LIMA ‚?? The world‚??s most famous Limaite, Phyllis Diller, known as the groundbreaking woman of stand-up comedy, with sass and a trademark cackle, died in her sleep at her Los Angeles home Monday. She was 95.
She paved the way for female comedians such as Chelsea Handler, Roseanne Barr, Joan Rivers, Ellen DeGeneres and Whoopi Goldberg with fast-paced quips about domestic life and self-deprecating jokes about her looks.
‚??Would you believe that I once entered a beauty contest?‚?Ě Diller said during a stand-up routine on the ‚??Ed Sullivan Show‚?Ě in 1969, wearing a bright sequined dress and holding a cigarette. ‚??I must have been out of my mind. I not only came in last; I got 361 get well cards.‚?Ě
Even with Diller‚??s celebrity career that spanned more than five decades, from stand-up comedy, dozens of movie appearances and hundreds of television appearances from variety shows to situation comedies, she never forgot her small-town Ohio roots.
Just a few weeks ago during dinner with longtime personal manager Milt Suchin, she reminisced about a visit to Lima in 1985, when she posed as a Kewpee server to film the syndicated television series ‚??The Start of Something Big.‚?Ě
‚??It was a reality show. And she went behind the counter and I said, ‚??Take a bite of the thing before you serve it.‚?? So she took a bite, gave it to people who weren‚??t suspecting it. They didn‚??t recognize her. She was in costume. And she took a bite, put it back, and said, ‚??Yeah, it‚??s cooked pretty well.‚?? And you could imagine the expression on the peoples‚?? faces,‚?Ě Suchin said, who was her personal manager for 33 years.
Last month, the Northwest Ohio Independent Film Festival honored Diller with an inaugural lifetime achievement award. Festival Director Len Archibald flew with a camera crew to Los Angeles to present her with the award in June, and he said she was truly touched and humbled by the thought.
‚??She really is a trailblazer, doing what she did in comedy,‚?Ě Archibald said. ‚??That word is being thrown a lot these days, but the girl from Lima with the crazy hair is just that; real, honest and pure. Her hospitality, warmth and uncanny comedic timing shook me to a time when I was six years old and felt like I could conquer worlds. I did not see age. I saw life.‚?Ě
And until the very end, Diller kept the jokes coming.
‚??I used to call it a cesspool of culture,‚?Ě she said of her hometown to Archibald in June from her Los Angeles home. Her famous laugh followed the line.
She was born Phyllis Driver in Lima on July 17, 1917, the only child of Perry and Frances Ada Driver. Diller graduated from Lima Central High School in 1935, being voted most talented student her senior year. She studied at Sherwood Music Conservatory in Chicago, and later, attended Bluffton College.
‚??Phyllis was a great encourager. She would send me handwritten notes on a regular basis and was always rooting for me as a female president,‚?Ě said Dr. Lee Snyder, Bluffton University President Emeritus. ‚??I enjoyed many conversations with Phyllis in her home. She was a true friend and I appreciated her friendship.‚?Ě
Upon transferring to Bluffton, she met her first husband, Sherwood Diller. The couple eventually moved out to California, where she worked as an advertising copywriter while raising five children. Because of her husband‚??s encouragement, believing she was funnier than other comics on television, she was pushed into the show business world at the age of 37.
Her comedy career took off in 1955 when she performed at San Francisco‚??s now-defunct Purple Onion night club, where Bob Hope caught her act. Her quick self-loathing one-liners paired with her unmistakable laugh established her as an audience favorite at home and abroad.
Her stage personality was an eccentric loud-mouthed housewife wearing over-the-top, sequined outfits, lamenting about her fictional husband, ‚??Fang,‚?? and often joking about her own looks.
‚??A bent cone for a nose, no upper lip when I smile, and teeth like crooked tombstones,‚?Ě she wrote in her 2005 memoir ‚??Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy.‚?Ě ‚??Boy, am I ugly.‚?Ě
Later in her career, her self-deprecating humor shifted to her numerous plastic surgeries.
‚??I used to be young and ugly. Now, I‚??m old and gorgeous,‚?Ě she once quipped.
Off the stage, people knew a milder Diller, still abundant with jokes, but one who was also an accomplished painter and pianist. The cigarette and holder she often held onstage in the 1960s and ‚??70s was only a prop; she was a lifelong nonsmoker.
She was sure to make stops to her beloved hometown through the years, between high school reunions, various television appearances and receiving an honorary degree from Bluffton in 1993. One of her last visits to Lima was for the 60th anniversary of her high school reunion in 1995.
Still, in conversation she defended the pronunciation of her hometown whenever anyone would pronounce it Lima, like the Peruvian capital. Her manager Suchin said she ‚??always screamed at people when they called it that.‚?Ě
Working well into her 80s, Diller lent her voice for the character Queen in the 1998 Pixar film ‚??A Bug‚??s Life.‚?Ě
Bumps in her later life included a near fatal heart attack in 1999 and various falls in her home. She retired in 2002 after a farewell tour, but still made occasional forays back into the business. She appeared in the 2005 comedy documentary ‚??The Aristocrats‚?Ě and supplied the voice of Peter‚??s mother in 2006-07 episodes of the cartoon series ‚??Family Guy.‚?Ě Her last guest television appearance was on the daytime drama ‚??The Bold and the Beautiful‚?Ě in 2011.
Joan Rivers, who once wrote jokes for Diller before becoming a huge stand-up comic herself, called her a friend.
‚??I‚??m beyond saddened by the death of Phyllis Diller,‚?Ě Rivers said in a statement after the news of Diller‚??s passing. ‚??We were friends ‚?? Melissa and I had a wonderful time with her at lunch just a month ago. The only tragedy is that she was the last from an era that insisted a woman had to look funny in order to be funny.‚?Ě
Diller is survived by two daughters and a son.