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Phyllis Diller

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Collection: 1917 Births, 2012 Deaths, 20Th-Century American Actresses, 21St-Century American Actresses, Actresses from Los Angeles, California, Actresses from Ohio, American Film Actresses, American People of German Descent, American People of Irish Descent, American Stage Actresses, American Stand-up Comedians, American Television Actresses, American Voice Actresses, American Women Comedians, American Women Writers, Bluffton University Alumni, Former Methodists, Las Vegas Entertainers, People from Lima, Ohio, Writers from Ohio
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Phyllis Diller

Phyllis Diller
Diller on February 25, 2007
Born Phyllis Ada Driver
(1917-07-17)July 17, 1917
Lima, Ohio, U.S.
Died August 20, 2012(2012-08-20) (aged 95)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death Natural causes
Alma mater Bluffton College
Occupation Stand-up comedian, actress, voice artist
Years active 1949–2012
Known for The Pruitts of Southampton
A Bug's Life
The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius
Robot Chicken
Spouse(s) Sherwood Anderson Diller (m. 1939–65)
Warde Donovan (Tatum) (m. 1965–75)
Partner(s) Robert P. Hastings (c.1985–96; his death)[1]
Children 6

Phyllis Ada Driver (July 17, 1917 – August 20, 2012), better known as Phyllis Diller, was an American stand-up comedian, actress, singer, dancer, and voice artist, best known for her eccentric stage persona, her self-deprecating humor, her wild hair and clothes, and her exaggerated, cackling laugh.

Diller's voice acting roles included the Queen in A Bug's Life, Granny Neutron in The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Thelma Griffin in Family Guy, and various characters on Robot Chicken.


  • Early life 1
  • Career 2
  • Personal life 3
  • Illness and death 4
  • Filmography 5
  • Television work 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Early life

Diller was born Phyllis Ada Driver in Lima, Ohio on July 17, 1917, the only child of Perry Marcus Driver (June 13, 1862 – August 12, 1948), an insurance agent, and Frances Ada (née Romshe; January 12, 1881 – January 26, 1949).[2][3] She had German and Irish ancestry (the surname "Driver" had been changed from "Treiber" several generations earlier).[4] She was raised Methodist.[5] 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.[6]

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.

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.

Along with Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart, and Mort Sahl, Diller was part of the so-called "New Wave" comedians who began their careers after WWII and had no connections to vaudeville.


Diller began her career working at KROW radio in Oakland, California in 1952. In November of that year, she began filming a television show titled Phyllis Dillis, the Homely Friendmaker.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

Diller first appeared as a stand-up at The Purple Onion in San Francisco 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. 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.[10] After moving to Webster Groves, Missouri, near 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 USO troupe during the height of the Vietnam War.[11]

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!". She also appeared on the daytime game show The Match Game in 1964 and 1965, adding comedic entertainment to the show.

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 Splendor in the Grass. She appeared in more than a dozen (usually low-budget) films. She provided the voice of the Monster's Mate in Mad Monster Party (1967).

Diller on the set of The Pruitts of Southampton

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. Subsequent TV appearances included at least three episodes between 1999 and 2003[12] 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 [12] as Mimi Bobek's grandmother. Once, she posed for Playboy, but the photos were never run in the magazine.[13] Diller's voice can be heard in several animated TV series, including The New Scooby-Doo Movies (1972)[12] as herself, Hey Arnold! as Arnold's grandpa's sister Mitzi, The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2002)[12] as Jimmy's grandmother, and on Family Guy in 2006[12] as Peter Griffin's mother, Thelma Griffin.

Diller in 1973

Beginning December 26, 1969,[14] she had a 3-month run[15] in Hello, Dolly! (opposite Richard Deacon),[16] 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 series' run in December 1970.[17][18]

In 1993, Diller was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.[19]

Diller "hamming it up" for the camera in 1997

In 1998, Diller provided the voice of the Queen in A Bug's Life. Among her other animated films 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).[20] Diller guested as herself in "A Good Medium is Rare," a 1972 episode of The New Scooby-Doo Movies. Other television series 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.[20]

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.

Diller wearing a chinchilla jacket in 1973

In 2000, she was awarded the Women in Film Lucy Award, recognizing her achievements in enhancing the perception of women through the medium of television.[21]

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. She offered up some of her most iconic costume pieces, as well as her gag file, a steel cabinet with 48 file-drawers with more than 50,000 jokes she had recorded on index cards 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.[22]

On January 24, 2007, Diller appeared on The Tonight Show and performed stand-up before chatting with Jay Leno. Leno has stated that Diller would infrequently call him to contribute jokes during his time as the host of The Tonight Show.[23]

Diller in Reno, Nevada in 1973

On April 10, 2007, she had a cameo appearance in an episode of Boston Legal. Portraying herself, she confronted William Shatner's character Denny Crane and alleged they'd had a torrid love affair.

Diller at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand for the Bob Hope Christmas show in December 1966

Diller was a member of the Society of Singers, which supports singers in need. In June 2001, at Scott Sherman's request, 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.

She also recorded at least 5 comedy LP records, one of which was Born to Sing, released as Columbia CS 9523.

Between 1971 and 1981, Diller 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."

In 2011, she appeared in an episode of her friend Roseanne Barr's reality show Roseanne's Nuts.

In January 2012, she recorded a version of Charlie Chaplin's song Smile with Pink Martini's Thomas Lauderdale for the album Get Happy.[24]

The October 7, 2012 episode of Family Guy, "Ratings Guy," was dedicated to the memory of Phyllis Diller and Michael Clarke Duncan.

Personal life

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.[25]

Diller was married and divorced twice. She had six[26] children from her marriage to her first husband, Sherwood Anderson Diller. Her first child was Peter (born September 1940;[27] died 1998 of cancer).[28] Her second child Sally, born in November 1944,[26] has suffered from schizophrenia most of her life.[29] Her third child (born 1945), a son, lived for only two weeks in an incubator.[30] A daughter, Suzanne, was born in March, 1946,[31] followed by another daughter Stephanie (born October 1948,[32] died 2002 of a stroke)[33] and a son Perry (born February 1950).[34] She states, "we lost the second shortly after he was born...a blue baby who lived just two weeks in an incubator." Phyllis described the child as having a deformity of the hands and possibly being blind. She said he was given her father's name of Perry, a name that would later be given to their youngest child. 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.[35]

Robert P. Hastings was her partner, from 1985 until his death on May 23, 1996.[2]

"Fang," the husband that Diller frequently mentioned in her act, 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."[36] 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.

Illness and death

As she passed her 80th birthday, Diller began to suffer from various ailments. 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. Approaching the age of 90, Diller retired from stand-up comedy appearances. On July 11, 2007, USA Today reported that she had fractured her back and had to cancel an appearance on The Tonight Show, during which she had planned to celebrate her 90th birthday. On January 4, 2011, Diller made one of her final public appearances on Anderson Cooper 360° as part of a panel of comedians.

On the morning of August 20, 2012, Diller died in her Brentwood, Los Angeles, California home of natural causes at age 95. According to her family, she died with a "smile on her face."[37][38][39]



Short Subjects:

  • Rowan & Martin at the Movies (1968)
  • The Lion Roars Again (1975)

Television work


  1. ^ Robert P. Hastings – Obituary – Los Angeles, CA –
  2. ^ a b Keepnews, Peter (August 20, 2012). "Phyllis Diller, Sassy Doyenne of Rapid-Fire Comedy, Dies at 95".  
  3. ^ The censuses from 1920 and 1930 state that the Driver family lived on West Mark Street, in Lima
  4. ^ Genealogy of Phyllis Diller, by Rhonda R. McClure, hosted at at the Wayback Machine (archived January 4, 2010)
  5. ^  
  6. ^ "Phyllis Diller to receive Lifetime Award from her hometown".  
  7. ^ Dailey Review, Hayward, California November 19, 1952.
  8. ^ Video on YouTube
  9. ^ The Alameda Times Star, California April 23, 1955
  10. ^ Pioneers of Television - Phyllis Diller's TV Debut - PBS on YouTube
  11. ^ Third Marine Division's Two Score and Ten History. Paducah, Ky.: Turner. 1992. p. 13.  
  12. ^ a b c d e Phyllis Diller credits at IMDb
  13. ^ Tastes Like Chicken, Vol. 5, Issue 3 (November 2002)
  14. ^ replacement cast members at IBDBHello, Dolly!
  15. ^ Diller, Phyllis; Buskin, Richard (2005). Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy. New York: Penguin Group. p. 210.  
  16. ^ Lampshade. p. 211.
  17. ^ Ethel Merman credits at IBDB
  18. ^ Lampshade. p. 213.
  19. ^ St. Louis Walk of Fame. "St. Louis Walk of Fame Inductees". Retrieved 25 April 2013. 
  20. ^ a b Minovitz, Ethan (August 20, 2012). "Stand-up comedienne Phyllis Diller dead at 95". Big Cartoon News. Retrieved August 20, 2012. 
  21. ^ "Past Recipients".  
  22. ^ "Have You Heard the One…? The Phyllis Diller Gag File". National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved April 4, 2012. 
  23. ^ Littleton, Cynthia (January 21, 2015). "Jay Leno on Bill Cosby: ‘I Don’t Know Why It’s So Hard to Believe Women’".  
  24. ^ "Official Bio". Pink Martini. Retrieved October 31, 2013. 
  25. ^ 'Phyllis Diller on "The Magic of Believing" the book that shaped her life, YouTube, November 3, 2011.
  26. ^ a b Diller, Phyllis; Buskin, Richard (2005). Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy. New York City: Penguin Group. p. 57.  
  27. ^ Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse, p. 53
  28. ^ Lampshade. pp. 247–248.
  29. ^ Phyllis Diller : Comedian Profile
  30. ^ Lampshade. p. 57.
  31. ^ Lampshade. p. 60.
  32. ^ Lampshade. p. 64.
  33. ^ Lampshade. p. 258.
  34. ^ Lampshade. p. 69.
  35. ^ Lampshade. pp. 204–207, 224.
  36. ^ Lampshade. p. 233.
  37. ^ Severo, Richard; Keepnews, Peter (August 20, 2012). "Laughs Were on Her, by Design".  
  38. ^ Buerger, Megan (August 20, 2012). "Phyllis Diller, comedian, dies at 95".  
  39. ^ Duke, Alan (August 22, 2012). "'"Comedian Phyllis Diller dies 'with a smile on her face.  
  40. ^ Muppet Central Guides – The Muppet Show: Phyllis Diller

External links

  • Phyllis Diller at the Internet Movie Database
  • Phyllis Diller at the Internet Broadway Database
  • Works by or about Phyllis Diller in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
  • Phyllis Diller's TV Debut with Groucho Marx video, 13 min.
  • Lima’s Funniest Lady: Phyllis Diller still remembered as one funny local
  • Phyllis Diller on The Ed Sullivan Show on YouTube, video 2 min.
  • Interview with Phyllis Diller
  • Phyllis Diller stand-up comedy show, 1977 on YouTube video, 6 min.
  • Phyllis Diller roasts Ronald Reagan on YouTube video 1.5 min.
  • Diller's Entry in the St. Louis Walk of Fame
  • Comedy College webpage for Phyllis Diller
  • The Magic of BelievingDiller discussing on YouTube and its impact on her life.
  • Phyllis Diller: Still Out for a LaughNPR interview,
  • Archive of American Television Interview with Phyllis Diller March 8, 2000
  • Diller Interview Comedy Hall of Fame, Archives, 2006
  • NPR: Not My Job: Phyllis Diller August 4, 2007 on Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!
  • Early Articles on Phyllis Diller's career
  • Literature on Phyllis Diller
  • Phyllis Diller at Find a Grave
  • One of the last full length interviews with Phyllis Diller on how she wants to be remembered on YouTube
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