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Jay Thomas, the good-natured comic actor who starred on the sitcoms Murphy Brown and Cheers, died Thursday. He was 69.
Don Buchwald, his longtime agent and friend, said Thomas died at his home in Santa Barbara after a battle with cancer.
Thomas played the obnoxious TV talk-show host Jerry Gold (and Candice Bergen’s on-again, off-again boyfriend) on CBS’ Murphy Brown from 1989-98 — winning a pair of Emmys — after his stint as Rhea Perlman’s husband Eddie LeBec, a French-Canadian goalie with the Boston Bruins, on NBC’s Cheers. On the latter, his character winds up appearing in an ice show and gets killed by a Zamboni.
Thomas also starred on his own sitcom, playing an egotistical sportswriter opposite Susan Dey and then Annie Potts on CBS’ Love and War, a 1992-95 series created by Murphy Brown‘s Diane English.
Thomas often played loud, sleazy types: He recurred on Showtime’s Ray Donovan as Marty Grossman, the operator of a salacious TMZ-like website.
For years, Thomas appeared on David Letterman’s late-night talk show during Christmas season and told an entertaining, never-gets-old story centered on Clayton Moore, star of TV’s The Lone Ranger. He and Letterman also took turns throwing a football, trying to dislodge a meatball from the top of a Christmas tree.
On the big screen, Thomas played the Easter Bunny in the Santa Clause movies released in 2002 and 2006 and appeared in such films as Legal Eagles (1986), Straight Talk (1992), A Smile Like Yours (1997), Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995) — as football coach Bill Meister — Dragonfly (2002) and Labor Pains (2009).
A native of Kermit, Texas, who was raised in New Orleans, Thomas got his start in radio as a high school football announcer for the Rutherford High Rams in Panama City, Fla.
He worked at stations in Panama City; Pensacola, Fla.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Nashville; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Charlotte, N.C., where he earned nicknames like “The Mouth of the South,” “The Scorpion” and “The Prince of Darkness.”
Thomas moved to New York for a job at the FM station 99X and then did stand-up comedy at the Improv and acted in off-Broadway plays. He got his start on television in 1979 as Remo DaVinci, the co-owner of a New York deli, on ABC’s Mork & Mindy. He also hosted a radio show in Los Angeles and, most recently, had a daily gig with SiriusXM.
Appearing as an annual Christmas guest alongside Letterman “has been fun,” he said in 2014. “I’ve always wanted to be one of those guys on late-night talk shows who everybody wants to see. Like on Carson, when [Don] Rickles would come out. I became that guy. And I love football, so my two big dreams were totally realized.”
Thomas first picked off the meatball in 1998 when then-New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde tried the stunt but failed.
About that Lone Ranger story: Thomas was a radio host with big hair in Charlotte in the early ’70s, and he and his producer offered to give Moore — wearing his crime-fighter costume and mask for an appearance at a car dealership — a ride to the airport. Thomas and the producer had just gotten stoned, he said.
On the way, a car backed into their Volvo during a traffic jam and fled. Thomas chased the vehicle, then confronted the other driver — who denied anything had happened — and told him he was going to call the cops.
The guy took one look at Thomas and his producer and said, “Oh really, who do you think they are going to believe, you two hippie freaks or me?” At this point, Moore emerged from the backseat and said, “They’ll believe me, citizen.”
Survivors include his wife Sally and sons Sam, Max and J.T.
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Tracee Ellis Ross