LOS ANGELES (CBS/AP) Phyllis Diller, the housewife-turned-comedienne with the cackling laugh who aimed some of her sharpest barbs at herself, died Monday morning in her Los Angeles home. She was 95.
“She died peacefully in her sleep with a smile on her face,” her longtime manager, Milton Suchin.
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, but TMZ reports that she had recently fallen and hurt her wrist and hip and that her health had been declining ever since. Diller had been living in hospice care at her home, according to the website.
She was a staple of nightclubs and television from the 1950s – when female comics were rare indeed – until her retirement in 2002.
Diller built her stand-up act around the persona of the corner-cutting housewife (“I bury a lot of my ironing in the back yard”) with bizarre looks, a wardrobe to match (by “Omar of Omaha”) and a husband named “Fang.”
She didn’t get into comedy until she was nearly 40, after her first husband, Sherwood Diller, prodded her for two years to give up a successful career as an advertising and radio writer. Through it all, she was also a busy mother.
“We had five kids at the time. I don’t how he thought we’d handle that,” she told the AP in 2006.
Her husband managed her career until the couple’s 25-year marriage fell apart in the 1960s. Shortly after her divorce she married entertainer Warde Donovan, but they separated within months.
Through both marriages and other relationships, the foibles of “Fang” remained an integral part of her act.
“Fang is permanent in the act, of course,” she once said. “Don’t confuse him with my real husbands. They’re temporary.”
She also appeared in movies, including “Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number” and “Eight on the Lam” with Bob Hope.
In 1966-67, she was the star of an ABC sitcom about a society family trying to stave off bankruptcy, “The Pruitts of Southampton.” Gypsy Rose Lee played a nosy neighbor. In 1968, she was host of a short-lived variety series, “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show.”
But standup comedy was her first love, and when she broke into the business in 1956 it was a field she had largely to herself because female comics weren’t widely accepted then.
Although she could be serious during interviews, sooner or later a joke would pop out, often as not followed by that outrageous “AH-HHAAAAAAAAAAAA-HA-HA-HA!” laugh.
“It’s my real laugh,” she once said. “It’s in the family. When I was a kid my father called me the laughing hyena.”
Her looks were a frequent topic, and she did everything she could to accentuate them – negatively. She wore outrageous fright wigs and deliberately shopped for stage shoes that made her legs look as skinny as possible.
“The older I get, the funnier I get,” she said in 1961. “Think what I’ll save in not having my face lifted.”
She felt different about plastic surgery later, though, and her face, and other body parts, underwent a remarkable transformation. Efforts to be beautiful became a mainstay of her act.
Commenting in 1995 about the repainting of the Hollywood sign, she cracked, “It took 300 gallons, almost as much as I put on every morning.” She said her home “used to be haunted, but the ghosts haven’t been back since the night I tried on all my wigs.”
She recovered from a 1999 heart attack with the help of a pacemaker, but finally retired in 2002, saying advancing age was making it too difficult for her to spend several weeks a year on the road.
“I have energy, but I don’t have lasting energy,” she told The Associated Press in 2006. “You have to know your limitations.”
After retiring from standup, Diller continued to take occasional small parts in movies and TV shows (“A Bug’s Life” & “Family Guy”) and pursued painting as a serious hobby. She published her autobiography, “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse,” in 2005. The 2006 film “Goodnight, We Love You” documented her career.
Her other books included “Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints” and “Phyllis Diller’s Marriage Manual.”
When she turned 90 in July 2007, she fractured a bone in her back and was forced to cancel a planned birthday appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” But it didn’t stop her from wisecracking: “I still take the pill ’cause I don’t want any more grandchildren.”
Born Phyllis Driver in 1917 in Lima, Ohio, she married Sherwood Diller right out of school (Bluffton College) and was a housewife for several years before getting outside work. She was working as an advertising writer for a radio station when a comedy turn at San Francisco’s Purple Onion nightclub launched her toward stardom.
She made her network TV debut as a contestant on Groucho Marx’s game show, “You Bet Your Life.” (Diller, asked if she was married: “Yes, I’ve worn a wedding ring for 18 years.” Marx: “Really? Well, two more payments and it’ll be all yours.”)
She credited the self-help book, “The Magic of Believing” by Claude M. Bristol, with giving her the courage to enter the business. For decades she would recommend it to aspiring entertainers, even buying it for them sometimes.
“Don’t get me wrong, though,” she said in a 1982 interview that threatened to turn serious. “I’m a comic. I don’t deal with problems when I’m working.”
“I want people to laugh.”
Celebs React To Phyllis Diller’s Death
“Phyllis Diller was not only a great comedienne but her memorable teaming with Bob Hope brought female comics to the forefront. Her life was filled with goodness and she deserved the respect she received. She will be missed.” – Don Rickles
“She was one of a kind. A brilliant talent and an extremely supportive friend, when you needed one. When I had the accident that broke my leg a couple of years ago, hers was the first voice that managed to reach me by phone at the hospital. She was also the first note I received, written on a piece of paper it said, ‘Money’s scarce. Times are hard. Here’s your … get well card – Phyllis.’ She knew how to lift your spirits. I loved her and we will all miss her.” – Carol Channing
“She was responsible for getting me one of my first jobs. I loved her and I will miss her tremendously, as will the whole world.” – Rip Taylor
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