5 TV Hosts Who Walked Off Their Shows

Jay Leno once lost control of The Tonight Show thanks to Howard Stern.
Jay Leno once lost control of The Tonight Show thanks to Howard Stern. / Michael Albov, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

There is something deceptively difficult about hosting a television show. Amusing an audience with banter, extracting anecdotes or opinions from guests, and doing it in a way that seems natural is a talent few individuals possess. Those who do take real ownership, installing themselves for decades. Joe Franklin, one of TV’s first chat show hosts, remained on the air for more than 40 years. (For his 40th anniversary, he interviewed himself.)

That’s why it’s strange to see a host grow so agitated or otherwise aggrieved that they opt to walk off their own show. It’s happened a few times, for a variety of reasons.

1. Jay Leno

In November 1995, Jay Leno—who had recently taken over hosting duties for departing late-night institution Johnny Carson—welcomed radio personality Howard Stern to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Stern quickly assumed control of the proceedings, embracing his provocative shock jock persona by having two women escort him on stage and encouraging them to express affection for one another. A baffled Leno tried to change course but was thwarted as Stern insisted he could demonstrate a “little lesson in how to get ratings.” According to the New York Daily News, Leno became so upset over Stern’s behavior that he walked away from his desk and apparently contemplated ending the taping. It continued, with Stern injecting himself into Leno’s conversation with his next guests, film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Leno later phoned into Stern’s radio show and said he was “disappointed” in Stern.

2. Jack Paar

Jack Paar, who hosted The Tonight Show (then titled The Jack Parr Show) prior to Carson coming on board, surprised his studio audience on February 11, 1960, when he began crying and announced he would be leaving—just 18 minutes into a show expected to run 1 hour and 45 minutes. Paar was apparently upset that an NBC censor had edited out a joke from the previous night’s broadcast. Referring to the offending executive as a “clown” and insisting “there must be a better way of making a living,” Paar went on to say he felt “let down by this network at a time I could have used their help.” He then shook hands with his announcer, future 20/20 correspondent Hugh Downs, before walking off the stage.

Acting quickly, Downs stepped in to host the remainder of the show as well as the next one. Guest hosts then came in until NBC and Paar reconciled. Paar returned on March 6. Paar called his actions “childish.”

The source of this tumultuous episode? Paar had referred to a “water closet.” It’s another term for a toilet.

3. Regis Philbin

Publicity shots from The Joey Bishop Show, including guest Danny Thomas, host Joey Bishop, and announcer/sidekick Regis Philbin.
Publicity shots from The Joey Bishop Show, including guest Danny Thomas, host Joey Bishop, and announcer/sidekick Regis Philbin. / ABC Television // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Longtime chat and game show host Regis Philbin, who passed away in 2020, was a television staple for virtually half of the 20th century. In the late 1960s, he was the sidekick for Joey Bishop, who had a late-night show (The Joey Bishop Show) on ABC. After hearing that network executives were less than happy with him, Philbin decided to save himself the potential of being axed and announced during a taping that he didn’t want to jeopardize the show and that he was quitting. It may have been a plot to renegotiate his salary or Philbin simply getting his feelings hurt. Either way, he returned a few months later after fans sent letters to ABC demanding his return. The Joey Bishop Show was canceled in 1969.

4. Dick Cavett

Dick Cavett, who hosted The Dick Cavett Show that aired on ABC throughout the 1970s, was a difficult man to rattle. He once deftly maintained control of his show even though guest Jerome Rodale had actually passed away during the taping following a heart attack. But every host has their limit, and Cavett seemingly found his a few months prior to that incident. On September 18, 1970, Cavett welcomed actors Peter Falk (of Columbo fame), Ben Gazzara (who was the villain in 1989’s Road House), and John Cassavetes to discuss their new film, Husbands. All three had apparently been drinking and arrived on Cavett’s stage in a state unfit for nuanced discussion. The host briefly walked away from the set, leaving Falk to take over.

While his temporary departure may have been partially in jest, Cavett was genuinely upset. “I could not believe it, while it was happening,” he told The New Yorker in 2014. “I think I watched it a year or so ago, and it seemed even worse than I remembered it … But it’s hard to deal with three people. When one person is being an ass, you can pretty much deal with him, or I can—and people who do what I do better be able to—but with three the focus was so diffuse.”

5. Dan Rather

Kevin Winter, Getty Images

The longtime host of the CBS Evening News grew irate in September 1987 when the network decided to continue airing a U.S. Open tennis match between Steffi Graf and Lori McNeil that was running late. Rather was in Miami, Florida, reporting on the visit of Pope John Paul II. He phoned CBS News president Howard Stringer and insisted that the broadcast go on at 6:30 p.m. as scheduled. When 6:30 p.m. came and Rather had still not gone on air, he abruptly exited the set, leaving the network with an unprecedented six minutes of dead airtime. After producers pleaded with him, Rather relented and went back to his anchor desk.