Phyllis Diller blazed trail for female comedians

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A Chicago Tribune columnist, describing her appearance at a nightspot there in 1958, noted she was from San Francisco, hailed her as “the weirdest, wildest yet” _ and made sure to mention her five youngsters.

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, “Fang” remained.

“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. Diller had a cameo in “Splendor in the Grass” and was among the voices in the animated “A Bug’s Life.”

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. Although she could be serious during interviews, sooner or later a joke would pop out, often as not followed by her outrageous cackle: “AH-HHAAAAAAAAAAAA-HA-HA-HA!”

“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 said in 2006. “You have to know your limitations.”

Diller continued to take occasional small parts in movies and TV shows (“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.

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.”

Her other books included “Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints” and “Phyllis Diller’s Marriage Manual.”

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