Tom Snyder is demented.

I always knew there was a reason I liked the guy.

And now I really know, after spending an afternoon with the TV talker combing the collection at the Museum of Television & Radio in a recent New York visit during his CBS "Late Late Show" hiatus.

Strolling into the museum's marble lobby, Snyder pops a wintergreen BreathSaver into his mouth. He's always popping those wintergreen refreshers into his mouth. He offers me one. I bite it in half. "Don't chew them," he warns in that clipped tone that tells you Tom is primed to be peeved. I request a replacement. "Let it melt in your mouth," he firmly instructs.

There's an art to savoring BreathSavers. There's an art to doing television, too. Which is why this lifelong broadcaster, now 59 years old and so out of style that he's in again, is back where he belongs--on network television, talking to people, in the dark and serene wee hours of the morning, just being Tom.

Somebody like me should be watching that other guy in the 12:35 a.m. slot. He's my age, and supposedly closer to my sensibility. And he's even got red hair, which is (take it from me) the coolest color of all.

But Tom Snyder's the real deal. He'd rather not just chat about somebody's latest movie, newest record, best-selling book. He doesn't want to make jokey-jokey. He wants to get into people's heads. He wants to hear about their personal journey through life. Their childhood. Their spiritual values.

Snyder tends to get distracted during his show's show-biz plugging and pretense. His mind's always wandering off to some odd thought or offhand remark, which ends up leading everybody down an entirely different path. Sometimes his show is just one big, long digression.

Good. He understands the night.

And he understands the broadcast medium. Sitting at the TV museum's computer database to pick some vintage shows to watch, Snyder types in without hesitation "You're in the Picture" --a 1961 CBS game show hosted by Jackie Gleason that was so bad it only ran once. The second and last telecast was a full half-hour of Gleason apologizing for the first telecast.

Tom wants to see that second one.

And boy, is he right. This is network television you'll never see again. One camera shot, no electronic tricks. Just a master doing his monologue, sipping from a coffee mug ("This is a new coffee," Gleason blurts: "Chock Full o' Booze!") and puffing away on a cigarette sponsor's product.

"You wanna believe it!" marvels Snyder at the museum viewing console as the black-and-white kinescope flickers past. "A guy comes out on an empty stage and drinks booze and smokes cigarettes!" So says the man whose fierce clouds of smoke were second only to his maniacal open-mouth chuckle as the trait targeted by Dan Aykroyd's classic "Saturday Night Live" parody during Snyder's '70s "Tomorrow" show days.

Those were the days I was thinking we'd be watching when I asked if Snyder wanted to visit the museum. The museum computer finds 32 hits on the name Tom Snyder. "I don't wanna look at myself," he says, but I make him.

There's Tom's network debut here, an NBC news brief during the '71 Los Angeles earthquake. "I was so pleased with myself. 'And the ground beneath our feet is not as steady as it should be--Tom Snyder, NBC News, Los Angeles,' " he remembers offhand.

The museum has a copy of a 1963 KTLA "Newspicture" newscast that was Snyder's big-time debut. The station was doing a prototype news-from-the-newsroom broadcast, cutting to its "telecopter" and "telemobile" for primitive live remotes. "We thought it was a miracle. It was state of the art in 1963."

There's Tom off to the side, sitting at a metal desk, waiting to give his report on the meeting of the Republican Federation of Women's Clubs in Anaheim, with Senate candidate George Murphy. Look at all that black hair! And look at the "window" behind his desk.

"One night I climbed out the window," Snyder says.

Where was Letterman in '63?

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