LOS ANGELES — Dick Clark stood as an avatar of rock `n’ roll virtually from its birth and, until his death Wednesday at 82, as a cultural touchstone for boomers and their grandkids alike.
His identity as “the world’s oldest teenager” became strained in recent years, as time and infirmity caught up with his enduring boyishness. But he owned New Year’s Eve after four decades hosting his annual telecast on ABC from Times Square.
And as a producer and entertainment entrepreneur, he was a media titan. His Dick Clark Productions supplied movies, game shows, beauty contests and more to TV, and, for a time in the 1980s, he boasted programs on all three networks.
“There’s hardly any segment of the population that doesn’t see what I do,” Clark said in 1985. “It can be embarrassing. People come up to me and say, ‘I love your show,’ and I have no idea which one they’re talking about.”
“More important than his groundbreaking achievements was the way he made us feel — as young and vibrant and optimistic as he was,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.
Clark bridged the rebellious new music scene and traditional show business. He defended pop artists and artistic freedom, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame said in an online biography of the 1993 inductee. He helped give black artists their due by playing original R&B recordings instead of cover versions by white performers, and he condemned censorship.
He joined “American Bandstand” in 1956 after Bob Horn, who had been the host since its 1952 debut, was fired. A year later Clark integrated the show with black dancers.
Under his guidance, “Bandstand” went from a local Philadelphia show to a national phenomenon, introducing stars from Buddy Holly to Madonna. It was one of network TV’s longest-running series as part of ABC’s daytime lineup from 1957 to 1987.
“I played records, the kids danced and America watched,” was how Clark once described the series’ simplicity.
As a host, Clark had the smooth delivery of a seasoned radio announcer. As a producer, he had an ear for a hit record. He also knew how to make wary adults welcome this odd new breed of music in their homes.
Clark suffered a stroke in 2004 that affected his ability to speak and walk. That year he missed his annual appearance on “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.” He returned the following year and, although his speech at times was difficult to understand, many praised his bravery. “I’m just thankful I’m still able to enjoy this once-a-year treat,” he told The Associated Press by email in December 2008 as another New Year’s Eve approached.
Ryan Seacrest, who subsequently took over main hosting duties on the countdown show from Clark, said in a statement Wednesday that he was “deeply saddened.”
“I idolized him from the start,” Seacrest said. “He was a remarkable host and businessman and left a rich legacy to television audiences around the world.” Record executive Clive Davis called Clark “a true pioneer who revolutionized the way we listened to and consumed music. For me he ranks right up there with the giants of our business.”
Friends on Wednesday recalled a patient, encouraging man. “He was there for every crisis of my life and there were many,” Connie Francis said in statement. “Without Dick Clark there would have been no career because I was ready to abandon it. Dick was the most principled man I ever met in this business and treated everyone the same way, even if you were the little guy.”
Said Pat Boone: “Careers grew because of Dick Clark.”
Clark was honored at the Emmy Awards in 2006, telling the crowd: “I have accomplished my childhood dream, to be in show business. Everybody should be so lucky to have their dreams come true. I’ve been truly blessed.”
He was born Richard Wagstaff Clark in Mount Vernon, N.Y., in 1929. His father, Richard Augustus Clark, was a sales manager who worked in radio.
Clark idolized his athletic older brother, Bradley, who was killed in World War II. In his 1976 autobiography, “Rock, Roll & Remember,” Clark recalled how radio helped ease his loneliness and turned him into a fan of Steve Allen, Arthur Godfrey and other popular hosts.
From Godfrey, he said, he learned that “a radio announcer does not talk to `those of you out there in radio land’; a radio announcer talks to me as an individual.”
Clark began his career in the mailroom of a Utica, N.Y., radio station in 1945. By age 26, he was a broadcasting veteran, with nine years’ experience on radio and TV stations in Syracuse and Utica, N.Y., and Philadelphia. He held a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University. While in Philadelphia, Clark befriended McMahon, who later credited Clark for introducing him to his future “Tonight Show” boss, Johnny Carson.
In the 1960s, “American Bandstand” moved from black-and-white to color, from weekday broadcasts to once-a-week Saturday shows, and from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. Although its influence started to ebb, it still featured some of the biggest stars of each decade, whether Janis Joplin, the Jackson 5, Talking Heads or Prince. But Clark never did book two of rock’s iconic groups, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Elvis Presley also never performed, although Clark managed an on-air telephone interview while Presley was in the Army.
The show’s status as an American cultural institution was solidified when Clark donated Bandstand’s original podium and backdrop to the Smithsonian Institution.
When Michael Jackson died in June 2009, Clark recalled working with him since he was a child, adding, “Of all the thousands of entertainers I have worked with, Michael was THE most outstanding. Many have tried and will try to copy him, but his talent will never be matched.”
Clark kept more than records spinning with his Dick Clark Productions. Its credits included the Academy of Country Music and Golden Globe awards; TV movies including the Emmy-winning “The Woman Who Willed a Miracle” (1984), the “$25,000 Pyramid” game show and the 1985 film “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.” Clark himself made a cameo on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and a dramatic appearance as a witness on the original “Perry Mason.”
In 1974, at ABC’s request, Clark created the American Music Awards after the network lost the broadcast rights to the Grammy Awards.
He was also an author, with “Dick Clark’s American Bandstand” and such self-help books as “Dick Clark’s Program for Success in Your Business and Personal Life” and “Looking Great, Staying Young.”
His unchanging looks inspired a joke in “Peggy Sue Got Married,” the 1986 comedy starring Kathleen Turner as an unhappy wife and mother transported back to 1960. Watching Clark on a black-and-white TV set, she shakes her head in amazement, “Look at that man, he never ages.”
Clark’s clean-cut image survived a music industry scandal. In 1960, during a congressional investigation of “payola,” or bribery in the record and radio industry, Clark was called on to testify.
He was cleared of any suspicions but was required by ABC to divest himself of record-company interests to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. The demand cost him $8 million, Clark once estimated. His holdings included partial ownership of Swan Records, which later released the first U.S. version of the Beatles’ smash “She Loves You.”
In 2004, Clark announced plans for a revamped version of “American Bandstand.” The show, produced with “American Idol” creator Simon Fuller, was to feature a host other than Clark.
He was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 1994 and served as spokesman for the American Association of Diabetes Educators.
Clark, twice divorced, had a son, Richard Augustus II, with first wife Barbara Mallery and two children, Duane and Cindy, with second wife Loretta Martin. He married Kari Wigton in 1977.
AP National Writers Frazier Moore, David Bauder and Hillel Italie contributed to this report.