Film News: Pioneering Comic Icon Phyllis Diller Dies at 95

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LOS ANGELES – Phyllis Diller emerged as a comic force during the era of the beatniks and talk show hosts who smoked cigarettes on camera. Beginning her career as a pioneer female stand-up act at 37 years old, she went on to establish a memorable character and show business longevity, working virtually all the way to the end. Diller’s passing was announced yesterday by her manager. She was 95.

Ms. Diller created an enduring stage presence with her outrageous mop of hair, outlandish outfits – especially through the swinging 1960s – and a foghorn laugh that was virtually one of a kind. Her act consisted of anecdotes and jokes regarding a fictional husband named Fang, the various in-laws surrounding them and a self-depreciating routine regarding her own wild looks. Ironically, later in life she became an advocate for plastic surgery, maintaining that basic look well into her later years.

She was born Phyllis Ada Driver on July 17, 1917, in LIma, Ohio. After a brief flirt with a music career – she attended the Sherwood Conservatory of Music in Chicago – she married Sherwood Anderson Diller right out of college in 1939 (the couple divorced in 1965) and moved to California. It was the frustration of being the 1950s housewife that propelled her into performing, at the unusual-for-comedians age of 37. She made her professional debut in San Francisco in 1955, at the Purple Onion nightclub.

Diller honed her act over the years, eventually settling into the familiar persona she was known for. As a pioneer female comic, she paved the way for the brassy women stand-ups like Joan Rivers and Rosanne Barr. She borrowed her approach from Bob Hope, and created a unique and direct delivery that hadn’t been practiced by female comics to that point. She was a regular on the talk show circuit, including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and made a couple leaps into television in the 1960s, including a one-season sitcom called “The Phyllis Diller Show” in 1966.

Her film career contained a splashy debut in a non-comic role – “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), and continued with forgettable comedies like “Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!” (1966) and “Eight on a Lam” (1967), co-starring with her hero Bob Hope. She had some later career success doing voice-over work, most notably in the film “A Bug’s Life” (1998) and the TV series “Family Guy” and “King of the Hill.” She also appeared periodically from 1999-2004 on the soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful,” portraying Gladys Pope.

Eight on the Lam
Appearing with Bob Hope in 1967’s ‘Eight on the Lam’
Photo Credit: MGM Home Entertainment

Through it all she kept her stand-up career intact, continuing to make appearances until 2002, and showing off her numerous plastic surgery procedures. She kept a list of them, and would produce it from anybody who asked. Phyllis Diller was married twice, divorced twice and never remarried again. She is survived by two children, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

In a career spanning over 50 years, the former housewife from Ohio once summed it all up…”Women want men, careers, money, children, friends, luxury, comfort, independence, freedom, respect, love, and a three-dollar pantyhose that won’t run.”

Source material for this article came from the New York Times and Phyllis Diller, 1917-2012. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2012 Patrick McDonald,

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