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 was a groundbreaking stand-up comic—one of the first woman comics to become a household-name name in the U.S. She paved the way for Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr and Ellen Degeneres, among others, who credit her influence. Diller had a large gay following and is considered a gay icon. She was also one of the first celebrities to openly champion plastic surgery, for which she was recognized by the industry.
Diller worked in more than 40 films, beginning with 1961's Splendor in the Grass. She appeared in many television series, often in cameos, but also including her own short-lived sitcom and variety show. Some of her credits include The Night Gallery, The Muppet Show, The Love Boat, Cybill, and Boston Legal, plus eleven seasons of The Bold and the Beautiful. Her voice-acting roles included the monster's wife in Mad Monster Party, the Queen in A Bug's Life, Granny Neutron in The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, and Thelma Griffin in Family Guy.
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). She had German and Irish ancestry (the surname "Driver" had been changed from "Treiber" several generations earlier). She was raised Methodist. Her parents were older than most when she was born (55 and 38, respectively) and Diller attended several funerals while growing up. The exposure to death at a young age led her to an early appreciation for life and she later realized that her comedy was a form of therapy.
She attended Lima's Central High School and discovered she had the gift of humor early on. Although she wasn't a class clown, calling herself a "quiet and dedicated" student, she enjoyed making people laugh once school was out. Diller studied piano for three years at the Sherwood Music Conservatory of Columbia College Chicago but decided against a music career and transferred to Bluffton College where she studied literature, history, psychology and philosophy. She met Sherwood Diller at Bluffton and they married in 1939. Diller didn't finish school and was primarily a housewife, taking care of their five children (a sixth child died in infancy).
After moving to Alameda, California, Diller began working in broadcasting in 1952 at KROW radio in Oakland, California. In November of that year, she filmed several fifteen-minute segments for the Bay Area television series Phyllis Dillis, the Homely Friendmaker—dressed in a housecoat to offer absurd "advice" to homemakers. Diller also worked as a copywriter at KSFO radio in San Francisco and a vocalist for a music-review TV show called Pop Club, hosted by Don Sherwood.
With the encouragement of her husband, Diller made her debut as a stand-up comedian at age 37 in the basement of the San Francisco North Beach club, The Purple Onion, on March 7, 1955. Up until then, she had only tried out her jokes for fellow PTA moms at nearby Edison Elementary School. Her first professional show was a success and the two-week booking stretched out to 89 consecutive weeks. Diller had found her calling and eventual financial success while her husband's business career failed. She explained, “I became a stand-up comedienne because I had a sit-down husband.”
In a 1986 NPR interview, Diller said she had no idea what she was doing when she started playing clubs and in the beginning she never saw another woman on the comedy circuit. With no female role models in a male-dominated industry, she initially used props and drew from her educational and work background as a basis for satire, spoofing classical music concerts and advice columns. She wrote her own material and kept a file cabinet full of her gags, honing her nightclub act. Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, and Jonathan Winters were early influences, but Diller developed a singular comedic persona—a surreal version of femininity. This absurd caricature with garish baggy dresses and gigantic, clownish hair made fun of her lack of sex appeal while brandishing a cigarette holder (with a wooden cigarette because she didn't smoke), punctuating the humor with a hearty cackle to show she was in on the joke. At the time, Diller said, "They had no idea what I was. It was like—'Get a stick and kill it before it multiplies!'"
Her first national television appearance was as a contestant on Groucho Marx's quiz show You Bet Your Life. Multiple bookings on the Jack Paar Tonight Show led to an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, which brought her national prominence as she continued to perform stand-up throughout the U.S.
Starting in 1959 and throughout the 1960s, she released multiple comedy albums, including the titles "Wet Toe in a Hot Socket!," "Are You Ready for Phyllis Diller?," and "The Beautiful Phyllis Diller."
In the early 60s, Diller performed at the Bon Soir in Greenwich Village, opening for up-and-coming Barbra Streisand. She was offered film work and became famous after co-starring with her mentor Bob Hope, who described her as "a Warhol mobile of spare parts picked up along a freeway." They worked together in films such as Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!, Eight on the Lam, and The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell, all critically panned, but Boy... did well at the box office. Diller accompanied Hope to Vietnam in 1966 with his USO troupe during the height of the Vietnam War.
She appeared regularly as a special guest on many television programs, including 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 three guesses. 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. She became a semi-regular on The Hollywood Squares, starting in 1967, appearing in 28 episodes until 1980.
Diller continued to work in film, making a cameo appearance as Texas Guinan, the wisecracking nightclub hostess in Splendor in the Grass. Throughout the 1960s, she appeared in more than a dozen, usually low-budget, films. She also began a career in voice work, providing the voice of the Monster's Mate in Mad Monster Party (1967).
Diller also starred in the short-lived TV series The Pruitts of Southampton (1966–1967); later retitled The Phyllis Diller Show, a half-hour sitcom on ABC. She received a Golden Globe nomination in 1967 for her role in Pruitts. Diller hosted a variety show in 1968 titled The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show.
Beginning December 26, 1969, she had a three-month run in Hello, Dolly! (opposite Richard Deacon), 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.
1970 - 2012
Diller continued working in television throughout the 70s, appearing as a judge on premiere and subsequent episodes of The Gong Show. She also guest-starred in Night Gallery, Love American Style, The Muppet Show and The Love Boat. Between 1999 and 2003 she played roles in 7th Heaven and The Drew Carey Show.
Her successful career as a voice actor continued when Diller guested as herself in "A Good Medium is Rare," a 1972 episode of The New Scooby-Doo Movies. In 1998, Diller provided the voice of the Queen in A Bug's Life. Among her other animated films are 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).
She voiced characters in several television series, including Robot Chicken, Family Guy, Wait Till Your Father Gets Home, Captain Planet, Cow and Chicken, Hey Arnold! as Arnold's grandpa's sister Mitzi, The Powerpuff Girls, Animaniacs, Jimmy Neutron as Jimmy's grandmother, The Wild Thornberrys, and King of the Hill. She also played Peter Griffin's mother, Thelma, on Family Guy in 2006.
Citing advanced age and a lack of "lasting energy," Diller retired from stand-up in 2002. Her final performance was at the Suncoast that year in Las Vegas, Nevada. At the time she stated, "If you can't dance to comedy, forget it. It's music." The 2004 documentary Goodnight, We Love You: The Life and Legend of Phyllis Diller, directed by Gregg Barson, was shot on the night of her last performance. It follows Diller to a press conference, backstage, and into her home, to cover the story of her career. Rip Taylor, Don Rickles, Roseanne Barr, Red Buttons, Jo Anne Worley and Lily Tomlin are featured, discussing Diller's comedy legacy.
Although retired from the stand-up circuit, Diller never fully left the entertainment industry. In 2005, she 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.
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. The same year she had a cameo appearance portraying herself in an episode of Boston Legal. In 2011, she appeared in an episode of her friend Roseanne Barr's reality show Roseanne's Nuts.
Publishing her first best seller in 1966 and releasing more throughout the decade, Diller's books on domestic life featured her self-depreciating humor. The titles include Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints, Phyllis Diller’s Marriage Manual, and The Complete Mother. In 1981 she published The Joys of Aging & How to Avoid Them.
Her autobiography, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse - My Life in Comedy, co-written with Richard Buskin, was published in 2006. In it Diller told of an unhappy childhood with undemonstrative, emotionally withholding parents, and an equally unhappy first marriage. From these beginnings, her performing style—telling rapid-fire jokes—emerged, which she compared to music: "One joke followed the other with a flow and a rhythm. . . . Everything had a natural feel to it."
Diller had studied the piano for many years and was an accomplished player but 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.
Between 1971 and 1981, Diller appeared as a piano soloist with 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."
Diller, a self-taught artist, began painting in 1963. She worked in acrylics, watercolors and oils throughout the 1970s and filled her Brentwood, California home with her portraits and still-lifes. In 2003, at age 86, she held the first of several "art parties," selling her art work along with her stage clothes and costume jewelry.
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.
Diller was married and divorced twice. She had six children from her marriage with her first husband, Sherwood Anderson Diller. Peter was the first, born in 1940. Sally was next, born in 1944. Their third child, Perry, was born in 1945 but only lived for two weeks in a neonatal incubator. A daughter, Suzanne, was born in 1946, followed by another daughter, Stephanie, in 1948. Their sixth child, also named Perry, after Diller's father, was born in 1950. Sally was diagnosed with schizophrenia and Diller worked hard to care for her at home but Sally was eventually institutionalized. Diller outlived two of her grown children. Peter died of cancer in 1998. Stephanie died in 2002 of a stroke.
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.
Robert P. Hastings was her partner, from 1985 until his death on May 23, 1996. In a 2000 interview, she called him the love of her life, saying he admired her for being an independent person.
The character of "Fang," the husband that Diller frequently mentioned in her act, sprang from an ad-lib at a Purple Onion show. She kept him in the act, realizing "I was on to something because this idiot that I portray on stage has to have a husband, and he's got to be even more idiotic than I."
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." Her numerous surgeries were the subject of a 20/20 segment February 12, 1993.
Illness and death
As she passed her 80th birthday, Diller began to suffer from various ailments. In 1999 her heart stopped during a hospital stay. She was fitted with a pacemaker but had a bad drug reaction and became paralyzed. Through physical therapy she was able to walk again. 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.
Influence and legacy
Diller is likely the first solo woman comedian in the U.S. to become a household name. She stated that making people laugh a powerful art-form. As a pioneering woman in the stand-up field, she inspired many female comedians including Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin, Ellen DeGeneres,Margaret Cho and Roseanne Barr.
Barr, who listened to Diller's records as a child, called her a true artist and revolutionary, saying, "It was timeless, that wacky, tacky character she created; the cigarette holder was genius, paradoxically regal. She was a victorious loser hero, the female iteration of Chaplin’s Little Tramp."
Fellow comic Joan Rivers paid tribute to Diller's early-career woman's point-of-view, saying, "She was the first one that there was such rage and such anger in her comedy. She had the anger that is now in all of us. And that's what made it so funny, because she spoke for all these women that were sitting home with five children and a husband that didn't work."
Diller had a large gay following from the beginning of her career, once saying, "My first audience were gay people because they have a great sense of humor." An obituary in Queerty noted her popularity with the LGBT community, calling her a "strong-willed entertainer who challenged the status quo regarding gender and sexuality." She enjoyed the company of gay men, writing in her memoir, Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy: “Gay men have the most wonderful sense of humor. And they are willing to laugh. They appeal to me and I appeal to them.”
A New York Times remembrance noted that Diller's flamboyant look is echoed in Lady Gaga concert attire, and that Eddie Murphy also punctuated jokes with a loud laugh, in a style reminiscent of Diller's persona.
Diller was an outspoken proponent of plastic surgery at time when cosmetic procedures were secretive. Her public admittance to having several face-lifts, nose jobs and other procedures added promotional and comedic value to her act. She told Bob Hope in 1971 that she had had a face-lift because, "I got sick and tired of having the dog drag me out to the yard and bury me." The American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery gave her an award for bringing plastic surgery "out of the closet."
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 them 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 written on index cards during her career. In 2011, the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery at the National Museum of American History displayed Diller's 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.
Awards and honors
- Golden Globe nomination for Actress In A Television Series - The Pruitts of Southampton - 1967.
- Awarded Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame - January 15, 1975.
- Women's International Center Living Legacy Award - 1990.
- American Comedy Award for Lifetime Achievement - 1992.
- Diller lived in St. Louis with her family from 1961 to 1965 and was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 1993.
- Women in Film Lucy Award, recognizing her achievements in enhancing the perception of women through the medium of television - 2000.
- San Diego Film Festival Governor's Award - 2004.
- Lifetime Achievement Award from hometown Lima, Ohio - 2012.
- Diller's July 17 birthday is officially "Phyllis Diller Day" in Alameda, California, where she got her start in radio and television.
- Splendor in the Grass (1961)
- The Fat Spy (1966)
- Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! (1966)
- Eight on the Lam (1967)
- Silent Treatment (1968) (unfinished)
- The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell (1968)
- Did You Hear the One About the Traveling Saleslady? (1968)
- Mad Monster Party (1967) (voice)
- The Adding Machine (1969)
- The Sunshine Boys (1975)
- A Pleasure Doing Business (1979)
- Pink Motel (1982)
- Doctor Hackenstein (1988)
- Pucker Up and Bark Like a Dog (1990)
- The Nutcracker Prince (1990) (voice)
- The Boneyard (1991)
- Wisecracks (1992) (documentary)
- The Perfect Man (1993)
- Happily Ever After (1993) (voice)
- The Silence of the Hams (1994)
- A Bug's Life (1998) (voice)
- The Debtors (1999)
- The Nuttiest Nutcracker (1999) (voice) (direct-to-video)
- Everything's Jake (2000)
- The Last Place on Earth (2002)
- Hip! Edgy! Quirky! (2002)
- Bitter Jester (2003) (documentary)
- Motocross Kids (2004)
- West from North Goes South (2004)
- Goodnight, We Love You: The Life and Legend of Phyllis Diller (2004) (documentary)
- The Aristocrats (2005) (documentary)
- Madman Muntz: American Maverick (2005) (documentary)
- Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006) (documentary)
- Unbeatable Harold (2006)
- Forget About It (2006)
- Celebrity Art Show (2008) (documentary)
- Blaze of Glory (2008) (voice)
- You Know the Face (2009) (documentary)
- Looking for Lenny (2009) (documentary)
- How to Live Forever (2009) (documentary)
- I Am Comic (2010) (documentary)
- Ruth Lyons: First Lady of Television (2011) (documentary)
- The Phyllis Diller Special (1963)
- The Pruitts of Southampton (1966–1967)
- An Evening with Phyllis Diller (1966)
- Batman (1966) Cameo as scrub woman
- The Phyllis Diller Special (1968)
- The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show (1968) (canceled after 13 episodes)
- The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians (1970) (voice)
- Night Gallery (1970) Episode "Pamela’s Voice"
- Mooch Goes to Hollywood (1971)
- Love American Style "Love and the Heist" (1971)
- The New Scooby-Doo Movies episode 6: "A Good Medium is Rare" (1972) (voice)
- Phyllis Diller's 102nd Birthday Party (1974)
- The Gong Show (1976–1980) (recurring panelist throughout run)
- The Muppet Show (1977)
- On Location: Phyllis Diller (1977)
- CHiPs (Cracked Up) (1978)
- The Love Boat (1979) "The Audit Couple/The Scoop/My Boyfriend's Back as Viola Penny
- Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters (NBC variety show, 1981)
- Whatever Became Of... (1981) (unsold pilot)
- The Love Boat (1982) The Anniversary Gift/Honey Bee Mine/Bewigged, Bothered and Bewildered" as Martha Morse
- Trouble with Mary Jane (1985)
- Jonathan Winters: On the Ledge (1987)
- Alice Through the Looking Glass (1987) (voice)
- Full House 1x16 "But Seriously, Folks" (February 5, 1988)
- Top Tomata! (1989) – comedy special featuring Elayne Boosler (cameo)
- 227 (1990) (One episode)
- Cybill "Romancing the Crone" (1996) (self)
- Emily of New Moon (TV series) (1998 & 99) (Great Aunt Nancy Priest)
- Animaniacs (1998) (Suzie) Squirrel
- Hey Arnold! (1999) (Mitzi)
- The Bold and the Beautiful (recurring cast member as Gladys from 1995 to 2004)
- Titus (2001) (Grandma Titus)
- Even Stevens (2002) (Coach Korns)
- (great Aunt Sylvia)
- The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (Recurring voice of Granny Neutron)
- Casper's Scare School (2006) (voice)
- Family Guy (Recurring voice of Thelma Griffin)
- Robot Chicken (2005) Phyllis Diller Spray N' Play / Mrs. Claus (voice)
- Dawn French's Girls Who Do Comedy (2007) as herself
- Boston Legal (2007) (One of Denny's past lovers)
- The Rosie O'Donnell Show (2011)
- Roseanne's Nuts (2011) (Herself)
- Celebrity Ghost Stories (2011) as herself
- The Powerpuff Girls (2004) as Mask Scara
- The Bold and the Beautiful (2012) 2 episodes as Gladys