Diller, Phyllis, 1917-2012

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1917-07-17
Death 2012-08-20
Americans

Biographical notes:

Phyllis Ada Driver (b. July 17, 1917, Lima, OH - d. August 20, 2012, Los Angeles, CA). She studied at the Sherwood Music Conservatory in Chicago, IL for three years, beginning in fall 1934. She married Sherwood Anderson Diller, and the couple and their children moved from Ypsilanti, MI to Alameda, CA in 1945. Diller began her career as writer and women's editor for the San Leandro News-Observer . From June 1951 to 1954, Diller's jobs included: head of newspaper and radio ad copy in the advertising office of Kahn's, a department store in Oakland, CA; copywriter, publicist, and continuity girl at the radio station KROW in Oakland, CA; and, finally, director of promotion and merchandising at KSFO radio in San Francisco, CA. Her copywriting was distinguished by its comedic flair.

Diller performed in several small and semi-professional venues before getting a lengthy gig at The Purple Onion, a nightclub in San Francisco, CA in March 1955. Following this successful run, she gave opening performances at The Purple Onion in Los Angeles, CA in summer 1956. In Los Angeles, Diller made her first national television appearance as a contestant on the NBC game show You Bet Your Life, hosted by Groucho Marx. Thereafter, she toured the country, performing in major nightclubs such as Mister Kelley's in Chicago, IL, The Blue Angel and The Bon Soir in New York, NY (where she worked with a young Barbra Streisand), The Crescendo in Los Angeles, CA, and The Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, FL. Diller's stand-up act pushed the envelope by lampooning women's roles in the 1950s and 1960s. In particular, she broke from the tradition set by male comedians who complained about their wives by creating a fictional husband, the ne'er-do-well Fang.

Around 1958, Diller made the first of many appearances on The Tonight Show and The Jack Paar Show, the latter for which she eventually became a writer. These appearances brought her heightened success, and led to her discovery by Bob Hope. Diller worked with Hope for decades, performing with him on 23 television specials, in the feature films Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! (1960), Eight on the Lam (1967), and The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell (1968), and as part of his USO troupe in Vietnam in 1966. Diller's film work from this period also includes Splendor in the Grass (1962) and voice work in the Rankin/Bass animated film Mad Monster Party (1967). Beginning in the 1960s, Diller became a household name through many TV appearances featuring her stand-up act. She also starred in two short-lived TV series, the half-hour sitcom The Pruitts of Southhampton (later titled The Phyllis Diller Show, 1966-67) and the musical variety show The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show (1968). From 1961-1970, Diller recorded five albums and published four books. She concluded the 1960s with her Broadway debut in Hello Dolly!

Recent film roles include voice work in Disney's A Bug's Life (1998) and the documentary The Aristocrats (2005). Recent television work includes recurring roles on the series Titus (2001-02), 7th Heaven (1999-2003), The Bold and the Beautiful (1999-2004), and The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2002-2004).

In May 1971, Diller drew upon her training as a pianist and made her debut in a concert with Pittsburgh Pops, initiating 10 years of work as a concert pianist. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Diller continued frequent appearances on the stage and screen, and became known as one of the first celebrities to proudly admit to having had plastic surgery.

In 2002, Diller retired from stand-up comedy work. Her final performance, at the Suncoast Hotel in Las Vegas, NV, is captured in the documentary Good Night, We Love You (2006). Post-retirement, Diller wrote an autobiography titled Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy (2005), turned her hobby of drawing and painting into another career, and has continued to make appearances on television and in film.

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Subjects:

  • Women comedians--20th century
  • Comedy--20th century
  • Humorists, American--20th century
  • Actors and actresses--20th century

Occupations:

  • Women comedians--Archival resources

Places:

  • United States (as recorded)