Legendary Comic Phyllis Diller Dies at 95

12:11 PM PST 08/20/2012 by Duane Byrge
Chris Buck

The actress and comedian was famous for her eccentric stage persona of a wild-haired, raspy-voiced housewife.

Phyllis Diller, the pioneering comedian whose wisecracks about her looks and whose crackling laugh was identifiable to millions, died Monday in Los Angeles. She was 95.

"The world has lost a true trailblazer, a gracious and kind woman, beloved by all," Milt Suchin, her manager of 33 years, tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Diller built a career making self-deprecating jokes. She delighted audiences on such programs as The Tonight Show, where her ugly-duckling shtick was a favorite of Johnny Carson. Always poking fun at her looks, her numerous face-lifts were a winning source of fun in her routines. In the same spirit, Diller was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Shame for her recorded version of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.”

Considered the first American woman to become known on a national level for stand-up comedy, Diller 'influenced every female comedian that came after her," her longtime agent, Fred Wostbrock, tells THR. "She was the first one. No one was doing it before her. She conquered Vegas, Broadway, film, television. She was on the Carson show several times a year for 30 years."

She was a particular favorite of Bob Hope, who took her under his wing after catching her stand-up act at the Purple Onion club in San Francisco during the mid-1950s. Diller went on to appear in three of Hope’s ’60s movies -- Eight on the Lam, Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! and The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell -- and two dozen of his TV specials.

She also starred with Jayne Mansfield in the campy 1966 romp The Fat Spy, directed by Joseph Cates. Her first film role, surprisingly, was in William Inge’s Splendor in the Grass (1961), starring Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood.

At the time of her Purple Onion stint, Diller was a 37-year-old suburban San Francisco homemaker with five children who had previously only performed in PTA skits. Her jibes at her fictional husband “Fang,” along with mocking her own domestic ineptitude, were novel for the times. In an era when the perfect TV housewife -- Harriet Nelson, Donna Reed, Barbara Billingsley -- glamorized the suburbs, Diller was a refreshing antidote to such idealized family notions. 

As part of her stage act, she held a long cigarette holder from which she pretended to smoke -- though she was a nonsmoker in real life.

"The only tragedy is that Phyllis Diller was the last from an era that insisted a woman had to look funny in order to be funny," Joan Rivers tweeted Monday.

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Diller got her first national TV exposure in 1950 as a contestant on Groucho Marx’s quiz show You Bet Your Life. "Groucho said to her, 'You know, you’re very funny,' and from that moment on she focused her life on being a stand-up comic," Wostbrock says.

Diller was particularly popular in the ’60s and ’70s, appearing on the top comedy, quiz and variety shows of the day, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Andy Williams Show, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, Love, American Style, Get Smart, The Carol Burnett Show and What’s My Line? Her saucy wit and raspy laugh were infectious, a natural for game shows. “I love TV,” she once said. “It’s not my fault if the tubes blow out when I laugh.”

Her quick humor and good-ol’-girl comedy won her a regular spot on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts -- not exactly female turf at the time. Her one-liners were hoots: “I was in a beauty contest once. I not only came in last, I was hit in the mouth by Miss Congeniality.”

Contrary to her comedic persona, Diller was a woman of serious artistic gifts: She appeared as a piano soloist with about 100 symphony orchestras across the country and was an accomplished painter and renowned cook.

Diller received the Women’s International Center Living Legacy Award in 1990 and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1993. She continued to thrive on a nightclub/stage career until 2002, when she retired from the circuit at age 84. She had planned to do some stand-up on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno to mark her 90th birthday in 2007, but she fractured her back and was forced to cancel.

She was an uproarious guest on such fare as Celebrity Bowling and The New Scooby-Doo Movies as well as on such primetime series as Blossom, 227, The Love Boat and The Jeffersons. Diller also brought her wacky persona to a number of films, mainly comedies including Pin Motel, Doctor Hackenstein and more recently Everything’s Jake, Hip! Edgy! Quirky! and The Last Place on Earth.

She starred in the 1966-67 ABC sitcom The Pruitts of Southampton, in which she played the widowed matriarch of a family that lived in a huge mansion but actually was $10 million in debt. (The title was changed to The Phyllis Diller Show for its second season, for which the premise was altered as well.) She also toplined The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show, a short-lived NBC variety show whose cast also included Rip Taylor and Norm Crosby.

More recently, Diller appeared on such TV shows as Boston Legal, The Drew Carey Show, 7th Heaven and the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful, on which she did a 10-episode arc.

Her cackle also gave raspy voice to characters on such animated fare as Family Guy, King of the Hill, Robot Chicken, The Wild Thornberrys, Hey Arnold! and The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. She also voiced the Queen in Pixar’s A Bug’s Life (1998).

She also played the title role for three months in the original Broadway production of Hello, Dolly! in 1969-70.

Born Phyllis Ada Driver on July 17, 1917, in Lima, Ohio, she aspired to be a pianist as a teenager. She studied at Chicago’s Sherwood Music Conservatory for three years before she eloped with Sherwood Anderson Diller in 1939. Her comic career began to take off 15 years later with some local radio work and her Purple Onion stints. She described her comedy style as “tragedy revisited.”

Watch Diller do stand-up on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969 below.

Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.

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