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Andy Richter

Phyllis Diller Biography


Home > Actresses > D > Diller, Phyllis > Biography


Birth Name: Phyllis Diller
Born: 07/17/1917
Birth Place: Lima, Ohio, USA
Death Place: Los Angeles, California, USA
Died: 08/20/2012


Born into the world as Phyllis Ada Driver on July 17, 1917 in Lima, OH, this future queen of comedy entered the field with years of nonstop performing at San Francisco's historic Purple Onion Club. Prior to that, she was a housewife, mother and worked as an advertising copywriter. During her early years playing comedy clubs in the San Francisco Bay area, her material centered on her less-than-charmed home life. Her act relied heavily on self-deprecating humor and jokes made at the expense of her family, especially her husband, an inept, boorish fellow nicknamed "Fang." Though not quite as abrasive as Joan Rivers on the subject, Diller set the standard for a comedic archetype - that of the loud, brassy American housewife. In later years, other female comics such as Roseanne Barr, Brett Butler and Rita Rudner rose to fame, taking up Diller's banner with their own brand of post-modern, male-bashing brand of humor. At the time, however, the trailblazer shared stages with fellow future stars Rodney Dangerfield and Joan Rivers.

Following a breakthrough appearance on "The Tonight Show" with Jack Paar, (NBC, 1957-1962), Diller landed her first major exposure as a contestant on the venerated game show, "You Bet Your Life" (NBC, 1950-1961), hosted by Groucho Marx. Managed at the time by Svengali-esque first husband, Sherwood Diller, Diller parlayed her improvisational one-liner genius into a full-time career as a stand-up comedienne. In between stand-up gigs, Diller maintained a modest side career on the screen, portraying vaudeville personality Texas Guinan in the Natalie Wood/Warren Beatty drama "Splendor in the Grass" (1961) and finding her niche in low-brow film comedies "Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!" (1966), "Did You Hear the One About the Traveling Saleslady?" (1968) and "The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell" (1968), all co-starring buddy Bob Hope.

While Diller starred on two short-lived television series - the sitcom "The Pruitts of Southampton" (ABC, 1966-67) and the variety show "The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show" (NBC, 1968) - her enduring fame stemmed mostly from her endless appearances on TV specials, notably half a dozen of her own variety specials and every Bob Hope Christmas Special from 1965 through 1994. Unscripted Diller proved to be the most entertaining Diller, and for decades she was a mainstay on such shows as "I've Got a Secret" (CBS, 1952-1967), "The Hollywood Squares" and "The Gong Show," as well as countless variety specials and daytime talk shows. In 1970, Diller gave a worthy stab at filling the shoes of Carol Channing on Broadway in "Hello, Dolly!"

Later in the decade, the aging Diller discovered a new vein of self-deprecating, exploitable humor - her plastic surgery. Thumbing her nose at the vain Hollywood establishment, she openly copped to her numerous facelifts, nose jobs and tummy-tucks, becoming a de facto pitchwoman for the cosmetic surgery profession with such testaments as, "I used to be young and ugly. Now, I'm old and gorgeous." Diller's career began to slow in the 1980s, with the actress limiting herself to a few guest appearances in episodes of "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986) and the horror anthology "Tales from the Darkside" (syndicated, 1984-88). Now a campy legend worthy of bringing old school comedy cred to a new breed of low budget comedy filmmakers, she also showed up in "Dr. Hackenstein" (1988) and "Silence of the Hams" (1994). In 1998, she landed her highest profile role in years when she was cast the voice of the Queen in Pixar's smash hit comedy, "A Bug's Life."

Diller's career awoke again at the dawn of the new millennium, with a recurring role as an obnoxious spinster-turned-fan favorite on the long-running drama "7th Heaven" (The WB/The CW, 1997-2006). A short time later, Diller won a recurring role on her favorite daytime soap "The Bold & the Beautiful" (CBS, 1987- ) as beloved comic relief character, Gladys Pope, an old-time make-up artist from the 1950s. She enjoyed a spot on the soap until 2004, after which she released the memoir Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse. Resurfacing on the movie screen in two very different documentaries, Diller first contributed to "The Aristocrats" (2005), an in-depth look at a legendary dirty joke beloved by a wide range of comedians, before extolling the virtues of alternative energy in the documentary, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" (2006).

Nearing her nineties, Diller offered supporting dramatic performances in straight-to-video indies "The Still Life" (2007) and "The Last Place on Earth" (2006), as well as lending her vocals to irony-laden animated series like "Robot Chicken" (Adult Swim, 2005- ) and "Family Guy" (Fox, 1999-2002; 2005-). In 2009, a collection of Diller's stand-up material and sketch routines was compiled in the DVD "Phyllis Diller: Not Just Another Pretty Face" and included in the DVD box set "Comic Legends," which also included discs devoted to Dick Van Dyke, Tim Conway, Redd Foxx and Groucho Marx. The beloved comic passed away on Aug. 20, 2012 in her sleep at her Los Angeles home, surrounded by loved ones.