Jul. 17th, 1917
Lima, Ohio, USA
Guest TV Roles[none found]
The unstoppable, indefatigable nonagenarian finally put out an autobiography in 2005 and entitled it Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse, which pretty much says it all when reviewing the misfit life and career of the fabulous one-of-a-kind Phyllis Diller. It may inspire all those bored, discouraged and/or directionless housewives out there to know that the one-time 37-year-old chief bottle washer and diaper disposer of six started out writing comedy routines for her fellow female laundry mates -- a reprieve from the everyday doldrums. She ended up an entertainment legend who would share the comedy stage with the likes of Bob Hope (I), George Burns and Jack Benny. They said it couldn't be done back then (to be a successful lady comic, that is) but the doyenne of female stand-up did just that -- opened the doors for other odd-duck funny girls. Initially she whipped up an alter-ego that must have been created with the aid of hallucinogens. Diller boldly faced the world as a scrawny, witchy-faced, flyaway haired, outlandishly costumed, cigarette-holding, magpie-cackling version of Auntie Mame. Making a virtue out of her odd features, wifely horror tales and idiosyncratic tendencies, the beloved Diller went on to develop a solid fan base that has now passed five decades.
She was born Phyllis Ada Diller on July 17, 1917 to Perry Marcus Driver and Frances Ada (Romshe) Driver, in Lima, Ohio. A student at Lima's Central High School, she went on to study for three years at the Sherwood Music Conservatory in Chicago, Illinois, before transferring to Bluffton (Ohio) College where she served as the editor of the school's more humorous newspaper articles. She was a serious student of the piano but was not confident in her performance level to act on it as a possible career.
Before she knew it, Phyllis had married Sherwood Anderson Diller (at age 22 in November 1939), and became the subsequent mother of six children (one child died in infancy). On the sly she was an advertising copywriter. During World War II, the family moved to Michigan where her husband found work at the Willow Run Bomber Plant. A natural laughgetter, Phyllis began writing household-related one-liners and the feedback from the fellow wives greatly encouraged her. When the family moved to California for job-related reasons, Phyllis became a secretary at a San Francisco TV station. By this time she had built up the courage to put together a nightclub act. The local TV hosts at the station (Willard Anderson and Don Sherwood) thought her act was hilarious and invited her on their show in 1955. Not long after, at age 38, Phyllis made her debut at San Francisco's Purple Onion nightclub. What was to be a two-week engagement was extended to more than a year and a half. The widespread publicity she received took her straight to the TV talk and variety circuits where she soon traded banter with Jack Paar (I), Jack Benny and Red Skelton, among others. She was even a contestant on Groucho Marx's popular quiz show "You Bet Your Life".
Throughout the 1960s audiences embraced her bold and brazen quirkiness. Chumming up with the best of Hollywood's comedy talent, Diller formed a tight and lasting relationship with Bob Hope (I), appearing in scores of his TV specials and co-starring in three of his broad comedy films (Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! (1966), Eight on the Lam (1967) and The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell (1968). Diller also joined Hope in Vietnam in 1966 with his USO troupe and seemed to mesh perfectly with the zany pop culture figures of the era. She also found the best writers to help her with her material -- Joan Rivers herself, before she became big, wrote for the wisecracking comedienne.
Phyllis' star celebrity eventually took its toll on her marriage. She separated from and eventually divorced husband Sherwood (1965), who had, by this time, become a favorite topic and target of her act in the form of "Fang". That same year she married film actor and TV host Warde Donovan who appeared with her in the slapstick movie Did You Hear the One About the Traveling Saleslady? (1968). They divorced in 1975.
By this time Diller was everywhere on the small screen. A special guest on hordes of TV shows and comedy specials, and especially on such riotfests as "Laugh-In" and the Dean Martin (I) celebrity roasts, she became a celebrity on the game show circuit as well, finding her share of laughs on such established shows as "The Hollywood Squares" and "The Gong Show". She had best-selling comedy records to her credit and humorous stories to tell that made it to the bookstore shelves, such as Phyllis Diller Tells All About Fang. Stand-up, however, remained her first love.
Perhaps too broad or too much of a schtick comic to sustain her own TV series, she did attempt to find a suitable vehicle but came up short. "The Pruitts of Southampton" (1966) had Phyllis pretty much playing her odd-duck self (fright wig, garish outfits and all) as a wacky widow invariably scheming to keep up a wealthy front despite being heavily in debt. She had the reliably droll Reginald Gardiner and cranky Charles Lane (I) as foils and even the bizarre Gypsy Rose Lee was in their pitching, but the show didn't jell. Revamped as "The Phyllis Diller Show" several of comedy's best second bananas (John Astin, Paul Lynde, Richard Deacon (I), Billy De Wolfe, Marty Ingels (I)) were added to the seasoning, but the show was cancelled after a single season. A second try with "The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show" (1968), a comedy/variety show that had the zany star backed by none other than Rip Taylor and Norm Crosby, lasted only three months.
Seldom has Diller managed (or even been offered) to take her funny face off long enough to appear for dramatic effect. More straightforward roles came later on episodes of "Boston Legal" and "7th Heaven". Back in 1961, interestingly enough, she made both her stage and film debuts in Inge dramas. Her theatrical debut came with a production of "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" and she appeared first on film in the highly dramatic Splendor in the Grass (1961), lightening things up a bit with a cameo appearance as larger-than-life nightclub hostess Texas Guinan. Phyllis later impressed with her harridan role in the film The Adding Machine (1969) opposite 'Milo OShea. She also enjoyed a three-month run on Broadway in "Hello, Dolly!" with Richard Deacon (I) co-starring, and has appeared in other delightful shows and musicals over time -- "Wonderful Town," "Happy Birthday," "Everybody Loves Opal" and "Nunsense". In 1993, Phyllis was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame. Her cackling vocals too have been presented in fine form with the animated features Mad Monster Party? (1967) and A Bug's Life (1998). A heart attack slowed the comedienne down in 1999 and she eventually announced her retirement in 2002.
Eldest son Peter died of cancer in 1998, her third child died at two weeks old in 1945, and a daughter, Stephanie, died of a stroke in 2002. Her other children are Sally, Suzanne and Perry. As late as January 2007, Phyllis made an appearance on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show". She was to return on her 90th birthday in July but a back injury forced her to cancel. Hopefully we have not seen the last of this wild and wacky comedy icon who can't help but make us feel better about ourselves every time she appears on the tube.
- The cigarette with holder that she was famous for using in her stand-up routines in the 1960s and 1970s was only a prop for the act. She is a life-long non-smoker.
- A once highly serious student of the piano, she owns a custom-made harpsichord which she prizes.
- Received her first national exposure as a contestant on the 'Groucho Marx' (qv) show _"You Bet Your Life" (1950)_ (qv).
- Has a large collection of Waterford Crystal which she has collected over the past 50 years.
- Retired from stand-up routine in 2002, due to ill health: She was 84 at the time! Continued to lend her voice to animated characters in movies.
- In the mid-1960s, the trademark quirky dresses that she wore during performances were designed by Gloria Johnson of Omaha, Nebraska. Phyllis jokingly referred to Johnson as 'Omar of Omaha,' as tent dresses were in vogue at the time.
- Briefly served as honorary mayor in the affluent town of Brentwood, California.
- She had a total of six children, though only three are still living as at July 2006, including youngest son 'Perry Diller' (qv) who has appeared in at least two TV documentaries on his mother.