Monday, August 20, 2012

R.I.P. Phyllis Diller

Phyllis Diller (July 17, 1917 – August 20, 2012) was an American actress and comedienne. She created a stage persona of a wild-haired, eccentrically dressed housewife who makes self-deprecating jokes about her age and appearance, her terrible cooking, and a husband named "Fang", while pretending to smoke from a long cigarette holder. Diller's signature was her unusual laugh.

Early Life

Diller was born Phyllis Ada Driver on July 17, 1917 in Lima, Ohio, the daughter of Frances Ada (née Romshe; January 12, 1881 – January 26, 1949) and Perry Marcus Driver (June 13, 1862 – August 12, 1948), an insurance agent. She had German and Irish ancestry (the surname "Driver" had been changed from "Treiber" several generations earlier). Her mother was about twenty years younger than her father.

Diller was raised a Methodist. Diller attended Lima’s Central High School, then studied piano for three years at the Sherwood Music Conservatory of Columbia College Chicago before transferring to Bluffton College, where she met fellow "Lima-ite" and classmate Hugh Downs.

Diller was a housewife, mother, and advertising copywriter. During World War II, Diller lived in Ypsilanti, Michigan, while her husband worked at the historic Willow Run Bomber Plant. In the mid-1950s [and into the 1960s], she made appearances on The Jack Paar Show and was a contestant on Groucho Marx’s quiz show You Bet Your Life.

Although she made her career in comedy, Diller had studied the piano for many years. She decided against a career in music after hearing her teachers and mentors play with much more ability than she thought that she would be able to achieve. She still played in her private life, however, and owned a custom-made harpsichord.


Diller began her career working at KROW radio in Oakland, California, in 1952. In November of that year, she began filming a television show titled Phyllis Dillis, the Homely Friendmaker. The 15-minute series was a BART (Bay Area Radio-Television) production, directed for television by ABC’s Jim Baker. In the mid 1950s, while residing in the East Bay city of Alameda, California, Diller was employed at KSFO radio in San Francisco. Bill Anderson wrote and produced a television show at KGO-TV called "Pop Club," which was hosted by Don Sherwood. "Pop Club" was a live half-hour show that combined playing records with "experts" rating them, and dancing girls encouraging audience participation. The show was an early advertisement for Belfast Root Beer, the show's main sponsor, known today as Mug Root Beer. Anderson invited her onto his show on April 23, 1955, as a vocalist.

Diller first appeared as a stand-up at The Purple Onion on March 7, 1955, and remained there for 87 straight weeks. Diller appeared on "Del Courtney's Showcase" on KPIX television on November 3, 1956.

After moving to Webster Groves, in St Louis in 1961, Diller honed her act in St. Louis clubs such as Gaslight Square's Crystal Palace. [During the] Mid-1960s -- St Louis was always home to her. Getting her first start on the Charlotte Peters Show in St Louis, where many got their start. Diller's fame grew when she co-starred with Bob Hope in 23 television specials and three films in the 1960s: Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!, Eight on the Lam, and The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell. Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! performed well at the box office and Diller accompanied Hope to Vietnam in 1966 with his USO troupe during the height of the Vietnam War.

Throughout the 1960s, she appeared regularly as a special guest on many television programs. For example, she appeared as one of the What’s My Line? mystery guests. The blindfolded panel on that evening's broadcast included Sammy Davis, Jr., and they were able to discern Diller's identity in just three guesses. Also, Diller made regular cameo appearances making her trademark wisecracks on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. Self-deprecating to a fault, a typical Diller joke had her running after a garbage truck pulling away from her curb. "Am I too late for the trash?" she'd yell. The driver's reply: "No, jump right in!"

Though her main claim to fame was her stand-up comedy act, Diller also appeared in other films besides the three mentioned above, including a cameo appearance as Texas Guinan, the wisecracking nightclub hostess in the 1961 film Splendor in the Grass. She appeared in more than a dozen, usually low-budget, movies, including voice work as The Monster's Mate in the Rankin/Bass animated film Mad Monster Party (1967), co-starring Boris Karloff.

Diller also starred in two short-lived TV series: the half-hour sitcom The Pruitts of Southampton (later retitled The Phyllis Diller Show) on ABC from 1966 to 1967, and the variety show The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show on NBC in 1968. More recent television appearances for Diller included at least three episodes between 1999 and 2003 on the long-running family drama 7th Heaven, in one of which she got drunk while cooking dinner for the household, and a 2002 episode of The Drew Carey Show, as Mimi Bobek's grandmother. She posed for Playboy, but the photos were never run in the magazine. Her voice can be heard in several animated TV shows, including The New Scooby-Doo Movies (1972) as herself, Hey Arnold! as Arnold's grandpa's sister Mitzi, The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2002) as Jimmy's grandmother, and on Family Guy in 2006 as Peter Griffin's mother, Thelma Griffin.

Beginning December 26, 1969, she had a three-month run on Broadway in Hello, Dolly! (opposite Richard Deacon) as the second to last in a succession of replacements for Carol Channing in the title role, which included Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable and Pearl Bailey. After Diller's stint, Ethel Merman took over the role until the end of the show's run in December 1970.

In 1993, she was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

In 1998, Diller provided the vocals for the Queen in Disney/Pixar’s animated movie A Bug’s Life. In 2005,

Diller was featured as one of many contemporary comics in a documentary film, The Aristocrats. Diller, who avoided blue comedy, did a version of an old, risqué vaudeville routine in which she describes herself passing out when she first heard the joke, forgetting the actual content of the joke.

In 2000, she was awarded the Women in Film Lucy Award in recognition of her excellence and innovation in her creative works that have enhanced the perception of women through the medium of television.

In 2003, after hearing of the donation of Archie Bunker's chair to the Smithsonian Institution, Diller opened her doors to the National Museum of American History and offered up some of her most iconic costume pieces and her gag file, a steel cabinet with 48 file-drawers containing more than 50,000 jokes and gags typewritten on index cards by Diller during her career. From August 12 to October 28, 2011, the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery at the National Museum of American History displayed Diller's gag file and some of the objects that became synonymous with her comedic persona-an unkempt wig, wrist-length gloves, cloth-covered ankle boots and a bejeweled cigarette holder.

On January 24, 2007, she appeared on The Tonight Show and performed stand-up, before chatting with Jay Leno.

Diller had a cameo appearance in an episode of ABC's Boston Legal on April 10, 2007. She appeared as herself, confronting William Shatner’s character Denny Crane, alleging to have had a torrid love affair with him. They seemed to have enjoyed a romantic moment in a foxhole during World War II.

Diller was a member of the Society of Singers, which supports singers in need. In June 2001 at the request of fellow Society member and producer Scott Sherman, she appeared at Kansas City and Philadelphia Pride events. The mayor of Philadelphia officially proclaimed June 8, 2001, as "Phyllis Diller Day." She was presented an official proclamation onstage to a standing ovation. In 2006, Mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom proclaimed February 5, 2006, "Phyllis Diller Day in San Francisco", which she accepted by phone.

She also recorded at least five comedy LP records, one of which was Born To Sing, released as Columbia CS 9523.

Although known for decades for smoking from long cigarette holders in her comedy act, Diller was a lifelong nonsmoker, and the cigarette holders were stage props that she had specially constructed.
On August 10, 2011, she appeared in an episode of her friend Roseanne Barr's reality show, Roseanne’s Nuts.

Personal life

Diller, a longtime resident of the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, California, credited much of her success to Bob Hope, in large part because he included her in many of his films and his Vietnam USO shows. She was an accomplished pianist as well as a painter.



Diller was married and divorced twice. She also dated Earl "Madman" Muntz, a pioneer in oddball TV and radio ads.

She had six children from her marriage to her first husband, Sherwood Anderson Diller. Her first child was Peter (b. 1940; d. 1998 of cancer). Her second child Sally, born in 1944, has suffered from schizophrenia most of her life. Her third child, a son, lived for only two weeks in an incubator. A daughter, Suzanne, was born in 1946, followed by another daughter Stephanie (b. 1948 d. 2002 of a stroke) and a son Perry (b. 1950).

Diller's second husband was actor Warde Donovan (born Warde Tatum), whom she married on 7 October 1965 and divorced the following year; they apparently re-married and divorced for a second time in 1974.

She was the partner of Robert P. Hastings from 1985 until his death in 1996.

Her youngest son Perry, now 62, oversaw her affairs until her death. Diller was not the mother of actress
Susan Lucci, nor TV personality Dorothy Lucey, despite urban legends to that effect, frequently passed through viral emails under trivia headings such as "Did You Know...?"

The husband frequently mentioned in her act, "Fang", was entirely fictional, and not based on any of her actual husbands.

Diller spent much of her final years painting, cooking, and gardening.

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