Gary Owens, a radio and TV announcer and voiceover artist who will always be remembered as the voice of the seminal NBC comedy series Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, died on Thursday. He was 80.
Owens died due to complications from diabetes, which he had suffered from since the age of 8. His son, Chris Dane Owens, a producer and musician, told The Hollywood Reporter that his father died peacefully at his home in Encino, surrounded by family.
His son said Owens continued to work until he was 79, furthering a career that began when he was 16 years old.
With a mellifluous baritone voice, Owens performed on 16 national television series and was seen cupping his ear as he acted as announcer on every episode of Laugh-In, which ran from 1968 until 1974.
For 30 years, Owens hosted a popular national radio show on The Music of Your Life Network and was a personality on a number of California stations, including KMPC, KFI, KFWB and KIIS.
Owens was the first radio star to be inducted into the Hollywood Hall of Fame (presented by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce) and received his star on the Walk of Fame in 1980.
Owens is survived by his wife of 57 years, Arleta, and another son Scott, also a producer.
A memorial is being planned. In lieu of gifts, the family requests donations be made to the Children’s Diabetes Foundation.
Owens started his career as a cartoonist in Mitchell, South Dakota, after he won an art scholarship at age 14 in a competition judged by Peanuts creator Charles Schultz. They later became great friends.
It was in his hometown that Owens also got his start on radio as a news director of KOIL when he was just 22.
When a DJ quit, Owens took over that job as well, and his deep voice, phrasing, impeccable timing and clever ad-libbing soon helped the station propel to the top of the local ratings.
That brought an offer from a Denver station for more money. His talent was soon spotted by radio pioneer Gordon McLendon, who moved Gary from market to market until he landed at KFWB, then a powerhouse station in Hollywood. It was there he also began doing TV work for a station owned by the same group.
Gary went on to do a radio show for KMPC in Los Angeles for 20 years; and later served as vp of Gene Autry’s Golden West Broadcasters. He also was a vp at The Gannett Company, then the biggest media company in the U.S.
Owens was in demand to do voiceovers (he did over 30,000) and commercials as well as radio and TV. From its inception in 1969, he became part of the children’s TV show Sesame Street, announcing things like, “Sesame Street is brought to you by the letter M.”
He appeared on more than 1,000 network TV shows including Mad About You, Bob Hope specials, That 70s Show and many others.
For his radio show he created the catch phrase “Beautiful Downtown Burbank,” which Tonight Show host Johnny Carson made famous as well.
Owens did voices for over 3,000 animated cartoon episodes as a narrator and at times as a superhero on shows such as Space Ghost, Roger Ramjet and even Batman.
Gary himself was animated in Garfield and Friends, Bobby’s World and other shows. For five years he was an animated character on the Post Fruity Pebbles commercials with Fred Flintstone.
His feature film work included The Love Bug, National Lampoons European Vacation, How I Got Into College and many others.
As an author, Owens wrote How to Make A Million Dollars With Your Voice or Lose Your Tonsils Trying; and in 1973, What to Do While You’re Holding The Phone.
He starred in 30 videos, including the best-selling Dinosaur series, and won two Emmys for shows on KABC. He performed on 22 albums, CD’s and singles, six of which were nominated for Grammys. He did three comedy CDs with his best friend, Jonathan Winters.
He starred in Certifiably Jonathan with Winters, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Jimmy Kimmel and others.
Owens also worked with Winters on Laugh-In, recalled the shows executive producer George Schlatter: “He adored Jonathan and Jonathan really enjoyed Gary because his sense of humor matched Jonathan’s love of whimsy and love of characters.”
Schlatter hired Owens almost by accident and then created a special schedule for him to be the announcer on Laugh-In. Since Owens worked on radio or did voiceovers much of the day, they would shoot his segments doing the announcing separately from the rest of the cast, usually early in the morning.
“Gary was a delightful, positive, upbeat, happy, creative individual who people just loved,” Shlatter said. “He added something every time he came onscreen.”
Owens would arrive with a sheaf of papers filled with ideas for jokes and bits for the show, many of which made it onto the program. “The only thing Gary and I ever disagreed on was his love of puns,” Shlatter said. “I hated puns. So he would bring all of these word plays and stuff, almost all of which was written by him, and it was wonderful.”
Owens was involved in hundreds of charitable causes including the Barbara Davis Children’s Diabetes Foundation, the Southern California Multiple Sclerosis Drive and the Diabetes Bike-a-Thon.
“I never knew him not to like anybody,” Schlatter said. “And I never knew him to have an unhappy moment. There was nothing not to like about Gary.”