Alan Colmes, the feisty liberal foil to conservative Sean Hannity, half of one of the most successful programs in Fox News Channel’s history, died Thursday morning. He was 66.
Colmes’ wife, Jocelyn Crowley — sister of longtime Fox contributor Monica Crowley — said in an interview with Newsday Thursday morning that Colmes had been undergoing treatment for lymphoma at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
“He was a wonderful person with a wonderful heart,” she said. “He had an incredible sense of humor and made my life just so much better,”
Colmes left “Hannity & Colmes” in 2008 — of his own volition, he had long insisted — but has remained an active presence on the network, and on radio, and maintained a friendship with Hannity. In a statement, the conservative commentator called Colmes one of the “most decent, kind and wonderful people you’d ever want to meet.” He added, “Despite major political differences, we forged a deep friendship. Alan, in the midst of great sickness and illness, showed the single greatest amount of courage I’ve ever seen.”
Deep differences indeed. For years, Colmes was Fox News’ most visible liberal voice, while some critics argued, its only liberal voice. Nonetheless, he also happened to be living proof of network founder Roger Ailes’ declaration that Fox was indeed “fair and balanced” — or at least proof every weeknight at 9.
While separated by that vast ocean of ideological differences, Hannity and Colmes nonetheless forged an off-screen friendship, and a certain degree of collegiality did surface on the air, too. Both were Long Islanders, and they shared that bond as well.
The Lynbrook-raised Colmes was a graduate of Lynbrook High School and Hofstra University. He had hoped to become a stand-up comedian, but instead headed to radio, and stints at Long Island stations WGBB/1240 AM and WGSM/740 AM. While working in New Haven, Connecticut, he began to establish a talent for rebutting a conservative point of view with a clearly stated liberal one. Colmes went on to radio gigs at New York powerhouses WNBC/660 and WABC/770.
By the time Ailes had decided upon Hannity for a prime-time role, he had also decided on a point-counterpoint format. In Hannity, he had the point, but no counterpoint, which was why the program was referred internally as “Hannity and LTBD,” or “Liberal to Be Determined.”
Hannity had appeared on other programs opposite Colmes, also knew him and liked him. Ailes’ “LTBD” was discovered and “Hannity & Colmes” debuted in 1996.
“Hannity & Colmes” had a rocky start. The show seemed a pallid knockoff of CNN’s “Crossfire,” and an unconvincing one as well. On air, both anchors looked like they had been pulled out of central casting, too. Hannity was the square-jawed right-wing straight talker; Colmes the less-robust, bespectacled intellectual type.
Then came the surprise: Colmes stood his own, and occasionally — perhaps often, although an official count does not exist — bested Hannity. He got flak, including from Al Franken, who wrote in his book on the right-wing media, “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them,” that off-camera Colmes “add[ed] toner to the copiers and printers [and] ordered Chinese food for editors working on misleading video packages.” Franken clearly hadn’t watched the show all that often.
On the air, Colmes had a dry sense of humor and tended to brush off a Hannity position as if brushing aside a statement made by a well-meaning, ill-informed child. By contrast, Hannity laughed off Colmes’ talking points as if they were positions so contrary to common sense that they merited only ridicule. Humor — even subtle humor — softened their relative positions. It also tended to help Hannity, who was the real star of this nightly pillow fight. Instead of mean-spirited, he came off as tolerant, or at least willing to tolerate — however briefly — an opinion not remotely his own. He lost that crucial foil when Colmes left the show.
In a phone interview Thursday, Hannity said, “In the beginning, neither one of us thought we belonged on TV, and we weren’t any good in the beginning. We were horrible.” With their radio background, neither had TV experience, and that showed on the air. “That’s what really bonded us,” Hannity said. “Neither of us thought we deserved the opportunity but we worked hard and carried our weight.”
“We wanted to survive, and together, in a very friendly way, we survived. A lot of people thought, hey, they must hate each other, but it was just the opposite. We had very strong political differences and sometimes we did get mad at each other, but when the show was over, we’d say, ‘so you wanna go get a drink?’ ’’
Hannity said that when Colmes first told him about his cancer, he said his friend had told him, “ ‘I know I’m going to lose my hair, and the doctors say I have a pretty good prognosis, but I’m just worried about my wife.’ Honestly, that’s the guy he was. At the toughest moment of his life, he was worried about her. But that’s him. He’s a genuinely kind, soft-hearted invididual, and a very, very staunch, strong believer in his country. He loved his country.”
After 12 years, the Colmes/Hannity team wrapped in 2008, and at the time, all parties insisted they wanted to move on. In a 2008 interview with Newsday, Colmes said, “I expressed my desire to make a creative change with what I’m doing. They were a little surprised but understood and asked if I’d mind staying through the election.”
The reason to go, he added, was based on the country’s political change: “The country has a very different mindset, people are in a very different mood, and I kind of felt that mood internally.”
Hannity told Newsday in a 2009 interview, “Look, I love Alan. He’s a friend of mine, but he decided he wanted to do some other things. One of the problems both Alan and I would tell you is that the worst words in the English language were when the director got in our ear and said either ‘Alan’s up’ [turn to talk] or ‘Sean’s up.’ This gives the show a better flow of the conversation, and you can really dig down deep into something without rushing through it.”
Crowley said of her husband, “He brought so much to both radio and television. I think he was able to do something that was really unique in a world where people have really strong opinions on both the right and the left. He had a talent for forcefully presenting his progressive ideas but with a grace and humor that made him so effective as a broadcaster.”