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Known for her punchy, distinctive, cackling laugh, Diller was a self-deprecating comic who debunked the traditional portrait of the happy homemaker by taking on the persona of a loud, eccentric, bizarrely dressed, corner-cutting housewife with a sassy tongue and wild observations.
Barbra Streisand wrote: “I adored her. She was a wondrous spirit who was great to me.”
Born Phyllis Ada Driver in Ohio, she was an accomplished pianist who married at the age of 22. She and husband Sherwood Diller were based in San Francisco, where she balanced a successful career as an advertising copywriter with motherhood (the couple had six children, five of whom survived).
Diller drew from her own experiences when she began, at night, performing at comedy clubs in the mid-1950s. Her comedy career came relatively late: the busy mother and copywriter was nearly 40 before she got into show business.
Diller, a housewife-turned-comedian, appears in character in the 1966 sitcom The Pruitts of Southampton. (Associated Press)
A rare female stand-up comedian at that time, she delivered raw, outrageous routines about her fictional husband Fang and an arsenal of zingy one-liners about marriage, child-rearing and life as a housewife.
She became a regular at stand-up comedy clubs and landed several TV productions, including the sitcom The Pruitts of Southampton and the short-lived variety series The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show. However, she truly became a television mainstay with her many appearances on game shows and talent contests such as Hollywood Squares and The Gong Show.
Her first husband, Sherwood Diller, managed her career until their divorce in the 1960s. She was then briefly married to fellow entertainer Ward Donovan. Her partner Rob Hastings, a lawyer, died in 1996.
“I’m beyond saddened by the death of Phyllis Diller. We were friends,” Rivers wrote on Twitter. “The only tragedy is that Phyllis Diller was the last from an era that insisted a woman had to look funny in order to be funny.”
She largely retired from her stand-up career in 2002, though she continued to take on the occasional role later in life, including voicing the Queen in Pixar’s animated film A Bug’s Life and turning up in TV’s 7th Heaven and The Bold and the Beautiful.
“I was one of those life-of-the-party types,” Diller told The Associated Press in 1965.