Jerry Colonna, whose six-inch walrus mustache and popeyed facial expressions were the trademarks of his decades-long comedy career, died Friday of kidney failure at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills. He was 82.
The veteran film and radio comedian who was Bob Hope's close sidekick for 30 years had been hospitalized in a coma since 1979. Hope was at Colonna's bedside when he died.
"He was a dear friend, a great entertainer with whom I travelled all over the world," Hope said Friday. "He provided millions of laughs for millions of people and delighted the world with his unique style of comedy. His death is a great loss to the entertainment industry. I'll miss him."
Colonna appeared in Hope's first show for servicemen in 1941 and accompanied the comedian on his annual overseas Christmas treks to entertain U.S. troops throughout World War II. A favorite of the homesick GIs, Colonna was honored with the Air Force Scroll of Appreciation, the Air Force's highest civilian award.
"They all loved him, as did the public," Hope said.
Born in Boston on Sept. 17, 1904, of Italian immigrant parents, Colonna began his show business career as a trombone player. At the age of 14, he had his own orchestra, playing at socials, weddings and political rallies.
He later worked with the big bands of the day, including Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and Ozzie Nelson, playing the trombone, singing and doing comedy bits.
By the late 1930s, he was appearing on the popular Fred Allen and Bing Crosby radio shows. Those appearances led to a radio contract in 1938 on "The Bob Hope Show."
He made his motion picture debut in 1937 in "52nd Street," a film that revealed his comedic touch--swiveling eyes, elastic face and a tenor voice that could hold a single note in a rebel yell for a full 72 seconds.
Asked once how he learned to be funny, Colonna smiled, unleashed his pop eyes and replied: "Someone told me I was funny."
All the while, his oversized mustache worked feverishly as though an invisible manipulator stood behind his face pulling strings.
Colonna's other films include "College Swing," "Little Miss Broadway," "Naughty But Nice," "Road to Singapore," "Road to Rio," "Road to Hong Kong, "Star Spangled Rhythm," "Meet Me in Las Vegas" and "Andy Hardy Comes Home."
He is survived by his wife of 56 years, Florence, and a son, Robert, who runs a Shakespearean theater in Providence, R.I. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Motion Picture and Television Hospital.
Hope will preside over the funeral services, which are being arranged by Lorenzen Mortuary in Reseda.