Housewife turned comedian, Phyllis Diller, died on the morning of Aug. 20, 2012 at the age of 95 in her Los Angeles home. “She died peacefully in her sleep and with a smile on her face,” her longtime manager, Milton Suchin, told The Associated Press.
Diller, who suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1999, was found by her son, Perry Diller. The cause of her death has not been released.
Known for her adept timing and precisely structured jokes, Diller took pride in being able to deliver as many as 12 punch lines per minute.
The first laugh came easy. With her fright-wig hair and garish attire that typically included a fake-jeweled cigarette holder, gloves and ankle boots, she merely had to walk on stage.
Jack Paar once described her as looking “like someone you avoid at the supermarket.” Bob Hope called her “a Warhol mobile of spare parts picked up along a freeway.”
But Diller was always the first to address her colorfully eccentric stage persona, describing herself as “The Elizabeth Taylor of ‘The Twilight Zone'” and a woman who once worked “as a lampshade in a whorehouse.”
During her long career, she was in more than two dozen movies, including three with Hope, with whom she also appeared on numerous TV specials and traveled with to Vietnam to entertain U.S. troops.
She also was the host of a 1964 TV talent show called “Show Street,” starred as the widowed matriarch of a financially strapped society family in the 1966-67 situation comedy “The Pruitts of Southampton” (renamed “The Phyllis Diller Show” midway through the season), and starred in the short-lived 1968 comedy-variety series “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show.”
But the outlandish Diller always shined best in nightclubs, showrooms and concert halls, where one of her favorite targets was her domestic life, including her fictional husband “Fang.”
“I don’t like to cook; I can make a TV dinner taste like radio,” she’d say.
“Fang’s idea of a seven-course dinner is a six-pack and a bologna sandwich. The last time I said let’s eat out, we ate in the garage.”
“I put on a peekaboo blouse. He took a peek and booed.”
Then she’d launch one of her patented guffaws: “Ah-HAA-haa-haa!”
In his book “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s,” author Gerald Nachman writes: “Diller wasn’t the first woman stand-up comedian, but she was the first to make it respectable, to drag female comedy out of the gay bars, backrooms and low-rent resorts and go toe-to-toe with her male counterparts in prime clubs.”
Born Phyllis Driver in Lima, Ohio, on July 17, 1917, Diller made people laugh at an early age.
“When I realized I looked like Olive Oyl and wanted to look like Jean Harlow, I knew something had to be done,” she once said. “From 12 on, the only way to handle the terror of social situations was comedy — break the ice, make everybody laugh. I did it to make people feel more relaxed, including myself.”
After graduating from high school, she studied music and voice at a conservatory in Chicago but transferred to Bluffton College in Bluffton, Ohio, where she met 24-year-old Sherwood Diller.
They eloped in 1939, she dropped out of school and they settled into married life in Bluffton.
During World War II, they moved to Ypsilanti, Mich., where Sherwood worked at a B-24 bomber plant. In 1945, he transferred to the Naval Air Station in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco.
Over the next 10 years, Sherwood Diller held a string of jobs while Phyllis raised their five children. But with job changes and frequent unemployment, times were tough.
To help support her family, Phyllis worked as the women’s editor at a small newspaper, an advertising copy writer for an Oakland department store and later an Oakland radio station. From there, she became director of promotion and marketing at KSFO, San Francisco’s top radio station.
All the while, Diller had amused friends at parties with her jokes about household drudgery. She was so good that her husband began pushing her to become a professional comic.
“It took two years of nagging by my husband to get me onto that stage,” she told Nachman.
In a 1982 Los Angeles Times interview, she recalled finally “throwing caution to the wind.”
“I sat down, called the Red Cross and said, ‘I have an act. Where do you want it?’ They sent me to the veterans hospital at the Presidio, where I pushed a piano into a room that had four guys in it. I played, sang, told jokes while they yelled, ‘Leave us alone; we’re already in pain!'”
But spurred on by her husband, Diller forged ahead.
After auditioning at the Purple Onion, she opened at the small San Francisco club on March 7, 1955.
When she first started, Diller told United Press International in 1984, “I looked like the woman next door. I mean, I was just anybody, and on stage that just doesn’t work. My opening night I wore a cotton dress. I had brown hair — pullleassse.”
She then broke into her infectious, trademark laugh.
“So, little by little, I learned,” she said. “Making myself a blond was the first step. I started dressing more theatrically, and then I realized I couldn’t make body jokes if they could see my actual figure because I had a good figure. That got me to those little dresses, and then later I designed my funny boots and gloves. I had to wear gloves because all clowns wear gloves.”
The famous hairdo, she said, was an accident.
“I had gotten into so much trouble bleaching my hair myself that I had to go to a scalp clinic, and they gave me this comb and said brush the top of your head for circulation. My hair was standing straight up after that, but I was so busy I’d forgotten to put it back down when I’d go out on interviews for jobs. But it worked.”
After her record 89-week run at the Purple Onion, Diller honed her act on the road.
“It’s all about structure,” she said of her comedy success in a 1998 interview with theChicago Sun-Times. “If there’s one thing I can do, it’s write a joke. Too many comics today ramble. By the time they get to the punch line, the audience has either gone to sleep, gone to the bathroom or gone to bed.”
She rose swiftly up the show business ladder, appearing as a contestant on Groucho Marx’s TV quiz show “You Bet Your Life” in 1958, the same year she made the first of numerous appearances on”The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar.
By 1962, she was performing at Carnegie Hall.
Unlike most performers, the older Diller got, the better she looked. Of course she had help — a lot of it.
In 1970, she had her teeth straightened. A year later, she had a complete face-lift. By 1989, she had had her teeth bonded, a breast reduction, a tummy tuck, a brow lift, a nose job, an under-eye lift, cheek implants, eye-liner tattoos and a chemical peel.
“I never liked the way I looked, and you know what that does to your self-esteem,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1989. “I’ve never looked so good in my entire life.”
She first went public with her face-lift in 1972. Her candor about her plastic surgeries later earned her an award from the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery as “the first person to have the courage to proclaim her surgery and show her results publicly.”
Diller’s publicist initially warned her not to get a face-lift, believing that a new and facially improved Diller would ruin her career.
Instead, the changing face of Phyllis Diller simply provided her with more comic fodder for her act:
“I’ve been done over so many times that no two parts of my body are the same age,” she’d say in her act. “When I die, God himself won’t know me. My face has been pulled up more times than Bill Clinton’s pants.”
She also incorporated her musical training into her act. Billed as Dame Illya Dillya, she performed as a piano soloist with about 100 symphony orchestras around the country in the 1970s and early ’80s.
Launching her performances with a concert-related comedy routine at the piano — she’d start by shedding her quarter-length white gloves, one of which turned out to be about 10 feet long — she’d then begin playing.
“Once I was into the music, I was serious, and many in the audience were more than a little surprised,” Diller wrote in her 2005 book “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy.”
Diller, whose career included a stint starring in “Hello, Dolly!” during its original 1964-1970 run on Broadway, retired from doing her comedy concert act in 2002 after 47 years as a stand-up comedian.
But she continued to act occasionally and do voice-over work, as well as paint.
Her marriage to Sherwood Diller ended in divorce, as did a second marriage to actor Warde Donovan.
Diller is survived by her son, Perry; her daughters, Sally Diller and Suzanne Mills; four grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.
In one of her last TV appearances, Diller reprised her role of Gladys Pope on two episodes of the soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful” this year.