Phyllis Diller (July 17, 1917 – August 20, 2012) was an American actress and comedienne. She created a stage persona of a wild-haired and eccentrically dressed housewife who made self-deprecating jokes about her age and appearance, her terrible cooking, and a husband named "Fang", while pretending to smoke from a long cigarette holder.
Diller was born Phyllis Ada Driver in Lima, Ohio, the only child of Frances Ada (née Romshe; January 12, 1881 – January 26, 1949) and Perry Marcus Driver (June 13, 1862 – August 12, 1948), an insurance agent. She had German and Irish ancestry (the surname "Driver" had been changed from "Treiber" several generations earlier). Diller was born to older parents; her father was 55 and her mother 36. Though raised a Methodist, Diller was a lifelong atheist. She attended Lima's Central High School, then studied piano for three years at the Sherwood Music Conservatory of Columbia College Chicago before transferring to Bluffton College, where she met fellow "Lima-ite" and classmate Hugh Downs.
Diller was a housewife, mother, and advertising copywriter. During World War II, she lived in Ypsilanti, Michigan, while her husband worked at the Willow Run Bomber Plant. In the mid-1950s, she made appearances on The Jack Paar Show and was a contestant on Groucho Marx's quiz show You Bet Your Life.
Although she made her career in comedy, Diller had studied the piano for many years. She decided against a career in music after hearing her teachers and mentors play with much more skill than she thought that she would be able to achieve. She still played in her private life, however, and owned a custom-made harpsichord.
Diller began her career working at KROW radio in Oakland, California, in 1952. In November of that year, she began filming a television show titledPhyllis Dillis, the Homely Friendmaker. The 15-minute series was a Bay Area Radio-Television production, directed for television by ABC's Jim Baker. In the mid-1950s, while residing in the East Bay city of Alameda, California, Diller was employed at KSFO radio in San Francisco. Bill Anderson wrote and produced a television show at KGO-TV called Pop Club, which was hosted by Don Sherwood. Pop Club was a live half-hour show that combined playing records with "experts" rating them, and dancing girls encouraging audience participation. The show was an early advertisement for Belfast Root Beer, the show's main sponsor, later known as Mug Root Beer. Anderson invited her onto his show on April 23, 1955, as a vocalist.
Diller first appeared as a stand-up at The Purple Onion on March 7, 1955, and remained there for 87 straight weeks. She appeared on Del Courtney's Showcase on KPIX-TV on November 3, 1956. After moving to Webster Groves, in St. Louis, in 1961, Diller honed her act in St. Louis clubs such as Gaslight Square's Crystal Palace. By the mid-1960s, St. Louis was home to her.
Diller became most famous for her movie and TV appearances with Bob Hope during the 1960s: Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!, Eight on the Lam, and The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell. Although all these films were critically panned, Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! did well at the box office and Diller accompanied Hope to Vietnam in 1966 with his USO troupe during the height of the Vietnam War.
Throughout the 1960s, she appeared regularly as a special guest on many television programs. For example, she appeared as one of the What's My Line? Mystery Guests. The blindfolded panel on that evening's broadcast included Sammy Davis, Jr., and they were able to discern Diller's identity in just three guesses. Also, Diller made regular cameo appearances making her trademark wisecracks on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Self-deprecating to a fault, a typical Diller joke had her running after a garbage truck pulling away from her curb. "Am I too late for the trash?" she'd yell. The driver's reply: "No, jump right in!"
Though her main claim to fame was her stand-up comedy act, Diller also appeared in other films including a cameo appearance as Texas Guinan, the wisecracking nightclub hostess in the 1961 film Splendor in the Grass. She appeared in more than a dozen, usually low-budget, movies, including voice work as The Monster's Mate in the Rankin/Bass animated film Mad Monster Party (1967), co-starring Boris Karloff.
Diller also starred in two short-lived TV series: The Pruitts of Southampton (1966–1967); later retitled The Phyllis Diller Show), a half-hour sitcom on ABC; and The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show (1968), a variety show on NBC. Later television appearances for Diller included at least three episodes between 1999 and 2003 on the long-running family drama 7th Heaven, in one of which she got drunk while cooking dinner for the household, and a 2002 episode of The Drew Carey Show, as Mimi Bobek's grandmother. She posed for Playboy, but the photos were never run in the magazine. Her voice can be heard in several animated TV shows, including The New Scooby-Doo Movies (1972) as herself, Hey Arnold! as Arnold's grandpa's sister Mitzi,The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2002) as Jimmy's grandmother, and on Family Guy in 2006 as Peter Griffin's mother, Thelma Griffin.
Beginning December 26, 1969, she had a three-month run on Broadway in Hello, Dolly! (opposite Richard Deacon) as the second to last in a succession of replacements for Carol Channing in the title role, which included Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, and Pearl Bailey. After Diller's stint, Ethel Merman took over the role until the end of the show's run in December 1970.
In 1993, she was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
In 1998, Diller provided the vocals for the Queen in Disney/Pixar's animated movie A Bug's Life. Among her other cartoon movies were The Nutcracker Prince (1990, as Mousequeen), Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child (1990, as Mother Nature) and Casper's Scare School (2006, as Aunt Spitzy). Diller guested as herself in "A Good Medium is Rare", a 1972 episode of The New Scooby-Doo Movies. Other television shows for which she voiced characters include Robot Chicken, Family Guy, Jimmy Neutron, Wait Till Your Father Gets Home, Captain Planet, Cow and Chicken, Hey Arnold!,The Powerpuff Girls, Animaniacs, The Wild Thornberrys, and King of the Hill.
In 2005, Diller was featured as one of many contemporary comics in The Aristocrats. Diller, who avoided blue comedy, did a version of an old, risqué vaudeville routine in which she describes herself passing out when she first heard the joke, forgetting the actual content of the joke.
In 2000, she was awarded the Women in Film Lucy Award in recognition of her excellence and innovation in her creative works that have enhanced the perception of women through the medium of television
In 2003, after hearing of the donation of Archie Bunker's chair to the Smithsonian Institution, Diller opened her doors to the National Museum of American History and offered up some of her most iconic costume pieces and her gag file, a steel cabinet with 48 file-drawers containing more than 50,000 jokes and gags typewritten on index cards by Diller during her career. From August 12 to October 28, 2011, the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery at the National Museum of American History displayed Diller's gag file and some of the objects that became synonymous with her comedic persona—an unkempt wig, wrist-length gloves, cloth-covered ankle boots and a bejeweled cigarette holder.
Diller had a cameo appearance in an episode of ABC's Boston Legal on April 10, 2007. She appeared as herself, confronting William Shatner's characterDenny Crane, alleging to have had a torrid love affair with him.
Diller was a member of the Society of Singers, which supports singers in need. In June 2001 at the request of fellow Society member and producer Scott Sherman, she appeared at Kansas City and Philadelphia Pride events. The mayor of Philadelphia officially proclaimed June 8, 2001, as "Phyllis Diller Day." She was presented an official proclamation onstage to a standing ovation. In 2006, Mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom proclaimed February 5, 2006, "Phyllis Diller Day in San Francisco", which she accepted by phone.
Between 1971 and 1981 she appeared as a piano soloist with some 100 symphony orchestras across the country under the stage name Dame Illya Dillya. Her performances were spiced with humor, but she took the music seriously. A review of one of her concerts in The San Francisco Examiner called her "a fine concert pianist with a firm touch."
Although known for decades for smoking from long cigarette holders in her comedy act, Diller was a lifelong nonsmoker, and the cigarette holders were stage props that she had specially constructed.
Diller, a longtime resident of the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, California, credited much of her success to Bob Hope, in large part because he included her in many of his movies and his Vietnam USO shows. She was an accomplished pianist and a painter.
Diller credited much of her success to a motivational book, The Magic of Believing (1948) by Claude M Bristol, which gave her confidence at the start of her career. The book was also an inspiration for her friend, Liberace.
Diller was married and divorced twice. She also dated Earl "Madman" Muntz", a pioneer in oddball TV and radio ads.
She had six children from her marriage to her first husband, Sherwood Anderson Diller. Her first child was Peter (born September 1940; died 1998 of cancer). Her second child Sally, born in November 1944, has suffered from schizophrenia most of her life. Her third child (born 1945), a son, lived for only two weeks in an incubator. A daughter, Suzanne, was born in March, 1946, followed by another daughter Stephanie (born October 1948, died 2002 of a stroke) and a son Perry (born February 1950).
Diller's second husband was actor Warde Donovan (born Warde Tatum), whom she married on October 7, 1965. She filed for divorce three months later, having found him to be bisexual and alcoholic, though they reconciled on the day before the divorce was to have become final. Their marriage continued until she divorced Donovan in 1975.
She was the partner of Robert P. Hastings from 1985 until his death on May 23, 1996. The husband frequently mentioned in her act, "Fang", was entirely fictional, and not based on either of her actual husbands.
She candidly discussed her plastic surgery, a series of procedures first undertaken when she was 55. In her 2005 autobiography, she wrote that she had undergone "fifteen different procedures". Her numerous surgeries were the subject of a 20/20 segment February 12, 1993.
Diller penned her autobiography in 2005, titled Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse. A direct-to-DVD version of the project, complete with early live clips of Diller, and interviews with her showbiz colleagues including Don Rickles, among others, was released in December 2006. Diller spent much of her final years painting, cooking, and gardening.
Health problems and death
Diller began to suffer from various ailments as she passed her 80th birthday. In 1999, she suffered a heart attack and after a hospital stay she was fitted with a pacemaker and released. A bad fall resulted in her being hospitalized for neurological tests and pacemaker replacement in 2005. Now approaching 90, she retired from stand-up comedy appearances.
On July 11, 2007, USA Today reported that she had fractured her back and had to cancel a Tonight Show appearance, during which she had planned to celebrate her 90th birthday. On January 4, 2011, she made one of her final public appearances on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360° as part of a panel of comedians.
- Splendor in the Grass (1961)
- The Fat Spy (1966)
- Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! (1966)
- Eight on the Lam (1967)
- Silent Treatment (1968) (unfinished)
- The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell (1968)
- Did You Hear the One About the Traveling Saleslady? (1968)
- Mad Monster Party (1967) (voice)
- The Adding Machine (1969)
- The Sunshine Boys (1975)
- A Pleasure Doing Business (1979)
- Pink Motel (1982)
- Doctor Hackenstein (1988)
- Pucker Up and Bark Like a Dog (1990)
- The Nutcracker Prince (1990) (voice)
- The Boneyard (1991)
- Wisecracks (1992) (documentary)
- The Perfect Man (1993)
- Happily Ever After (1993) (voice)
- The Silence of the Hams (1994)
- A Bug's Life (1998) (voice)
- The Debtors (1999)
- The Nuttiest Nutcracker (1999) (voice) (direct-to-video)
- Everything's Jake (2000)
- The Last Place on Earth (2002)
- Hip! Edgy! Quirky! (2002)
- Bitter Jester (2003) (documentary)
- Motocross Kids (2004)
- West from North Goes South (2004)
- Goodnight, We Love You (2004) (documentary)
- The Aristocrats (2005) (documentary)
- Madman Muntz: American Maverick (2005) (documentary)
- Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006) (documentary)
- Unbeatable Harold (2006)
- Forget About It (2006)
- Celebrity Art Show (2008) (documentary)
- Blaze of Glory (2008) (voice)
- You Know the Face (2009) (documentary)
- Looking for Lenny (2009) (documentary)
- How to Live Forever (2009) (documentary)
- I Am Comic (2010) (documentary)
- The Phyllis Diller Special (1963)
- The Pruitts of Southampton (1966–1967)
- An Evening with Phyllis Diller (1966)
- Batman (1966) Cameo as scrub woman
- The Phyllis Diller Special (1968)
- The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show (1968) (canceled after 13 episodes)
- The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians (1970) (voice)
- Night Gallery (1970) Episode "Pamela’s Voice"
- Mooch Goes to Hollywood (1971)
- Love American Style "Love and the Heist" (1971)
- The New Scooby-Doo Movies episode 6: "A Good Medium is Rare" (1972) (voice)
- Phyllis Diller's 102nd Birthday Party (1974)
- The Gong Show (1976–1980) (recurring panelist throughout run)
- The Muppet Show (1977)
- On Location: Phyllis Diller (1977)
- Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell sisters NBC (1981 in television)
- Whatever Became Of... (1981) (unsold pilot)
- Jonathan Winters: On the Ledge (1987)
- Alice Through the Looking Glass (1987) (voice)
- Full House 1x16 "But Seriously, Folks" (February 5, 1988)
- Top Tomata! (1989) - comedy special featuring Elayne Boosler (cameo)
- 227 (1990) (One episode)
- Cybill "Romancing the Crone" (1996) (self)
- Emily of New Moon (TV series) (1998 & 99) (Great Aunt Nancy Priest)
- Hey Arnold! (1999) (Mitzi)
- The Bold and the Beautiful (recurring cast member as Gladys from 1995–2004)
- Kiss My Act (2001)
- Titus (2001) (Grandma Titus)
- Even Stevens (2002) (Coach Korns)
- The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (Recurring voice of Granny Neutron)
- Casper's Scare School (2006) (voice)
- Family Guy (Recurring voice of Thelma Griffin)
- Robot Chicken (2005) Phyllis Diller Spray N' Play / Mrs. Claus (voice)
- Dawn French's Girls Who Do Comedy (2007) as herself
- Boston Legal (2007) (One of Denny's past lovers)
- The Rosie O'Donnell Show (2011)
- Roseanne's Nuts (2011) (Herself)
- Celebrity Ghost Stories (2011) as herself
- The Powerpuff Girls (2004) as Mask Scara
- The Bold and the Beautiful (2012) 2 episodes as Gladys