Phyllis Diller Dead at 95

Pioneering "first lady of stand up" passes away in Los Angeles.

By Colin Bertram
|  Monday, Aug 20, 2012  |  Updated 6:30 PM EDT
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In Memoriam

FILE - AP

Sassy stand-up comic Phyllis Diller died at her home in Brentwood, California. She was 95.

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Phyllis Diller, groundbreaking comedienne, has died at 95. Her longtime agent Fred Wostbrock confirmed the news.

"It is a great loss today," Wostbrock told NBC. "She was a true pioneer and the first lady of stand-up. She paved the way for Chelsea Handler, Roseanne Barr, Joan Rivers and Ellen DeGeneres. She was the best. The first female stand-up to play Vegas. She was on Broadway, she made movies, she did it all."

A housewife turned advertising copywriter turned internationally renowned performer, Diller's career stretched from live stand-up to television and movie appearances.

Born Phyllis Ada Driver on July 17, 1917 in Lima, OH, Diller received her break in 1955, when at the age of 37 she took a substitute stand-up spot at San Francisco's now-defunct Purple Onion nightclub. “When I went on, the room went totally quiet and I knew that I had this magnetic thing that you had to be born with,” Diller told EW in 2005. “You can’t buy it or even learn it.”

"I was one of those life-of-the-party types," Diller said to The Associated Press in 1965. "You'll find them in every bridge club, at every country club. People invited me to parties only because they knew I would supply some laughs. They still do."

Never afraid of appearing less than perfect on stage or in front of the cameras, Diller predated Roseanne Barr’s domesticated diva routine by two decades. Often attired in a brightly colored house dress with a frazzled head of hair, she became a celebrity presence in the 1950s through countless television appearances in which she appeared as the character that would become her stock-in-trade: the loud-mouthed housewife with the less-than-charming family and home life.

Of her sartorial choices, she once quipped that “I bury a lot of my ironing the back yard,” and that her wardrobe came from “Omar of Omaha.”

Her stand-up foil was a fictitious husband named “Fang.” Sherwood Diller, her first husband, encouraged Diller to explore her opportunities as a performer and went on to manage her career until the couple’s 25-year marriage fell apart in the 1960s. A second marriage followed in quick succession to entertainer Warde Donovan, but the couple separated within months. “Fang,” however, remained a constant presence throughout her public life until Diller retired from live performing in 2002. "Fang is permanent in the act, of course," she once said. "Don't confuse him with my real husbands. They're temporary."

In 1961, Time magazine wrote of her: "Onstage comes something that, by its own description, looks like a sackful of doorknobs. With hair dyed by Alcoa, pipe-cleaner limbs and knees just missing one another when the feet are wide apart, this is not Princess Volupine. It is Phyllis Diller, the poor man's Auntie Mame, only successful female among the New Wave comedians and one of the few women funny and tough enough to belt out a 'standup' act of one-line gags."

Diller went on to star in two short-lived television series: a sitcom titled "The Pruitts of Southampton" (ABC, 1966-67) and the variety show "The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show" (NBC, 1968). But it was her almost constant presence on televised variety specials and every Bob Hope Christmas Special from 1965 through 1994 that ensured the comic remained in the pop culture zeitgeist. Diller was also a regular on shows including "I've Got a Secret,” "The Hollywood Squares" and "The Gong Show."

In 1970, Diller took over Carol Channing's titular role in "Hello Dolly" on Broadway.

The comedienne also candidly discussed her plastic surgery, using herself as the butt of her own jokes. Diller, an anomaly in youth-obsessed Hollywood, openly admitted to her numerous face lifts, nose jobs and tummy-tucks. "I used to be young and ugly. Now, I'm old and gorgeous," she once joked of her physical enhancements. The American Academy of Plastic Surgery gave her the “Queen of Plastic Surgery” award for making the field more acceptable by publicizing her procedures, according to Bloomberg.

Her fame began to wane in the 1980s but Diller remained in the public eye thanks to campy guest spots on television staples such as “The Love Boat” and “Tales from the Dark Side.” A high profile gig came in 1998 when she was cast to voice the Queen in Pixar’s animated film “A Bugs Life.”

Diller continued to perform well into the twenty-first century with a regular role on the TV drama, "7th Heaven" and a recurring role on the daytime soap "The Bold & the Beautiful." Diller is also remembered for her contribution to the 2005 film "The Aristocrats,” in which a variety of comedians discussed and performed a famous dirty joke.

“Phyllis Diller was not only a great comedienne but her memorable teaming with Bob Hope brought female comics to the forefront," said friend and fellow comidian Don Rickles in a statement Monday afternoon. "Her life was filled with goodness and she deserved the respect she received. She will be missed.”

Throughout her late eighties she continued to perform with roles in small independent films such as 2007’s "The Still Life" and 2006’s "The Last Place on Earth." Diller also Lent her vocals to the animated series “Robot Chicken” and “Family Guy.”

“I'm beyond saddened by the death of Phyllis Diller,” said Joan Rivers in a statement following the news of Diller’s passing. “We were friends - Melissa and I had a wonderful time with her at lunch just a month ago. The only tragedy is that she was the last from an era that insisted a woman had to look funny in order to be funny. If she had started today, Phyllis could have stood there in Dior and Harry Winston and become the major star that she was. I adored her.”

Diller passed away at her Los Angeles home at 9.30 a.m. Monday morning, her manager Milt Suchin told E!, adding: "She passed away in her sleep. She passed away peacefully. Her son Perry found her." Diller is also survived by two daughters.


 

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