“Cleaning the house while the children are growing is like shoveling the walk while it’s still snowing.” – Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints, 1966.
Phyllis Diller, née Driver, was born in Lima, Ohio, in 1917. At the age of thirty-five, she left the housework and child rearing that were supposed to be the be-all-and-end-all of a woman’s life in 1952 and became a comedienne. Her first standup appearance was on March 7, 1955, at The Purple Onion in San Francisco. Eighty-seven weeks later, not only had a star been born, but a glass ceiling had shattered.
There were comediennes before Diller, but they were Broadway sketch comediennes like Fanny Brice or film stars like Mae West or wisecracking sidekicks like Eve Arden. Women didn’t do stand up in noisy, drunk-and-smoke-filled clubs. Until Phyllis. Joan Rivers, who is probably now the oldest female stand-up comedienne, acknowledged how Phyllis made it possible for Rivers and ever other female stand-up over the years to have their careers.
When she brought her act to television no one was prepared. Here was a woman with a fright wig, an over-the-knee muumuu, a feather boa, skinny legs in ankle boots and a laugh that defied metaphor and simile. She was a walking, screeching assault on the senses….and damned funny.
Her stand-up revolved around her husband “Fang” and the trials, tribulations and ludicrous ironies of a culture that worshiped the ideal of the stay-at-home Mom. Phyllis Diller was the anti-June-Cleaver. Her real husband from 1939 until 1965, the father of her six children was Maxwell Diller, was not the inspiration for “Fang,” the ultimate knuckle-dragging male, but we could all see elements of the men we knew in “Fang.” She was married two more times, to the same man, actor Warde Donovan (1965-75). From 1985 until his death in 1996, her domestic partner was Robert Hastings.
In addition to her appearances on television game and variety shows, and her stand-up routine, Diller was an accomplished actress with a filmography that ranges from 1961′s drama Splendor in the Grass (playing famed nightclub hostess Texas Guinan, for whom the Star Trek character was named) to her final work this year in two episodes of the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. She a also did voice work on shows like Family Guy, where she played Thelma Griffin. She appeared on Broadway for three months as the second-to-last “replacement” Dolly Levy in Hello, Dolly, joining a roster that included the original Carol Channing and “replacements” Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey and Ethel Merman. It was a surprise to learn that Phyllis Diller, famous for her raucous laugh, could actually sing.
Her 2005 autobiography, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy, was not her only book. The quote that opens this essay is from her book on housekeeping. It was consistent with her stand-up routine and poked fun at all those housekeeping guides, from Mary Elizabeth Beaton to Heloise.
Phyllis Diller passed away today at the age of 95. Like her historic first appearance at The Purple Onion, it was a very good run. You can see her legacy on Comedy Central in Margaret Cho and Linda Lampanelli and more female comics than even Phyllis dreamed of.
We also received word today of the death Thursday of character actor William Windom at the age of 88. Windom’s first film role was as the prosecutor in the classic 1962 film To Kill A Mockingbird. For some, Windom is best remembered as the deranged Comodore Decker in Star Trek, “The Doomsday Machine” and its continuation in the internet series Star Trek New Voyages. For others, Windom was Dr. Seth Hazlitt, the maybe-they-are-and-maybe-they-aren’t hometown friend of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, but for me it will always be My World and Welcome To It. The 1969-70 series was based on the writings of James Thurber, but not on his Walter Mitty stories. Those had been filmed by Danny Kaye. This was the Thurber we heard Keith Olbermann read on his shows, the man whose life seemed always to be just barely out of his control, like so many of us.
A great character actor is one whom you see on the screen and go “I know that face…” but you can’t quite remember who he is, “didn’t he play….” but you’re not sure. A great character actor sends you running for the IMDB so you end up with “Oh, yes, now I know who he is.” A great character actor inhabits a role, he does not meld the role to fit him. And, yes, there are great character actresses as well. William Windom was a great character actor and he leaves an impressive body of dramas, comedies and in-betweens. He titled his memoir Journeyman Actor. It’s a fitting epitaph.