Joan Rivers, Legendary Comedienne, Dies at 81

12:00 PM PST 09/04/2014 by Duane Byrge , Mike Barnes
Charles William Bush

Spurned by Johnny Carson, the pull-no-punches celebrity rallied time and again to reinvent herself as a reality star and fashion critic

Joan Rivers, the blunt, tart-tongued celebrity and talk show host who reconstructed her career time and time again en route to becoming one of the most memorable female comics of all time, has died. She was 81.

The breakthrough standup comic, writer, actress, fashion critic, red-carpet doyenne, gossip and businesswoman died Thursday at 1:17 p.m. local time at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, her daughter Melissa announced. She was rushed there Aug. 28 and placed on life support after she suffered from respiratory and cardiac arrest during surgery on her vocal cords in a doctor's office.

"My mother’s greatest joy in life was to make people laugh. Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon," Melissa Rivers stated. 

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Can we talk? Starting out as a gag writer, the Brooklyn native poked fun at her fondness for plastic surgery, never pulled a punch in a bid for a laugh and insulted just about everyone — no one was off-limits — to forge an impressive, and somewhat notorious, show business legacy. 

Johnny Carson designated her as the first permanent guest host for The Tonight Show, and she stood in for him from 1983-86. But when Rivers signed with the then-fledgling Fox network to host The Late Show — a groundbreaking move for a woman — and thus go opposite Carson, he considered it an act of betrayal and refused to speak to her again.

“The first person I called was Johnny, and he hung up on me — and never, ever spoke to me again,” she told The Hollywood Reporter in December 2012, “and then denied that I called him. I couldn’t figure it out. I would see him in a restaurant and go over and say hello. He wouldn’t talk to me.”

Ironically, Rivers was a help to Carson when he was entertaining an idea to leave The Tonight Show in the early 1980s to start a late-night franchise at ABC.

According to a 2013 memoir by Carson’s former lawyer Henry Bushkin, Rivers and her husband Edgar Rosenberg hosted a clandestine meeting in their Beverly Hills home in which ABC execs pitched Carson on the move.

“I know this is top secret shit you guys are going over,” she says in the book. “I let all the staff off. No one else is in the place, so feel free to talk about your secrets — how much Barbara Walters makes, how much you have to pay plastic surgeons to keep Joan Collins’ boobs off the floor.”

After her Fox show plunged in the ratings and was canceled after just eight months, she hosted the syndicated Joan Rivers Show for five years and won an Daytime Emmy in 1990. She did not return to The Tonight Show until February, for Jimmy Fallon’s debut.

In 1987, a few months after the end of The Late Show, Rosenberg, who managed her career and produced her Fox show, committed suicide.

Rivers and Melissa in 1994 began hosting E! Entertainment’s red carpet show for the Golden Globes, and that led to their Fashion Police specials for the network. In 2004, she signed a lucrative three-year deal to cover carpets for the TV Guide Channel.

Rivers returned to E! for the reboot of Fashion Police as a half-hour series (and recently got into a messy tiff with the WGA over the non-union show). She and Melissa later starred in the reality series Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?

She launched a TV Land reality series in 2009, How'd You Get So Rich?, a glimpse at the personal world of self-made multimillionaires. Her ancillary endeavors were vast: She launched the Joan Rivers Classics Collection of Jewelry on QVC in 1990 and a line of beauty products in 2000, including her signature fragrance, Now and Forever.

The revealing 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work followed her around for 14 months, around the time she emerged victorious on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice.

More recently, Rivers guest-starred as herself on the FX plastic surgery drama Nip/Tuck, had sex with Louis C.K. on a 2011 episode on Louie and worked in the movies The Smurfs and Iron Man 3.

She was born Joan Alexandra Molinsky on June 8, 1933, in Brooklyn, the daughter of Russian-Jewish refugees. Rivers became interested in performing and at age 11, she sent her photograph to MGM. 

Rivers attended the Adelphi Academy preparatory school in Brooklyn, and after graduation, landed a role as a teenager in the crowd in the 1951 movie Mister Universe. She attended Connecticut College for Women and, later, Barnard College, where she studied English and anthropology and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1954. 

Rivers got a job in the shoe department at Lord & Taylor and progressed to fashion coordinator of Bond clothing stores. But she decided to pursue acting and appeared in a play titled Seawood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan as a knife-wielding lesbian with a crush on a character played by a then-unknown Barbra Streisand.   

She gained exposure in Broadway USA, a 1960 show for the USO, and landed a gig with the Chicago-based improvisational acting troupe Second City, where she honed her now-familiar character of a neurotic Jewish woman. She returned to New York in 1962 and performed at such clubs as The Bitter End; started a comedy tour with Jim Connell and Jake Holmes; and signed a long-term, solo performance deal with a club called The Duplex.

In 1965, she landed a gig as a gag writer/participant on CBS’ Candid Camera and appeared for the first time on The Tonight Show, then hosted by Jack Paar. Later, she made appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and other talk/variety shows.

Her contemporaries when she was starting out included Woody Allen, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Rodney Dangerfield and Dick Cavett.

“Everybody broke through ahead of me,” she told THR. “I was the last one in the group to break through, or to be allowed to break through. Looking back, I think it was because I was a woman. Because in those days, they would come down to the Village and look at you for Johnny Carson. I was the very last one of the group they put on the Carson show.”

Rivers wrote and directed the 1978 feature comedy Rabbit Test, starring Billy Crystal as man who gets pregnant.

She voiced the baby in the John Travolta-Kirstie Alley box-office hit Look Who’s Talking (1989) and was heard in Mel BrooksSpaceballs (1987) as a character called Dot Matrix. She also appeared in such films as The Swimmer (1969), The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), Serial Mom (1994), Goosed (1999) and Shrek 2 (2004) and on the TV series Suddenly Susan, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Simpsons and Hot in Cleveland.

For the stage, she co-wrote and starred in Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress at The Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.  It later had successful runs in Edinburgh and London. And she released comedy albums, including the Grammy-nominated What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most? in 1997.

In 1984, she penned The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abromowitz, a New York Times best-seller based largely on her comic persona. Her other books included Men Are Stupid and They Like Big Boobs and Murder at the Academy Awards: A Red Carpet Murder Mystery.

“If there is a secret to being a comedian, it’s just loving what you do,” she told THR in 2012. “It is my drug of choice. I don’t need real drugs. I don’t need liquor. It’s the joy that I get performing. That is my rush. I get it nowhere else.

“What pleasure you feel when you’ve kept people happy for an hour and a half. They’ve forgotten their troubles. It’s great. There’s nothing like it in the world. When everybody’s laughing, it’s a party. And then you get a check at the end. That’s very nice.”

Survivors also include her grandson Cooper.

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