Phyllis Diller may be gone, but not forgotten! I can still hear her laugh.
I first met Phyllis backstage during her performance atLakeArrowhead. She was waiting to go on stage and was in the company of a good looking man I knew and recognized. I said, “Hello there Warde Tatum,” and he quickly responded with, “Oh Patte, you always call me by our family name and you know I changed it to Donovan years ago for the movies.” I said, “Well hello there Mr. Warde Donovan,” and Phyllis immediately chimed in with a one-liner, “At least someone knows your name even if it’s only you, Warde,” followed by her trade-mark laugh.
Warde introduced us and she said she loved the limelight and that goes for the people too. “I’ll make them laugh, the world is so sad; everyone has lost their sense of humor and I never go to an affair unless I am personally involved.” I asked her if she wrote her gags herself, if they were all her own. “Oh yes,” she exclaimed, “If anyone else wrote my lines I couldn’t possibly ever remember them!” She told me to call her. I promised her I would be in the audience to see her performance and we said a hasty goodbye.
The next time I saw Phyllis was at her stately Brentwoodhome. We were both rushing around and I was trying to scoop a fast interview and we met in her driveway just as she was hurrying out. It was a hot day and she said, “What the hell, let’s just do our interview here, right now,” and so we leaned against the fence and she proceeded at a rapid pace. Her magic laughter poured out with “Life is great; I’ve got me an agent and I’m in between pictures. One of these days I’ll have to get to know him, but right now I’m working on my lines. Boy did I get a wrong number,” and out came that unmistakable AHA HAH HAAAH.
I told her, “You always make me laugh,” and she said, “The world is in a mess, so we’ve got to laugh!” I told her she should run for president and it might change the world a bit. “Oh I couldn’t possibly run for president, dear. What counts is to make people laugh, keep them happy, and watch the economy rise.” I hugged her before we parted and I still remember her great laugh and how she made my day — it would have made anyone’s!
Phyllis shot to the top as a comedy icon in the 1960s, always joking about her looks, her husbands, and her cooking. Known for her great one-liners, her act was mostly poking fun at herself. “Burt Reynolds once asked me out. I was already in his room”; “I do dinner in three waves: serve the food, clear the table, bury the dead”; “You know you’re old when someone compliments you on your alligator shoes, and you’re barefoot”; and, “My own Ouija board told me to go to hell.”
Often referred to as the first lady of stand-up comedy — “Housework can’t kill you, but why take the chance?” — she paved the way for all the wonderful comediennes of today. You can see her comedy in everyone from Bette Midler to Joan Rivers to Ellen DeGeneres and on and on. Ellen was quoted as saying, “We lost a comedy genius. Phyllis Diller was the Queen of the one-liner.”
Married and divorced three times, first to Sherwood Anderson Diller and then to second husband actor Warde Donovan whom she married and divorced twice. “Fang” — her fictitious husband — obviously never really existed except in her comedic routines. “My husband Fang is a permanent part of the act. Don’t confuse him with any of my real husbands, they’re only temporary.”
Appearing as a contestant in 1955 on You Bet Your Life, the Groucho Marx game show, she wowed his national television audience with an outstanding and memorable performance. She was often noted as saying his show was the jump start to her career. Almost immediately she was asked to appear at The Purple Onion Comedy Club inSan Francisco, where she again wowed the audience with her outrageous costumes and one-liners, the start to an overwhelming 87 weeks at the club. From that time on she never looked back.
Phyllis co-starred with Bob Hope in three movies and 23 television specials during the 1960s. She headed toVietnamin 1966 with his USO show during the height of the war, and would often credit him for much of her success.
She made the world laugh, appearing in over 40 feature films and just as many television shows. An accomplished pianist, she added a decade long stint to her career from 1972 to 1982 appearing throughoutAmericaas a solo pianist, performing with over 100 symphony orchestras under the pseudonym, “Dame Illya Pillya,” proving herself the ultimate entertainer.
I last saw Phyllis while promoting our book, Rasputin, the Man Behind the Myth, I had co-written with Maria Rasputin, the daughter of Rasputin, the infamous so-called “Mad Monk.” When I introduced her to Maria as Rasputin’s daughter, she said, “Was he really a mad monk or just drunk?” With that, Maria burst into laughter, with her interpretation of Phyllis Diller’s trade-mark laugh, AHA HAAH HAAAAAAH. And here’s the picture to prove it; history in the making.
Phyllis Diller is surely missed! She was all charm, a great lady, and one of the world’s greatest comedians. We will always remember her great laugh. Just thinking of her makes me laugh out loud!