Crane failed to unseat Carson as the king of late-night television. His "Les Crane Show" lasted slightly more than six months, although his talk show was on the air for four years in various network and syndicated versions.

Today, Crane is 49 and he's back in the entertainment business, although it took a hit software package to do it. Crane is chairman and one of five partners in Software Toolworks, a privately held Sherman Oaks firm that he said did $5 million in sales last year.

Crane spends his days working at a computer terminal in his second-story office on Ventura Boulevard. Selling computer games is a far cry from having "the people of America worship and adore me," which he proclaimed as his goal during his first TV show.

"I still get recognized by people wearing bifocals," he said.

But Crane now is something of a celebrity in the computer software business, thanks to Chessmaster 2000, a three-dimensional, color chess game for personal computers that has already sold 140,000 copies (retail price: about $40), Crane says, since it was introduced last fall.

Chessmaster has become one of the nation's top-selling programs in entertainment software and has already earned gold status, meaning sales of 100,000 copies. Last month, the Software Publishers' Assn. trade group named Chessmaster, in which the user plays the computer in chess, as the year's best entertainment program.

Expects Sales to Double

Chessmaster was developed by Crane, who plays chess, along with some computer programmers who also play.

The software package has a dozen levels of play running up to master chess level. It also has highlights of great chess matches over the past 200 years including the 1985 Karpov-Kasparov world title match. And in an acknowledgement to Crane's past, the chess program signs on with the music from the jazz instrumental "Take Five," the same theme Crane used in his television show.

Bolstered by Chessmaster's success, Crane expects Software Toolworks to double its sales this year to $10 million, with Chessmaster accounting for nearly 50% of its business.

In addition to selling software, the company duplicates software for other publishers.

Crane's hair, jet-black when he was was a television star, is now streaked with gray. He typically wears sport shirts, casual cotton slacks and white Reebok tennis shoes to work. There are few reminders of his past in his office.

What remains is the irreverence and self-deprecating humor that made him popular as a talk-show host, game-show guest and interview subject in the 1960s.

In reminiscing about his television show, for example, Crane says: "Looking back, I can't think of anything more stupid than pointing a shotgun at people."

Crane's rise to stardom came quickly. A native of the Bronx, Crane graduated from Tulane University with degrees in communications and psychology and served as an Air Force instructor pilot before drifting to San Francisco in the early 1960s, where he hosted a radio call-in talk show that later moved to New York. In the fall of 1964, ABC tried to make him a star.

Although his moment in the spotlight was brief, Crane won praise from critics and angered network affiliates with his combative style and by shunning show business entertainers for guests usually ignored by mainstream television.

He once concluded an interview with then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace by telling Wallace he "wouldn't vote for him for dog catcher." Bob Dylan sang "Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall" one night. Black Muslim leader Malcolm X was a guest shortly before he was assassinated in February, 1965.

Strong Reaction

"You felt like you were at the center of things. Everyone you were hearing about and reading about in the news was coming through that studio," recalled movie director Daryl Duke, who produced Crane's show.

The New York Times said Crane's program "could become ABC's most successful commodity since 'Ben Casey.' " William F. Buckley wrote a satirical column about a guest appearance he made in which "the second half of which dealt with topless bikinis, the first half of which dealt with 'the state of the Republican Party.' "

Despite generally favorable reviews, Crane's show failed. Two decades later, Producer Duke said network executives didn't feel the program was gaining fast enough on Carson's "Tonight Show" in the ratings.

Crane, however, blames pressures from sponsors and network affiliates who disliked the show's controversial guests.

Crane later married actress Tina Louise, best known as Ginger on the television show "Gilligan's Island" in 1966. The two have since divorced.

Crane also acted in a few television shows and movies, among them "An American Dream" with Janet Leigh and one he describes as an "el cheapo Italian Western" that he said he can't remember the title of today.

"It was an easy way to get a couple of weeks in Rome," said Crane. "Basically, I was what you could call a pretend actor."

Crane's career enjoyed a brief reprieve in 1971 with the release of the hit record Desiderata, in which he recited such sugary phrases as "go placidly amid the noise and haste" and "listen to others, even the dull and ignorant" while a gospel-like chorus sang "you are a child of the universe" in the background.

Earned a Grammy

"I can't listen to it now without gagging," said Crane, who professes he's more fond of a National Lampoon parody called Deteriorata that urges listeners to "rotate your tires" and "know what to kiss and when to kiss it."

Still, Desiderata earned Crane a Grammy award for best spoken-word song. Crane saw the words on a poster, which said the words were discovered in a Baltimore church in 1693. Instead, he later found that they were written in 1927 by Chicago poet Max Ehrmann. As a result, Crane had to share the royalties with the late Ehrmann's family.

After Desiderata, Crane flirted with the idea of becoming a doctor, even attending medical school in Mexico for two years. He returned to the United States, where he ran communications seminars for corporations.

To help him in his consulting business, Crane bought a personal computer and started to develop an interest in software. Then in 1983, convinced he wanted to be in the software business, he says he started a company, which later became Software Toolworks, working on his dining room table.

His first product was a software version of I Ching, an ancient Chinese work that is part of the canon of Confucianism that was popular in the counterculture days of the late 1960s.

Next came Golden Oldies, which is to computer software what K-Tel records are to classic rock and roll. The program, which sells for about $15, is a compilation of some of the early, best-selling video games such as Pong, Eliza and Life.

A Best-Seller

But Chessmaster was Crane's big breakthrough. Victor Alhadeef, president of Egghead Discount Software, a Bothell, Wash.-based company that is the nation's largest independent chain of software stores, said it consistently is among the chain's top-selling entertainment software packages and ranked first in February.

"I have a 9-year-old kid who is glued to it on his Macintosh for hours each day," he said.

But Crane knows that the public eventually tires of one product, with the exception of "The Tonight Show," so he is about to introduce another software program. This one will teach typing and will display a pair of hands on the computer screen to guide students.

Crane said he doesn't miss television. "I found it very frustrating because television is an anti-intellectual medium. It is a machine constructed for entertainment," he said.

Nor is he interested in seeing his old show again, which he believes doesn't even exist on tape anymore. "I think the network taped some game shows over it," he said.

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