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OBITUARIES / Edie Adams, 1927 - 2008

Tony award-winning actress, TV star

October 17, 2008|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer
  • Edie Adams autographs photos of herself and late husband, comedian Ernie Kovacs, in 2007.
Edie Adams autographs photos of herself and late husband, comedian Ernie… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

Edie Adams, the Tony award-winning actress and singer who was perhaps best known to a generation of television viewers as the seductive commercial spokeswoman for Muriel Cigars, has died. She was 81.

Adams, the widow of the legendary comedian Ernie Kovacs, died Wednesday at West Hills Hospital and Medical Center of complications from pneumonia and cancer, according to her son, Josh Mills.

The sultry redhead (and sometimes blond) won a Tony in 1957 for her portrayal of Daisy Mae in the musical version of Al Capp's cartoon "Li'l Abner" and was an accomplished film actress. Her credits included "The Apartment" with Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray, "Lover Come Back" with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, "The Best Man" with Cliff Robertson, and "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," the Stanley Kramer production that featured a who's who of outstanding comedians and comedic actors.

But it was the seductive line she delivered as a spokeswoman for Muriel Cigars -- "Why don't you pick one up and smoke it sometime?"-- from the late 1950s that brought her lasting fame.

Adams was born Elizabeth Edith Enke on April 16, 1927, in Kingston, Pa. She grew up in Grove City, Pa., and Tenafly, N.J., and studied singing and piano at the Juilliard School in New York.

Doors opened for her after she was booked on Arthur Godfrey's "Talent Scouts." Although she lost the competition, a television director who was watching the show liked what he saw and signed her in July 1951 to become the featured singer on a show originating from Philadelphia that starred Kovacs.

Unrehearsed and uninhibited, the Kovacs show was live television at its best and most unpredictable. Critics called it "wacky and zany," and it soon moved to New York to become a morning show for CBS called "Kovacs Unlimited." Adams went along to do the singing and acting as the straight-man for Kovacs.

Later that year, Adams was signed for the role of Eileen in the Broadway production of Leonard Bernstein's musical comedy "Wonderful Town." The show, based on the 1940 comedy "My Sister Eileen," opened to excellent reviews for the production and for Adams.

Writing in the New York Times, critic Brooks Atkinson noted: "Miss Adams moves through this elusive character with the greatest of ease, keeping it fresh and sweet and adding just enough worldliness to make it palatable."

A few years later, she was billed as Edith Adams and played Daisy Mae in the Johnny Mercer/Gene de Paul musical "Li'l Abner," that also featured Stubby Kaye and Julie Newmar. It became a great commercial hit on Broadway.

Kovacs and Adams eloped to Mexico City and married in 1954. Although Kovacs was wildly popular, with his shows appearing on CBS, NBC and the Dumont Network, he was also wild with his money. After his death in a car accident in Los Angeles in 1962, Adams found herself about $500,000 in debt, much of it to the Internal Revenue Service.

"A half a million dollars was a lot of money then," she told The Times in 1989, "and filing bankruptcy is just not in my family heritage."

Working seemingly nonstop as an entertainer, she headlined at nightclubs around the country, recorded albums, starred in her own television series on ABC and appeared in a string of theatrical productions including "Nunsense," a female version of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple," as well as "Sweet Bird of Youth," "Hello, Dolly," "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" and "Annie Get Your Gun."

She cleared up the debt in about five years and also came to terms with the idea that her lasting claim to fame would be as a pitch woman.

According to her son, Kovacs was selling Dutch Master cigars on television when Adams was asked to take on the slimmer Muriel line.

The company "gave her a lot of leeway in creating the commercials and she basically crafted them herself, appearing with jazz saxophonist Stan Getz in one and with a barbershop quartet in another," her son told The Times on Thursday.

And while she tried to make the commercial character a cartoon sex symbol, dressing in slinky gowns and high heels, people were actually taking it very seriously.

Over the last decade, she had remained busy restoring and preserving the videotapes and kinescopes of Kovacs' television work, much of which is now available on DVD. She chronicled her life with the comedian in the book "Sing a Pretty Song."

Of all of her work, however, her son said, appearing in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” with Ethel Merman, Terry Thomas, Sid Caesar and Jonathan Winters was perhaps her fondest memory, since it was filmed just after the death of Kovacs.

"She was able to laugh again for the first time," said Mills, her son from her marriage to photographer Martin Mills. That marriage ended in divorce as did her third marriage, to jazz trumpeter Pete Candoli, who died in January.

Her daughter, Mia Kovacs, died in an automobile accident in 1982, also in Los Angeles.

Instead of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made to the Foundation for the Junior Blind of America, www.juniorblind.org.

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jon.thurber@latimes.com

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