1 9 7 5 – 1 9 8 3 (Australia)
The “Lanky Yank” was born Morton Donald Isaacson, but is known to millions of Australians as Don Lane, the undisputed king of late-night variety programming in Australia.
Isaacson grew up in the Bronx (his father was a New York policeman) but left NY for California as a young man because he could no longer stand cold weather and became interested in show business after winning a talent quest in the US Army.
He chose the name ‘Don Lane’ after ruling out alternatives ‘Don Sackson’ and ‘Donny Kaye’.
Lane travelled to Australia for a six-week visit in the 1960s and stayed, winding up hosting a TV variety show for TCN 9.
In 1968 he spent four days in Sydney’s Long Bay gaol on a charge of possessing marijuana. After a messy, traumatic trial he was cleared, with his ordeal bringing him much public sympathy.
The Don Lane Show debuted on 12 May 1975 and soon became the flagship programme for Network Ten, screening live to air on Monday and Thursday nights from 9:30 to 11:00 PM for eight years, eventually moving to Channel 9.
In 1980 the Melbourne-based show moved for a while to an unprecedented four nights a week, Monday to Thursday.
Broadcast by 60 television stations around Australia, the show was regularly watched by more than three million viewers.
Ably supported by Bert Newton (displaying sheer comic genius many times – If Bert had been American he would be a bona fide megastar by now), Don made us laugh, sing, cry, wonder and ogle in amazement.
The Laurel and Hardy-style partnership between Lane and Bert Newton was inspired, particularly during the ever-popular Wheel segment.
But at times Don also courted controversy, such as on the evening of Monday 11 August 1980 when he argued live on air with Canadian magician James Randi about the psychic abilities of Doris Stokes, before swearing and storming off the set.
Lane stood up, swept a collection of bent keys and broken spoons from a table, turned to Randi and said: “You can piss off” (pictured below). The programme cut for a commercial break and when Lane resumed, Randi was no longer on television.
Lane claimed Randi had called Mrs Stokes a liar when in fact she was “nice and would not hurt a soul”.
Eventually, the powers that be declared The Don Lane Show must end. The final show aired on 10 November 1983.
There was never a show of this calibre on Australian TV before the Aussies very own adopted American burst on to the screen in vibrant colour. Nor is there ever likely to be again. More’s the pity.
Don Lane died from a dementia-related illness caused by Alzheimer’s disease on 22 October 2009.
“I love your faces!”