Phyllis Diller, the legendary wild-haired, self-deprecating queen of comedy, died Monday at her Brentwood, Calif., home. She was 95.
Suffering heart problems in recent years and reportedly in declining health from a fall, she died peacefully in her sleep surrounded by her family.
“She was a true pioneer,” Diller’s longtime agent Fred Wostbrock tells Entertainment Weekly. “She was the first lady of stand-up comedy. She paved the way for everybody. And she conquered television, movies, Broadway, record albums, nightclubs, books, and radio. She did it all. A true pioneer.”
Diller – born Phyllis Driver, in Ohio – started her career n the 1950s, playing tiny clubs she affectionately called sewers.
Her jokes were mostly about her lousy housekeeping, and as she liked to say, “The only thing domestic about me is that I was born in this country.”
Her career got a fantastic boost in 1959 when Bob Hope caught her act.
Soon she was appearing with him on his TV shows, in his movies and on his trips overseas to entertain American military troops – as the comic relief for the glamour girls who also escorted him.
For the rest of her days, Diller credited Hope for her long career – which helped pave the way for other women comics in the decades that followed.
Shattered the Glass Ceiling
Combining the delivery of radio comedienne Joan Davis with the rapid-fire delivery of Hope, and adding her own raucous laugh to underscore her punchlines, Diller shattered the glass ceiling of stand-up comedy, which had been strictly a men’s club.
While feminists later objected to many of her jokes, saying they denigrated women (“When I go to the beach wearing a bikini, even the tide won’t come in,” she joked), Diller was still acknowledged as a trailblazing symbol of a career woman who made it on her own.
The product of a strict Midwest Methodist upbringing, Diller was editor of Ohio’s Bluffton College newspaper. In 1939 she married Sherwood Diller – referred to in her act as “Fang,” even after their 1965 divorce. She later married, then divorced, then remarried, then divorced again actor Warde Donovan.
“I’ve been asked to say a few words about my husband,” she’d say in one of her routines. “How about short and cheap?”
Initially she wished to pursue a musical career, but instead raised five children (one died in infancy). Still, she couldn’t disguise the fact she was funny. Keeping the other housewives in hysterics at the laundromat, she would wisecrack: “I found out how my neighbor – Mrs. Clean – gets her laundry so much whiter than mine. She washes it.”
Hope saw her act in San Francisco, and though she bombed that night, “He saw courage,” she later recalled. She also credited him with giving her the confidence to continue. “You are great,” he told her.
By early the next decade, audiences and critics were concurring. Speaking of her flyaway ‘do, she said, “I comb my hair with an electric toothbrush.” Her eccentric dresses she designed herself, because, she claimed, no one else would take credit for them.
“I have a problem with my legs,” she would say. “They don’t go all the way up.”
After retirement she took up another love of hers, painting, and her canvasses not only sold well but commanded high prices. She also played concert piano.
She is survived by three of her children – and countless one-liners.
Remembering Phyllis Diller