Comedy queen Phyllis Diller dies at 95
Before Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr and Ellen DeGeneres, Phyllis Diller crashed the mostly male comedy circuit party to become an icon in the stand-up field.
The raucous comedian, known for her wild wigs and cackling laugh, died at her home in L.A. at the age of 95. “She died peacefully in her sleep with a smile on her face,” longtime manager Milt Suchin told the Associated Press.
Born Phyllis Ada Driver in Lima, Ohio, Diller studied at Chicago’s Sherwood Music Conservatory for three years before eloping with Sherwood Anderson Diller in 1939.
She didn’t begin her career in stand-up comedy until she was 37, but the homemaker and mother soon made her mark, beginning in 1955 at San Francisco’s Purple Onion nightclub, becoming a mainstay for decades on TV and in nightclubs. By 1961, she had appeared more than 30 times on The Jack Paar Show, the late-night precursor of today’s Tonight Show.
Diller’s comedy career was timed almost as perfectly as one of her jokes. In the heyday of comedy and variety shows, Diller was a guest with all the big names, from Jack Benny and Dean Martin to Red Skelton and Ed Sullivan. But her 1966 ABC situation comedy, The Pruitts of Southhampton, later renamed The Phyllis Diller Show, lasted only one season.
In addition to blazing a trail as a woman in the male-dominated field of comedy, Diller spouted seemingly autobiographical one-liners and anecdotes that paved the way for Rivers’ and Barr’s riffs on similar themes; Diller told of domestic and marital strife with her long-suffering husband, “Fang,” and, of course, self-deprecating jokes about her often-outlandish appearance, which was part of her act.
She also joked about a mother-in-law called “Moby Dick” and a sister-in-law called “Captain Bligh.” All were fictional, she said, drawing a contrast between her stage persona and her real personality: She pointed out that though she carried a cigarette holder in her act, she didn’t smoke.
In real life, Diller didn’t shy from plastic surgery. In a 1992 profile, the Orlando Sentinel described her “plastic surgery résumé, which is printed on rainbow-colored paper and, after 22 years of work and 17 procedures done by nine surgeons, is threatening to spill onto a second page. There was 1985, a particularly busy year: She had a brow lift, nose job (the second), under-eye lift, cheek implants, eye-liner tattoo and she had her teeth bonded.”
Her devotion to makeovers even resulted in a special award from the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery.
But despite the surgeries, Diller insisted, “I like myself. I knew I was kidding.”
Diller branched out with varying degrees of success to the stage and big screen. She appeared in three movies with her comedy idol, Bob Hope, who also included her on his trips overseas during the Vietnam War to perform for the troops. She appeared in 23 of his TV specials. Throughout her career, she also took on guest-starring roles on TV shows, including The Love Boat; CHiPs; Blossom; 227; Love, American Style; and, more recently, Boston Legal.
From 1971 to 1981, Diller performed as a piano soloist with 100 symphony orchestras, as the comic character Dame Illya Dillya. But her musical prowess was no joke. The San Francisco Examiner said, “As demonstrated in Beethoven’s piano concerto and several selections by Bach, Miss Diller is also a fine concert pianist with a firm touch.”
Diller retired from nightclubs and touring in 2002 at age 84 because of ill health. Her final stand-up performance at the Suncoast Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas was chronicled in a 2004 documentary, Goodnight, We Love You.
In recent years, she lent her voice to animated characters in films and TV shows, such as A Bug’s Life, King of the Hill, Animaniacs, Scooby-Doo, The Wild Thornberries and Family Guy. In 2005, she published a memoir, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse.
And in July 2007, she fractured her back, an injury that caused her to cancel an appearance on NBC’s Tonight Show With Jay Leno to celebrate her 90th birthday. But she did appear as part of a “Queens of Comedy” panel with Anderson Cooper on CNN in early 2011. “You’re so white,” she told Cooper. “You look like somebody put too much bleach on you.”