St. Paul native Louie Anderson, Emmy-winning comedian, dies at 68
The St. Paul native was a counselor to troubled children before he got his start in comedy when he won first place in the Midwest Comedy Competition in 1981, according to Deadline.
LAS VEGAS -- Veteran comedian Louie Anderson, who won a supporting actor Emmy for playing a version of his own mother in the FX comedy “Baskets,” has died. He was 68.
The beloved stand-up comic died Friday morning in Las Vegas of complications from cancer, his longtime publicist, Glenn Schwartz, said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times.
Anderson, a St. Paul native who lived and often performed in Las Vegas, was hospitalized earlier this month with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, an aggressive form of the disease and the most common kind of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The comedian and writer — known for his distinct look, which included a gap-toothed grin — hosted a revival of “Family Feud” from 1999 to 2002 and earned two Daytime Emmy Awards during his career for his animated kids series “Life With Louie.” He created the Fox series and from 1994 to 1998 voiced an animated version of himself while chronicling his adventures as a child with 10 siblings.
He earned a Primetime Emmy in 2016 for supporting actor in a comedy for his portrayal of Christine Baskets in the FX comedy “Baskets,” which starred Zach Galifianakis playing her twin sons. He was nominated two additional times for the role.
Born and raised in Minnesota, Anderson was the 10th of 11 children. His mother, Ora Zella Anderson, was a Mayflower descendant, while his father was an abusive alcoholic.
The perennially heavyset performer said he based his Christine Baskets character largely on his mother, who died in 1990.
“I embrace every part of her: The good, the bad, the ugly,” Anderson told the L.A. Times in 2018, talking about channeling her. “But mostly what I do is embrace my mom’s humanity, which is quite substantial, and I think that’s what’s resonating with people. Because this is her standing in the hurricane that was my dad, protecting 11 little chicks from this gale-force wind and storm battering her. So if she could stand up to him and still shield us from the majority of that stuff, Jesus, that’s some kind of magnificent being.”
But, he said, sometimes Christine turned out to be a little bit more of his dad, or one of his five sisters.
“Here’s what happens in life,” the comic said. “When you’re the 10th of 11, you’re a carbon copy of who came before you. So thank God for those 10 people because they are what made up Louie Anderson. I’m just a cheap copy of all those people, but I own it like it’s my own.”
Anderson got his start as a stand-up comedian working clubs with an observational comedy routine, often poking fun at his large-family dynamic — and his large build. He once told Conan O’Brien about the first joke he told for an audience in 1978. “I walked up on stage and I go, ‘I can’t stay long, I’m between meals,’” Anderson said. “And it got a big laugh.”
He also worked as a counselor to troubled children before making his national television debut on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” in 1984 — which led to scores of late-night appearances throughout his career.
He got on board “Comic Relief ’87,” the first of his half-dozen appearances on the periodic HBO comedy fundraisers hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. From 1986 to 1988, he was perched as a panelist and in the coveted center square on the game show “The New Hollywood Squares.” (He also starred in a later iteration from 1998 to 2002.)
Anderson was working on losing weight after he released his first book, “Dear Dad: Letters From an Adult Child,” in 1989. His 5-foot-7 frame carried more than 400 pounds when he was at his heaviest.
“I’m doing it very slowly. I’m not doing an Oprah,” he told the L.A. Times in 1991, when he was back on the road after taking a rare year off from performing. “My goal is to heal my insides and the outsides will heal themselves.”
During that year off, Anderson also did some soul-searching about his unhappy childhood, including whether he could continue joking about it in his stand-up act.
“I wanted to move away from it and figure out how to disconnect the burden of having that kind of trauma,” he said. “I used to bring that all up on stage with me. I wasn’t happy. ... I didn’t have fun before. I do now. And I think it’s a lot more fun for the audience.”
In 1996, Anderson created and starred in “The Louie Show” for CBS. He played a Minnesota psychotherapist in the sitcom, which also starred Bryan Cranston, Laura Innes and Paul Feig, but the series ran for only six episodes before being canceled.
From 2017 to 2020, Anderson appeared on more than 200 episodes of the game show “Funny You Should Ask,” where a rotating cast of A-list comics helped contestants win a cash prize.
His 1993 book “Goodbye Jumbo, Hello Cruel World” dealt with his lifelong efforts to come to terms with being overweight. In it, he recalled how his mom would overcompensate for the trauma her children were experiencing by overfeeding them.
“Writing (‘Goodbye Jumbo’) changed everything in my life. I was able to be freed up from that burden, and that low self-esteem and self-hatred that you get into,” Anderson told the L.A. Times. “I decided that I was gonna change all that, and I was not gonna hate myself anymore. That I had gone through enough guilt, and enough shame, and I wanted to move on. And that I had something to offer. And I wanted to offer that, and I wanted to enjoy myself.”
Anderson believed that his books — he ultimately wrote five of them — made him “less popular as a comedian” because the people who read them thought he was too serious and couldn’t enjoy his comedy as a result. He later paid tribute to his late mother with the 2018 book “Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too.”
In 1997, Anderson’s life took a dark turn. An Arizona man named Richard John Gordon sent the comic a letter asking for money “so your secrets don’t get out and blow your career,” according to an FBI affidavit.
Gordon described an encounter at a casino in the South Bay where Anderson allegedly asked Gordon to go home with him, disrobe and let Anderson “touch” him. Anderson later changed his mind and decided he only wanted to see Gordon undress, the affidavit said.
The two agreed to $100,000 in hush money, and Anderson made regular payments until October 1998, when Gordon agreed to settle their “contract” for a lesser total amount. But in March 2000, Gordon came back for more, according to the affidavit, saying he felt shortchanged. He wanted an additional $250,000. The comic wound up going to the FBI, which helped him and his manager lure Gordon to L.A. to get the money.
After a high-profile, high-speed car chase through L.A.'s Westside led to Gordon’s arrest, he was charged with trying to extort $250,000 from the “Family Feud” host. Gordon ultimately pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison and a $4,000 restitution fine.
“Being a target of criminal activity is an unfortunate and increasingly common byproduct of celebrity,” the comic’s publicist said in a statement at the time.
But Anderson rebounded with a run of TV guest roles including appearances on “Scrubs” and “Nash Bridges.”
Anderson’s other notable roles included playing Maurice in the 1998 Eddie Murphy comedy “Coming to America” and its 2021 sequel, as well as a small role in the 1986 cult classic “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” He also played Winston Churchill in the FX anthology “Drunk History,” Bob in the TBS comedy “Search Party” and appeared repeatedly on Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk show “Conan.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic rolled on in March 2021, Anderson again discussed his weight with O’Brien, joking about the intermittent fasting he had used to get down to 340 pounds and planning for when he reached his goal weight.
“You’ve spent a career telling really funny jokes about being heavy,” O’Brien said. “What do you do, you’re losing weight, you’re going to get down to this goal weight of 275 — are you going to retire those jokes?”
“Yes, I’m going to retire my fat jokes, and then,” Anderson said, taking a pause, “I think I’ll always be funny.”
He is survived by his two sisters, Lisa and Shanna Anderson.
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