Tom Smothers and his brother, Dick, were known as “The Smothers Brothers”, a music, comedy and political statement team whose hit television show was the 16th most popular show on television in its first season. It ran on CBS television from 1965 through 1970, when the network abruptly cancelled the program, presumably because the brothers took strong stands on recreational drugs, sex, the Vietnam War and other topics that were heavily censored. The brothers showed incredible bravery in speaking out against corruption, racism and harassment by the television networks. In 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Sonoma County chapter awarded Tom Smothers its Jack Green Civil Liberties Award for work against television censorship and for speaking out for peace and civil liberties.
At age 86, in early 2023, Tom Smothers announced that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and he died from the disease on December 26, 2023.
Career in Music and Comedy
Thomas Bolyn Smothers III was born on February 2, 1937. His father was Major Thomas B. Smothers, a U.S. army officer who died as a prisoner of war of the Japanese in April 1945. In high school he was a successful competitive unicyclist, and a state champion gymnast on the parallel bars. At San Jose State University (then San Jose State College) he competed in gymnastics and was a pole vaulter on the track team. The brothers started their show business careers singing folk songs. In the 1950s-early 1960s, they developed a comedy act around their singing and made frequent appearances on TV variety shows
Their big break for fame came when they started their own television show in 1965. They were immediately criticized for expressing their views on political issues, sex and drugs. Tom responded to this criticism by publicly stating that “The only valid censorship of ideas is the right of people not to listen . . . I became a poster boy for freedom of speech.”
Cancellation and Court Ruling
After Tom voiced his strong opinions against the Vietnam war, then-President Lyndon Johnson was reported to have demanded that CBS network president William Paley get rid of the Smothers Brothers show. The brothers responded by having beloved, highly-moral folk legend Pete Seeger sing an antiwar song that was cut from the initial airing.
Tom Smothers criticized Richard Nixon and their show was canceled in April 1969, three months after Richard Nixon became president. The Smothers Brothers sued CBS for breach of contract over the cancellation of their show and on April 6, 1973, a federal court ruled in their favor and ordered CBS to pay US $776,300 (equivalent to $4,613,305 in 2020).
Tom Smothers went on to appear in films, TV shows and commercials. He also owned a winery, with his brother, in Sonoma County, California.
A Lesson from Tom Smothers’ Fight Against Censorship
In 1776 Jeremy Bentham, an English jurist and philosopher, wrote that governments should make laws that provide “The Most Good for the Most People”. Tom Smothers was a public figure who as a musician and comedian, spoke out for what he believed followed Jeremy Bentham’s principles. It takes incredible courage to be a popular public figure and speak out against abuse of civil liberties, racism, an unpopular war, drug abuse and other inflammatory issues. Tom Smothers was willing to risk his fame and fortune to stand up for what he believed was “the most good for the most people”.
Thomas Bolyn Smothers III
February 2, 1937 – December 26, 2023