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Historic TV Show's Genteel Comic : Dan Rowan of 'Laugh-In' Dies

September 23, 1987|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Dan Rowan, the more genteel of the maitres d' mirth on television's historic and hysterical "Laugh-In" comedy series, died Tuesday of cancer at his home in Manasota Key, Fla. He was 65.

Rowan, who teamed with Dick Martin on the No. 1-rated TV show of 1968-70, learned he had lymphatic cancer nine months ago, said Valerie Douglas, a family spokeswoman.

With him when he died were his wife, Joanna, and daughter, Mary. His son, Patrick, was en route to Florida.

With a 40-character assemblage of some of the most unusual, bizarre and talented comics ever placed on a single TV show, Rowan and Martin quickly became household names after their innovative show first aired on Jan. 22, 1968.

It not only spawned and enhanced the careers of such wispy characters as Goldie Hawn, Jo Anne Worley, Lily Tomlin and Arte Johnson, but placed into the American idiom such phrases as: "You bet your sweet bippy," "Sock it to me," "Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls" and "Here come the judge." And of course all the phraseology emanated from "beautiful downtown Burbank."

If TV shows have parents, "Laugh-In"' was sired by "Helzapoppin" (the Olson and Johnson variety show) out of the Keystone Kops (of silent-picture fame.)

The show, first seen as a one-shot special in September, 1967, was a series of fast-paced one-liners, accompanied by pratfalls, sexual innuendo and, in general, old-fashioned shtick.

The characters included Tomlin's nasal and incompetent telephone operator, Ernestine; Johnson's German soldier peering from behind a potted plant and mewing, "Verrrry interesting," Henry Gibson, bouquet in hand, spouting poetry, and Ruth Buzzi, the hopelessly plain spinster being pursued by the quintessential Dirty Old Man ("Do you believe in a hereafter?" Pause. "Then you know what I'm here after!")

And then there was the mystery man furiously racing about on a tricycle predestined to overturn.

They all became part of a lighthearted oasis that gave Americans some respite from the seriousness of Vietnam, the civil rights movement and the counterculture of the young.

Rowan was born in Beggs, Okla. At 4, he was dancing and singing in a touring carnival with his parents. He was orphaned at 11 and placed in an orphanage in Colorado, where he was eventually adopted.

After graduating from high school, Rowan hitchhiked to Los Angeles and at 19 found a job as a junior writer at Paramount Studios. He quit to become a pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II and was shot down over New Guinea.

When he was discharged from the service in 1946, Rowan returned to Los Angeles to sell used cars. He met Martin, a Los Angeles bartender, and together they began working on a nightclub act.

Their first job as a team came in 1954 on a Channel 5 television show called "Bandstand Revue."

After that they moved into the better nightspots across the country--the Copacabana, Chez Paree, Sands and the old Coconut Grove in Los Angeles.

In 1967 they hosted the "Dean Martin Summer Show" for NBC, and that job eventually was to lead to the Emmy-award winning "Laugh-In." Rowan appeared as the pipe-smoking, comparatively calm counterpart to the lecherous Martin, whose dimwitted interpretations of what Rowan was trying to tell him became the show's signature segments.

"I'm the authority, settled, steady, sober, reasonable square, indignant at the life he leads," Rowan had said.

On "Laugh-In" they were the perennial hosts of the cocktail party where scantily clad girls danced to Martin's delight while knockabout comics cavorted behind them. Other devices involved "Letters to Laugh-In," "The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award," "Laugh-In Looks at the News" and "Hollywood News" with Miss Buzzi where the gags were written on the undulating body of a bikini-clad Hawn, the giggling dumb blonde, now of film fame.

Nixon Appearance

The series proved such an outrageous delight that the rich and famous often appeared in guest roles--Richard M. Nixon once intoned "Sock it to me" with all the solemnity later associated with his presidency.

George Schlatter, who was executive producer of "Laugh-In," said Tuesday after learning of Rowan's death:

"I think that anybody who was a part of that big of an event is never really gone. Those shows are still being seen on cable. That must have been very gratifying to Dan. It's a kind of immortality."

Rowan and Martin remained close friends even after "Laugh-In" went off the air in May, 1973. Rowan moved to Florida and essentially retired, although he did make some TV spots for charitable causes and appeared in guest roles over the years. Martin, on the other hand, kept a nightclub act together and did some TV directing. Most recently he has directed some segments of the "Newhart" show."

'Enough's Enough'

"It's nothing dramatic . . . nothing childish," Martin told The Times in 1976 when the two parted professional company. "It's just that, hey, after 25 years, enough's enough. We've done everything."

Although dozens of future stars passed through "Laugh-In's" many doors, only four characters remained with the show from beginning to end--Rowan, Martin, Buzzi and announcer Gary Owens, who cupped a hand over his ear as he over-modulated into a microphone.

The programs themselves never really ended each Monday . . . just drifted away into a station break. At show's end, the night's characters appeared in the windows of a "joke wall," throwing either one-liners or buckets of water at each other.

The laughter wound down until finally only a single clapping of hands could be heard; a dim echo signifying that the fun was over.

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