If you don't remember who Steve Allen was, here's a primer: The bespectacled writer, radio personality, TV talk and game show host (he was the first Tonight Show host), musician and composer (“This Could Be the Start of Something Big”) was ahead of his time — Bill Maher, David Letterman, Johnny Carson and David Frost rolled into one. He asked guests hard questions, was book-smart, inimitably witty and took chances. One chance that paid off and set a precedent for intelligent TV (now there's an oxymoron) was his PBS show, Meeting of Minds, which consisted of teleplays featuring roundtable “interviews” with historical figures such as Cleopatra, Teddy Roosevelt, Attila the Hun and Plato. The show ran from 1977 to 1981, and became hugely popular as an entertaining and riveting way to learn about history. Now, you can witness live performances of Allen's actual scripts in a revival of the original shows. Tonight's show, the third in a series, stars Ed Asner as Karl Marx, Bruce Davison as Sir Thomas More, Dan Lauria as Ulysses S. Grant, Meeghan Holaway as Marie Antoinette and Gary Cole playing Allen as the moderator. Allen died in 2000 at age 78, but his shows are still unsurpassed in terms of television at its very best.

Mon., Oct. 5, 8 p.m., 2009

LA Weekly