Edward Vincent Sullivan was born on September 28, 1901, in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. Part of a large family, he had a twin brother and a sister who died in childhood, and the family subsequently moved to Port Chester. Of Irish Catholic descent, Sullivan’s upbringing was filled with a blend of cultural influences. The young Sullivan would become a high school athlete and write for the school paper.
Ed Sullivan pursued journalism professionally as an adult, working for a number of news organizations in the 1920s, including The Associated Press and The Morning Telegraph. He became the Broadway columnist for The Evening Graphic in 1929, and went on to become a columnist for the New York Daily News by the early 1930s.
Sullivan married Sylvia Weinstein in 1930 and the couple had a daughter, Elizabeth.
Ed Sullivan also got into vaudeville theater, producing and serving as master of ceremonies for a number of shows, including World War II events that benefitted relief organizations like the American Red Cross. It was through his hosting of the Harvest Moon Ball, telecast on CBS, that he caught the attention of network execs and was given hosting duties on the variety show Toast of the Town, which debuted on June 20, 1948. Airing weekly on Sunday nights, the program would be renamed The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955 and becoming the longest-running variety program in TV history, with tens of millions of viewers tuning in on a weekly basis.
Sullivan’s program was known for its range of acts, including everyone from comedians like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis to icons of musical theater like Julie Andrews to eclectic novelty acts. Sullivan also provided a platform for the emerging genre of rock ‘n’ roll, hosting artists like Bill Haley & His Comets and Elvis Presley, whose January 6, 1957 appearance was recorded only from the waist up due to his gyrations. Sullivan later hosted the U.S. TV debut of the Beatles on February 9, 1964, which was one of the most watched shows in TV history.
While aiming to appeal to a massive audience and getting into conflicts over his booking practices with certain stars, including Frank Sinatra, Sullivan bridged cultural barriers. He showcased artists from the Soviet dance world and brought on acts who would appeal to younger viewers. In the 1960s, musicians appeared on the show who were symbolic of the countercultural movement, including Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones and the Doors. (The Doors’ lead singer, Jim Morrison, defied the show’s request to make the lyrics of “Light My Fire” less suggestive during their live performance.)
Sullivan was also known for embracing African-American artists, refusing to kowtow to racist sponsors and, as such, was a major force in diversifying the American media landscape. Guests on his show included the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes (one of his favorite acts) and Pearl Bailey, who appeared on his program almost two dozen times. Other guests known for regular appearances included opera star Roberta Peters and comedian Myron Cohen.
Sullivan, whose somewhat awkward demeanor was often poked fun of and who had a sense of humor himself, became a media icon and appeared in films like Bye Bye Birdie (1963) and The Singing Nun (1966).
The Ed Sullivan Show had its final telecast on June 6, 1971, with CBS making way to air movies instead. Sullivan helmed specials and became the president of Theater Authority, Inc. His wife died in March 1973 and Sullivan died the following year, on October 13, 1974, at age 73, from esophageal cancer.
The Museum of Broadcast Communications has pointed out that Sullivan introduced more than 10,000 acts throughout his career. Clips of his variety show continue to be watched and discussed today. Additionally, the Ed Sullivan Theater, which hosted the famous program, has become the home venue for comedian David Letterman’s long-running talk show.