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Remembering Phyllis Diller

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by Leonard Maltin
August 22, 2012 7:17 PM
10 Comments
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Phyllis in 'Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!' (1966)

By now you’ve probably seen obituaries and tributes to comedienne Phyllis Diller. I want to share a personal memory that speaks to one facet of her personality you may not have read about: her kindness. Many years ago I appeared on a handful of TV game shows, just for a lark. When I taped a week’s worth of Password Plus, Phyllis was the other celebrity guest.

Naturally, we changed wardrobe for each day’s show, and by the second or third episode she noticed that I had a different lapel pin on each jacket I wore. She asked me about it and I explained that I collected them. For the next ten to fifteen years, every month or so I would receive an envelope in the mail with a pin from a city she had visited or an event in which she’d participated. She would always attach a card wishing me love. I still can’t get over this extraordinary gesture of thoughtfulness for someone she barely knew.

If you’ve never seen Gregg Barson’s 2004 documentary, Good Night, We Love You, I recommend it. It’s a love letter to Phyllis built around the filming of her final nightclub gig (in Laughlin, Nevada) before her retirement. It ought to be required viewing for anyone hoping to launch a career in show business, as it chronicles the performer’s professionalism, attention to detail, and upbeat outlook on life.

Here’s the kicker: she was still funny, right to the end. Not too many years ago, I saw her at a benefit where she received an award. She wasn’t supposed to perform, but she came prepared with material just the same—and every line she uttered got a laugh. A big laugh.

Phyllis Diller had a great run and quit when she wanted to. We should all be so lucky.

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10 Comments

  • Gary McMaster | August 26, 2012 2:32 PMReply

    What a scream she was! And what a sweet, sweet lady. She will be dearly missed.

  • Stephen G.Baer | August 24, 2012 4:16 PMReply

    Among my most favorite memories of Phyllis Diller is when she appeared on The Gong Show in 1976 and while on the panel and of all times when her Impressionist was a contestant and no sooner Did her Impressionist/Impersonater see her that she said to her "Well we do appear twice in a while." Later when by the Host Barry Owens Phyllis was asked "And Phyllis what did you think of your look alike?"Then she did give some positive response But I can't remember it specifically.

  • Walt Mitchell | August 24, 2012 12:16 AMReply

    Wonderful memory, Leonard! Here's one of my favorite gags of hers from decades ago--I laughed so hard when I heard it that I never forgot it!:

    "I bought one of those peekaboo dresses to surprise my husband, Fang. He took a peek and said, 'Boo!--BOOOO!'" :-D

  • Eric Scheirer Stott | September 14, 2012 11:43 AM

    "I went to a costume party wearing a white fur hat ans white fur boots- just that. I went as a Q-Tip"

  • Randy Skretvedt | August 23, 2012 6:12 PMReply

    What a wonderful remembrance. Thank you for sharing this, Leonard.

  • Michael Kantor | August 23, 2012 4:02 PMReply

    When I interviewed her for "Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America" she was equally kind -- she gave each and every member of our crew a set of a dozen or so cards she had designed, each featuring a wonderful painting of a shoe or another interesting object. It was remarkable -- she was thanking us! Classy lady...

  • Jerry | August 23, 2012 3:51 PMReply

    The documentary is on Netflx streaming.

  • mike schlesinger | August 23, 2012 3:42 PMReply

    God, was she funny. I recently watched part of a stand-up comedy special featuring a woman comic (I won't say her name, but her uncle is a Senator) in which virtually all the "jokes" were, shall we say, gynecological.

    A favorite Phyllis joke, from the early '60s: "Like my new dress? It's the Jackie look." (pause) "Gleason."

  • Norm | August 23, 2012 5:09 AMReply

    Remember Phyllis from her appearance on "You Bet Your Life" or the Groucho Marx show, really the 1950's...then saw her at Six Flags outside of St. Louis in the 1980's...quite a Comedienne...

  • Karen Snow | August 23, 2012 12:27 AMReply

    Lovely and heartfelt tribute. Thanks for sharing !

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