At 76, Phyllis Diller stakes out the comedy circuit

December 24, 1993|By Jack Lloyd | Jack Lloyd,Knight-Ridder News Service

Phyllis Diller has it -- the "spirit of 76," she says.

Ms. Diller was talking about her age, but she's not ready to slow down. After all, the comedian had a slow start in show business and, as a late bloomer, Ms. Diller figures that she has some catching up to do.

She's all over, performing in this country and abroad, making movies and appearing on television. Her rigorous schedule is now bringing Ms. Diller to Atlantic City, N.J., where she begins a six-day engagement at Harrah's Casino Hotel tomorrow.

Ms. Diller's next television appearance is scheduled for Jan. 31, when she will appear in an episode of NBC's "Blossom."

"It's such a wonderful role," she said on the phone this week from her home in Los Angeles. "I play this old woman who's a volunteer worker and she's just so insulting and acid-tongued."

Ms. Diller also has a movie, "Silence of the Hams," to be released next year.

"It's an outrageous comedy," she said. "A whole lot of people are in it. I can't think of them all right now. I play this 90-year-old secretary. With women's liberation these days, secretaries refuse to make and serve coffee, but serving coffee is all this secretary has ever done. She has coffee brewing all over her desk and keeps pushing coffee on everyone. Of course, she's a mess because of all the coffee she drinks. Rip Taylor plays the boss. At one point he knocks me through a door."

Ms. Diller loves it and concludes the account with that patented laugh known so well to her fans.

Also well-known to her fans is her "husband," Fang. "He's still in the act," Ms. Diller said. "People love it, and I'll tell you, that guy keeps getting dumber all the time."

There actually have been two Fangs in Diller's life (currently a "beau who makes me happy"). The way she sees it, neither of them appreciates the Fang routine as much as her fans. But Ms. Diller certainly owes the first one a debt of thanks: He pushed her into show business at the age of 37.

"It was in the early days of television and my husband saw all of those comedians making all of that money," she said. "I never planned on getting into show business. I just never thought about it. But I guess I've always been funny -- funny without really knowing it. At any rate, he kept talking about how funny I was and how I could make all of that money. And he was right."

Ms. Diller's first move was to put together a short act and try it out during an open-mike night at the Purple Onion in San Francisco.

"I was petrified, and I guess I stayed petrified for the next 10 years," she said. "Anyone could go up there on stage. There was a white-haired old lady who was actually hired -- at least for a short time."

Ms. Diller was hired for a two-week run at the Purple Onion. The engagement continued for 89 weeks.

The comedian went on to star in three television series, and she has appeared in a number of movies, including "Splendor in the Grass," "The Adding Machine," "Boy, Did I Dial a Wrong #i Number!" and "Eight on the Lam."

Ms. Diller has especially fond memories of the first series, a half-hour variety program called "Show Street" that aired in 1964.

"We would get a lot of entertainers on the way up," she said. "For instance, Xavier Cugat came on once with this 17-year-old girl from Spain who couldn't speak a word of English. Charo was her name. Joan Rivers worked on the show behind the scenes. She was behind a typewriter instead of a microphone."

At this point in her career, Ms. Diller said a TV sitcom would be appealing. "It would keep me in one place for a while," she said. "But then I do like to travel."

Ms. Diller recently returned from her 15th tour of Australia, a country she enjoys except for the fact that the natives put pineapple on their pizza ("how awful"). Soon, she'll begin a 20-week tour in the musical "42nd Street."

Wherever she wanders, Ms. Diller likes to get out and observe what's going on around her. "It's easy," she said. "I just take off the makeup and wig and wear glasses instead of contact lenses. No one knows who I am. So instead of people staring at me, I can stare at them."

One of her favorite spots is a hamburger joint on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City. "They have wonderful burgers and a fascinating collection of people hanging out there," she said.

Every now and then, when mingling with the common folk, she comes up with a line or two for her act -- maybe something really dumb for Fang to say.

Phyllis Diller is appearing Saturday through Thursday at Harrah's Casino Hotel in Atlantic City. Shows are at 7 and 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 7 p.m. Saturday and Thursday. Tickets are $15. Phone: 800-242-7724.

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