For entertainers of all stripes, an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show could make their career overnight—unless they rubbed the show’s host the wrong way. From the birth of The Beatles to the blacklisting of Bo Diddley, here are various facts about Ed Sullivan, the ultimate Hollywood starmaker.
1. He Had A Knack For Survival
Edward Vincent Sullivan was born in September 1901 to Elizabeth F Sullivan and Peter Arthur Sullivan—and it’s nothing short of a miracle that he made it through childhood. He had a twin brother, Daniel, who survived for only a few months, and a younger sister who was equally ill-fated.
On the heels of this nightmare, the Sullivan family made a big change.
2. He Had A Happy Childhood
Following the tragic losses of two children, the Sullivan family moved to Port Chester, New York. All sources seem to indicate that the Sullivan family was a happy one, despite their grief. They filled their home with music from the piano or phonograph and sang songs. But Ed’s real talents lay elsewhere.
3. He Was A Star Athlete
Sullivan often lamented that his older sister, Helen, got all of the brains in the family, calling her “disgustingly brilliant”. But he had talents of his own. Throughout his school career, Sullivan was a star athlete, winning championships in baseball, basketball, football, and even track. He was certainly a trailblazer—but fate had an unconventional plan in store for him.
4. He Was A Defender Of The Downtrodden
Later on in his career, critics and audiences would come to think of Sullivan as something of a civil rights activist. In fact, his progressive stance on race and skin color often got him into trouble with his show’s sponsors and the network. But, much to the chagrin of those less tolerant, there was no changing his mind on the matter.
5. He Believed In Equality
Years later, Sullivan spoke about the influence of Black culture on his childhood. He remembered going to Connecticut and visiting clubs that welcomed Black players. Sullivan didn't think twice about it because it was so commonplace, his upbringing lending to his controversial beliefs.
He believed that everyone was equal, no matter their background or appearance. But when it came to passing judgment on certain stars, now that was another story altogether.
6. He Wanted To Join The Navy
Around the time of his graduation, Sullivan made a drastic decision that nearly altered the course of entertainment history.
He ran away from home. Not, we might clarify, to join the circus, but to enlist in the US Navy. Seeing as though he was only 17, the Navy turned him away—and unwittingly saved the future of entertainment.
7. He Became Powerful
Following his unsuccessful attempt to join the Navy, Sullivan put his sports background to use. For years, he worked as a sports columnist and editor for various newspapers until he found his true calling. He landed a column with the New York Daily News, writing about the latest happenings on Broadway and celebrity gossip.
It was his first taste of power.
8. He Could Make Fame Out Of Fluff
With his popular column and burgeoning radio show, Sullivan became one of the most influential culture critics in New York. Working out of the El Morocco nightclub, he could turn an operatic soprano into a celebrity or a socialite into a pariah. But soon, the new medium of television would turn him into a bonafide kingmaker.
9. He Didn’t See The Point Of TV
In the late 1940s, a new invention turned Sullivan's life upside down. Television was quickly becoming all the rage with families.
One television producer said, “Not even the sky is the limit. The potentials of television are as big as the potentials of American society". At first, however, Sullivan didn’t get what all the fuss was about.
Sign up to our newsletter.
History’s most fascinating stories and darkest secrets, delivered to your inbox daily. Making distraction rewarding since 2017.
10. He Had Done It All Before
Television producer Marlo Lewis saw the potential of putting Sullivan up on the silver screen. So, in early 1948, he offered the culture critic his very own variety television program called Toast of the Town. Sullivan, however, met the offer with a cool response.
He said, “Everything they're promising to do is something I've done already”. It sounded like a hopeless case, that is, until Sullivan made a surprising decision.
11. He Landed His Own Show
It’s not clear what changed his mind but, by June 1948, Sullivan had accepted the offer to host Talk of the Town. It wouldn’t be until sometime later, however, that the show would get its more recognizable name, The Ed Sullivan Show. And it’s fair to say that it was not an instantaneous success, and neither was Sullivan.
12. He Had No Personality
As The Ed Sullivan Show took to primetime, the television critics were less than impressed. Famed columnist Harriet Van Horne, for example, wrote, “he [Sullivan] got where he is not by having a personality, but by having no personality”. To be fair, however, Sullivan actually did have a personality. It was just a prickly one.
13. He Fired Back At His Critics
It took Sullivan no time at all to showcase his one true talent: a raging temper. Sullivan responded to Harriet Van Horne’s scathing critique with a shocking critique of his own.
“Dear Miss Van Horne,” Sullivan wrote back, “You [b****]. Sincerely, Ed Sullivan”. But Van Horne was just the first of many to face Sullivan’s infamous wrath.
14. He Was A Hit With The Crowds
Despite what the critics were saying—and what Sullivan was saying back to them—The Ed Sullivan Show became the most popular show with family TV audiences. As TIME magazine put it in a 1967 article, “Governments have fallen, [battles] have been won and lost, generations have passed into manhood, but the Mount Rushmore of TV endures”.
But the question remained: Why was Ed Sullivan so beloved?
15. He Had No Real Talent
The Ed Sullivan Show seemed to be a success in spite of its lackluster host. In truth, Sullivan didn't have many talents to boast of: He wasn't a comic, a singer, or a dancer. As a TV personality, he was far from picture-perfect. In fact, audiences found Sullivan to be more than just a little awkward.
16. He Was Awkward
Paradoxically, Sullivan’s popularity with audiences was because of his awkwardness. “His wincesome looks and quirky mannerisms—such as hunching his shoulders and reeling around like Quasimodo doing the lindy—still bring serious letters from shut-ins commending his courage for appearing despite such an obviously bad case of Bell's palsy”.
However, here's the awful truth: He did not have Bell’s palsy. He was constantly under the microscope, but that didn't slow Sullivan down.
17. He Poked People Onto The Stage
For the most part, Sullivan’s odd mannerisms didn’t get in the way of his ability to play host to the various talent acts on his show. But sometimes things got a little out of hand.
On one occasion, Sullivan, gesturing with a pointed finger, introduced a hypnotist and inadvertently poked him directly in the eye. But of all Sullivan's weaknesses, critics loved to go after his physical appearance.
18. He Was Not Attractive
It’s not even like the success of The Ed Sullivan Show had anything to do with his good looks (or lack thereof). “He moves like a sleepwalker; his smile is that of a man sucking a lemon,” TIME wrote, “his speech is frequently lost in a thicket of syntax; his eyes pop from their sockets or sink so deep in their bags that they seem to be peering up at the camera from the bottom of twin wells”.
Luckily, Sullivan eventually learned how to take certain criticism in stride.
19. He Did Nothing Very Well
Later critics of the show realized that it was Sullivan’s ordinariness that endeared him to television audiences, families in particular. As an actor and comedian, and frequent guest on the show, Alan King put it, “Ed does nothing, but he does it better than anyone else in television”. And Sullivan got in on the joke himself.
20. He Was The Butt Of The Joke
When he wasn’t sniping back at his critics, Sullivan actually enjoyed making fun of himself. He encouraged comedians to impersonate his “exaggerated stiffness, raised shoulders, and nasal tenor phrasing”. His guest acts, on the other hand, would have to learn the hard way that Ed Sullivan wasn’t all fun and games.
21. He Had Thin Skin
In his 2009 biography of Sullivan, Gerald Nachman wrote, “Armed with an Irish temper and thin skin, Ed brought to his feuds a hunger for combat fed by his coverage of, and devotion to, boxing”.
Even Sullivan knew he had a temper problem, “I'm a pop-off,” Nachman quoted Sullivan as saying, “I flare up, then I go around apologizing”. But, first, let's take a look at those flare-ups.
22. He Chose The Songs, Or Else
One of Sullivan’s most infamous spats was with rock n’ roll singer Bo Diddley. Notoriously strict about the songs performed on his show, Sullivan insisted that Diddley perform “Sixteen Tons” instead of “Diddley Daddy”. Allegedly, Diddley agreed to the arrangement…and then the cameras started rolling.
23. His Entertainers Disobeyed Him
A backstage reporter on the show documented the unexpected turn of events as they unfolded. Bo Diddley had indeed agreed to play "Sixteen Tons" during the dress rehearsal, but by 8:30 PM, the singer had a sudden change of heart. The second he decided to switch things up, pandemonium ensued.
24. He Had An Emergency Meeting
Backstage, during the commercial break, chaos reined. “CBS brass went into a hurried conference,” the reporter recounted, “in an attempt to synchronize the timing of the show with a longer number. The final result of this conference was the cutting of two acts which preceded Bo Diddley’s number”. But you should never mess with Sullivan’s programming.
25. He Was Not Impressed
As the show ended, the feud was just beginning. Bo Diddley had changed the song because he realized most audiences were probably expecting him to play "Diddley Daddy". But this didn't mean anything to Sullivan.
The raging host maintained that such an important change should have been made before filming began, not during. This is when the argument took a dark turn.
26. He May Have Made It Personal
Diddley later claimed that, once the cameras had been switched off, tensions were running high. Writing in his biography, Diddley recounted, “Ed Sullivan says to me in plain words: ‘You are the first black boy—quote—that ever double crossed me!’” And, if you believe Diddley’s version of events, the situation only got worse from there.
27. He Blacklisted Bo
According to Diddley, he couldn't control his own rage and hated the way Sullivan was talking with him. That's when Sullivan lashed out, and reportedly said, "I'll see that you never work no more in show business. You'll never get another TV show in your life!" Well, there may have been some truth to that.
28. He Probably Didn’t Say It
No one knows for sure whether or not Sullivan attacked Diddley because of his skin color. He was, after all, famous for defending civil rights and promoting Black performers. Just not Diddley. Just as he had threatened, Sullivan made sure that Diddley never appeared on his show ever again.
However, Diddley wasn’t the only performer to end up on Sullivan’s blacklist.
29. He Didn’t Pay Up
In showbusiness, no one could hold a grudge like Sullivan. Not only did he blacklist Diddley from his show, but he also added insult to injury.
According to Diddley, Sullivan never paid him for his performance. “I am owed,” Diddley said, “and I never got paid”. This paints a rather confusing picture of Ed Sullivan's character.
30. He Hosted The Best Black Entertainers
It’s unlikely that Sullivan’s animosity towards Diddley had anything to do with his skin color. Sullivan was famous for promoting Black entertainers, no matter the consequences. “Most TV variety shows welcomed ‘acceptable’ black superstars like Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, and Sammy Davis Jr,” wrote Nachman in his biography on Sullivan. However, Sullivan went a step further.
31. He Provided A Platform
Sullivan took his advocacy of Black entertainers further than anyone else in the variety show business. As Nachman put it in Sullivan’s biography, “...in the early 1950s, long before it was fashionable, Sullivan was presenting the much more obscure black entertainers he had enjoyed in Harlem on his uptown rounds...”
Not everyone, however, approved.
32. He Never Backed Down
Sullivan regularly fought off criticism from his show’s wealthy sponsors for his open embrace of the Black community. He offended his sponsors with stunts like kissing Pearl Bailey's cheek or shaking Nat King Cole's hand. But Sullivan never stood for his critics' prejudices.
33. He Didn’t Tolerate Intolerance
Biographer Jerry Bowles recounted two incidents where Sullivan’s defense of civil rights nearly cost him everything. Firstly, Sullivan threw a Ford executive out of the theater after they asked him to quit booking so many Black acts. However, the second incident was a perfect example of Sullivan’s uncontrollable temper.
34. He Fought For Civil Rights—Literally
Apparently, a Cleveland dealer didn't like how close Sullivan was with his guest, Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson—and asked him why the host felt the need to put his arm around Robinson at the conclusion of his dance. After that, "Sullivan had to be physically restrained from beating the man to a pulp”.
Other times, he barely managed to keep his temper at a scalding simmer.
35. He Only Wanted Clean Entertainers
Buddy Holly and the Crickets also found themselves on the wrong side of Sullivan. The show host decided that the lyrics to their song “Oh Boy!” were too suggestive and asked them to perform a different song. When Holly refused Sullivan’s request, he became visibly angry. Even before the cameras started rolling, the sparks started flying.
36. He Held Grudges Forever
When Holly’s band showed up late to the rehearsal, Sullivan, still peeved, commented, “I guess the Crickets are not too excited to be on The Ed Sullivan Show”. Unafraid of Sullivan’s infamous wrath, Holly quipped, “I hope they're [darn] more excited than I am”. Of course, Sullivan wasn’t going to let a performer insult him on his own show.
37. He Sabotaged His Entertainers’ Sets
In retaliation for Holly’s insubordination, Sullivan went straight for an act of petty revenge—and cut the band’s spots from two to one. And then he really got nasty.
During the show’s introduction, Sullivan deliberately mispronounced Holly's name and instructed his crew to silence Holly’s guitar amplifier except during his solo. Of course, Holly’s career wasn’t the only one that Sullivan attempted to torpedo.
38. He Gave His Entertainers The Finger
During one of his shortened shows, Sullivan signaled to the comedian Jackie Mason that he was running out of time. By mistake, Sullivan’s subtle hand gesture distracted the audience so that the television viewers thought that Mason’s jokes were falling flat. But Mason’s attempt to salvage the show only made the situation worse.
39. His Show Got Derailed
To regain the live audience’s attention, Mason exclaimed, “I'm getting fingers here!” He then proceeded to make a “frantic hand gesture” of his own while saying, “Here's a finger for you!”
Unfortunately, Mason’s hand went off-camera when he made the hand gesture so no one knows whether or not he “flew the bird”. But Sullivan didn’t care for the controversy.
40. He Pretended To Be Friendly
In his biography on Sullivan, Nachman wrote that Sullivan had Mason back for a “surprise grand reunion”. Allegedly, Sullivan claimed that he and Mason were “old pals”, however, the record begs to differ. Apparently, Mason never got another invitation. What's more? The comedian’s career never recovered from that infamous incident.
41. He Ruined Careers
No one knew better than Mason that an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show could make or break your career in entertainment. Mason claimed that his earning potential “was cut right in half after that. I never really worked my way back until I opened on Broadway in 1986”.
Shockingly, that was more than 20 years after the “fingergate” affair.
42. He Gave Clear Instructions
Sullivan also tried to get the Doors to change the lyrics of their hit song “Light My Fire” to make it more family-friendly. The band “nodded their assent” before going up on stage and performing the song with the original, less family-friendly lyrics. Needless to say, Sullivan let the band know that he was not impressed with their little stunt.
43. He Closed “Doors”
Once the show wrapped, Sullivan sent one of the producers to speak to the band. “Mr Sullivan wanted you for six more shows,” the producer said, “but you'll never work The Ed Sullivan Show again”. The band’s lead singer Jim Morrison replied coolly, “Hey, man, we just did The Ed Sullivan Show”.
However, if you were on Sullivan’s good side, you had it made in the Hollywood shade.
44. He Wasn’t A Fan Of The King
At first, Sullivan refused to book the up-and-coming megastar, Elvis Presley. The veteran starmaker claimed that Presley had too much of a “bad boy” image with all of his suggestive dancing and hip swaying.
Eventually, however, even Sullivan couldn’t ignore Presley’s growing popularity and he signed him on for three appearances. The consequences were shocking.
45. He Eventually Bowed To The King
There’s no record of their earliest interactions, but somehow, Presley did the unthinkable. He changed Sullivan’s mind. After the two met, Sullivan publicly made amends on his show for having doubted Presley. He told his audience, “This is a real decent, fine boy”. Presumably, that was before Presley’s narcotic-fueled karate stage.
46. He Discovered A Huge Talent
Even though Sullivan helped to boost Presley’s career, he couldn’t claim responsibility for having discovered him. But a chance encounter at London’s Heathrow Airport led Sullivan to an even greater discovery—one that would change the face of entertainment forever. And it went by the name of Beatlemania.
47. He Imported Beatlemania
While Beatlemania had taken over the UK, Sullivan’s American audience hadn’t even heard of the British rock band—until he introduced them. Sullivan signed The Beatles for three appearances in 1964, and the rest, as they say, is history.
When they first appeared on his show, The Beatles gave Sullivan the best ratings he had ever seen. And he loved them for it...that is, until he couldn’t remember their names.
48. He Was Forgetful
Sullivan had a famously terrible memory. And, as he got older, his memory only worsened. Moe Howard of Three Stooges fame said, “Ed was a very nice man, but for a showman, quite forgetful. On our first appearance, he introduced us as the Three Ritz Brothers. He got out of it by adding, ‘who look more like the Three Stooges to me’”.
49. He Didn’t Know Anyone’s Name
Diana Ross and the Supremes were regulars on The Ed Sullivan Show. In fact, they might have been among his favorite entertainers. But you would never know given how he spoke about them. On the Late Show with David Letterman, Ross confessed that Sullivan “could never remember our names. He called us ‘the girls’”.
50. His Show Ended Abruptly
Finally, after years of declining ratings, The Ed Sullivan Show came to an end in 1971. Allegedly, the television studios were purging their shows in search of content for younger audiences. Enraged, Sullivan clapped back.
He refused to host the remaining three months’ worth of shows, forcing the network to use reruns of old episodes.
51. He Had Amnesia
Without his show, Sullivan declined rapidly. He couldn’t even remember one of the highlights of his career. In 1990, Paul McCartney of The Beatles recounted a heartbreaking run-in he had with Sullivan shortly after his show ended.
He claimed that Sullivan had absolutely no memory of him and simply nodded and smiled before shaking McCartney’s hand and walking away.
52. He Deteriorated Quickly
In 1974, a team of doctors diagnosed Sullivan with esophageal cancer—not surprising, considering his lifelong bad habits. The shocker, however, was that Sullivan’s family opted not to tell him about the diagnosis (probably because he would just forget moments later anyway).
After less than a month, Sullivan succumbed to his cancer diagnosis.