Pioneering stand-up comedian and comic actress Phyllis Diller died on August 20 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 95 and had been in declining health after a fall.
Diller’s varied credits included a 1969 stint in the title role of Hello, Dolly! on Broadway, following Pearl Bailey and preceding the show’s final leading lady, Ethel Merman. A talented musician in real life, she was tapped for the musical by producer David Merrick.
Born Phyllis Ada Driver in Lima, Ohio, on July 17, 1917, Diller was in her 30s and had given birth to six children (one of whom died in infancy) before launching a career in comedy. She found success with jokes about her (fictional) husband “Fang” and punctuated her self-deprecating stories with a braying laugh. Eventually a wardrobe of exaggerated blonde wigs and a Cruella de Vil-like cigarette holder became part of Diller’s persona.
By the 1960s, Diller had become a regular presence on TV variety and talk shows. She considered Bob Hope, who featured her in his specials and films, an important mentor. In turn, she served as a role model for female comedians who followed her, including Joan Rivers. She starred in a self-titled sitcom and variety show and made frequent appearances on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In.
Diller continued working into her 90s, voicing characters on A Bug’s Life, Family Guy and others, claiming to be William Shatner's former lover on Boston Legal, trading quips with Jay Leno and telling her version of a famous filthy joke in the documentary The Aristocrats. She published a memoir, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse, in 2005. Among the topics discussed: her many plastic surgeries.
Diller was divorced twice and is survived by two children and several grandchildren.