Phyllis Diller: 1917-2012
Phyllis Diller, the wild-haired, eccentrically-dressed performer credited with opening the doors of stand-up comedy to women, passed away at her home in Los Angeles. She was 95 years old.
She was born Phyllis Ada Driver on July 17, 1917 in Lima, Ohio to Perry Marcus and Frances Ada (Romshe) Driver. After graduating from Central High School, she headed to Chicago's Sherwood Music Conservatory, where she continued to study piano, with dreams of one day becoming a concert pianist. From the Conservatory, she transferred to Bluffton College in Ohio, where she became the school's newspaper editor and oversaw the publication of humor pieces.
In November 1939, at the age of 22, she married Sherwood Anderson Diller and gave birth to a son, Peter, in 1940. She would have five more children: Sally (1944), a son who died two weeks after being born (1945), Suzanne (1946), Stephanie (1948), and Perry (1950). Perry would later manage his mother's business affairs. Contrary to popular belief, she is no relation to Susan Lucci.
During WWII, the fledgling Diller clan moved to Michigan, where she began to mine her home-making experiences for jokes. She also worked as an advertising copywriter at this time. After the war, the Dillers moved to San Francisco, where she found work as a secretary at the radio station KROW. Later that year, she was in front of the camera for the first time with a program titled "Phyllis Dillis, the Homely Friendmaker" for Bay Area Radio-Television. She continued working in Bay Area television, this time at KGO-TV, where she was invited to participate in the station's show "Belfast Pop Club", co-hosted by Willard Anderson and Don Sherwood.
Both Anderson and Sherwood encouraged her to pursue her stand-up comedy ambitions, and in 1955, she landed a two-week gig at the venerable San Francisco nightclub, The Purple Onion, where her self-deprecating wit and unique laugh kept her on the stage for the better part of two years. The buzz created by her act reached Hollywood, and she made her first rounds on talk and variety shows with the likes of Jack Benny and Red Skelton.
Her appearance on "The Tonight Show" with Jack Parr was her breakthrough, and led to recurring gigs as a contestant on "You Bet Your Life" with host Groucho Marx, "What's My Line?", "I've Got a Secret", and "Hollywood Squares". She appeared on the silver screen as well, making her debut in William Inge's drama, Splendor in the Grass. In 1961, she made her stage debut in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Appearances in films with Bob Hope -- Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!, The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell, and Eight on the Lam -- began a lifelong bond between the two performers, who would co-star in numerous TV specials; in fact, Diller would be featured in every Bob Hope Christmas Special from 1965 through 1994. At the height of the Vietnam war in 1966, Diller joined Hope's USO troupe overseas.
As her star rose, husband Sherwood managed her career, though the relationship broke down and the couple divorced in 1965. By this point, however, Sherwood had become a staple of her act, as she made jokes about a husband named "Fang," while she smoked from a exaggerated cigarette holder -- which would become the comedienne's signature prop, paried with her increasingly outlandish wardrobe and hairstyles. Soon after her divorce, she married Ward Donovan, whom she met while appearing on stage in "Wonderful Town". Worth noting is the fact that Joan Rivers was one of her writers at this period in her career.
In the late 1960s, she starred in a pair of short-lived series, "The Pruitts of Southampton" and variety show "The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show", though she found her greatest success elsewhere, from her continued guest appearances on talk, variety, and game shows. Toward the end of the decade, she began a successful string of guest spots on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In". Harkening back to her film debut, she gained notices for her work in the drama The Adding Machine with Milo O'Shea.
For three months, at the start of the 1970s, she appeared on Broadway in "Hello, Dolly!", stepping in for Carol Channing. On TV, she frequented on Dean Martin's celebrity roast specials and "the Mike Douglas Show". She cut hit comedy records, published her first books, and continued working the stand-up circuit. A new source of laughs -- her own plastic surgery -- stood in humorous contrast with other Hollywood performers.
Her on-screen career began to wane in late in the decade and into the 1980s, with guest appearances on "The Love Boat", "Celebrity Hot Potato", and a revamped version of "Hollywood Squares".
In the 1990s, roles in B movies Dr. Hackenstein and Silence of the Hams were minor cultural blips, but in 1998 she regained the spotlight for her voice role as the Queen ant in the second Pixar movie, A Bug's Life. She also had a recurring role on "The Bold and the Beautiful". A year later, she suffered a heart attack and was fitted with a pacemaker.
By 2002 she mostly retired from the stage and screen, though she appeared in the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats, notable because Diller, who steered clear of graphic material, did not recite the content of the famous dirty joke. An autobiography, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse, was published that same year; in 2006, a DVD version of the project was released, and she voiced several roles for "Robot Chicken" and, later, "Family Guy". She cameoed in 2007 on "Boston Legal" as a supposed lover of William Shatner's Denny Crane. A planned appearance later in the year for her 90th birthday on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" was canceled when she fractured her back.
Diller was a long-time member of the Society of Singers, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping singers in need. Two cities proclaimed "Phyllis Diller Day"s: Philadelphia (2001) and San Francisco (2006).
She is survived by daughters Sally and Suzanne and son Perry.