Friday, February 13, 2015

R.I.P. Gary Owens

Every career starts with that first person who believed in you and gave you a chance; who saw potential in you when others didn’t. For me, that person was Gary Owens. He passed away last night. He was 80.  I'm heartsick.

You’re all familiar with him, whether you know it or not. Gary was the cupped-hand announcer on LAUGH IN, the voice of Roger Ramjet, and the voice of thousands of commercials and cartoons. His rich deep voice was distinctive and golden.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Gary Owens was also one of the most creative individuals I’ve ever met – wickedly funny, irreverent, absurd, and with impeccable comic timing. He elevated silliness to an art. The voice was just the instrument. He made the music.

I first met Gary in 1969. At the time he was doing afternoon drive on Los Angeles powerhouse radio station, KMPC, starring in the number one show in the country, and doing countless voice overs. I was a lowly sports intern making minimum wage. He took me under his wing. I wrote comedy bits for him and was blown away that he used some of them on the air. The great Gary Owens thought they were good enough. He even, on occasion, let me go on the radio and perform the bits with him.

Without my knowledge, he submitted my material to the producer of LAUGH IN and I was offered a job. (I couldn’t take it because it was full-time, I would lose my student deferment and wind up in Viet Nam, but still, what a mensch.)

In Gary’s autobiography he mentions that he discovered me, and that’s absolutely true. Here he was, an entertainment titan at the top of his game and powers, still making time to mentor a lowly intern. And I wasn’t the only one. Although he won’t admit it, Gary did the same a few years earlier for a kid named Albert Brooks.

Another kid, in Indiana, also was inspired by Gary Owens, and Gary would give of his time to critique the lad's tapes and encourage him. I hope that “kid”, David Letterman, makes some mention of Gary tonight on his show.

But that was Gary -- forever kind, forever helpful and supportive, inspiring by his example.  My guess is he gave hundred of people their start in broadcasting -- maybe more.

If ever it appeared someone led a truly charmed life it was Gary Owens. But in fact, he did not. Gary suffered from diabetes throughout his life. He once said to me that there was never a day where he “felt good.” Imagine what a nightmare that must’ve been. And yet, he handled it with his typical grace and good humor.

Gary Owens is maybe the only person I know in show business who EVERYBODY liked. He had no enemies. None.  Personally and professionally, he was universally loved and respected. The magic voice was a gift; the rest was a conscious choice.

I’m proud to say I was his friend for almost fifty years. Getting together with G.O. was always a treat. No one was a funnier dining companion. He taught me a lot about comedy and more about humility. Gary Owens was a special person. His voice will live on in cartoons, his memory will live on in the hearts of all who knew him.

Thank you, Gary, from the bottom of my heart.  

44 comments:

Gary West said...

Wow!

I met him once. Gracious as could be. Loved his humor... and still miss his KMPC afternoon show.

pumpkinhead said...

Really nice tribute, sir.

EmilyB said...

Very sweet and touching tribute.

frank paradise said...

Sad news and nice tribute Ken. I loved Gary in Laugh In as a kid and nice to hear he was such a great person.

DBA said...

I thought Letterman pre-taped Fridays earlier in the week. I might be wrong, but if so, he can't say anything tonight.

Johnny Walker said...

A lovely tribute. Sorry for your loss.

Francis Dollarhyde said...

Powdered Toast Man is gone??? :(

bruce said...

Gary Owens and his magnificent voice were a part of my life for the last 50 years or so. I've only heard wonderful things about him. My condolences to his friends and family.

Dan Ball said...

My first memory of Gary was seeing the shorts he did on the Disney Channel called DINOSAURS or something like that (not the quasi-Muppets show). Of course, as I got older and watched more TV, he was somewhat ubiquitous.

I don't know what it was in particular, but he did seem to always have a generous and kind spirit about him. It's easy to imagine he was really that nice. 80's still pretty young.

Norm said...

I was also a SPORTS ASSISTANT (with Ken) at KMPC in 1969.

I asked Gary if my brother and I could attend a taping of LAUGH-IN, since there was no studio audience.

I remember that morning when he came over and welcomed us to NBC and the program.

When I went to work at NBC from 1978-1982, and whenever I was able to help guests with tickets to the TONIGHT SHOW with Johnny Carson (very difficult to obtain) I would follow Gary's lead and greet them as well.

Kindness rubs off!

VP81955 said...

One of those people I wish I'd met, but since I wasn't an Angeleno until last July, I know him only from "Laugh-In" and voiceover work. Hope I can track down some of his airchecks so I can belatedly appreciate his genius.

captainsblog said...

Sportswriters refer to "coaching trees"- the provenance of newer ones being established by their connections to Walsh, Parcells, Belichick, etc. You have just established a "comedy tree" for this legend which leads to M*A*S*H, Cheers, Saturday Night Live and both iterations of Letterman. What a eulogy to what a guy.

Coleen Burnett said...

I am so sorry for your loss, Ken. I wish I could give you a hug. I'm afraid you will have to get a virtual one instead...

He was a hero of mine and by all accounts was a sweetheart. I am sorry I never had the chance to connect with him...people like him are rare indeed...

AlaskaRay said...

OH NO! The 3 of us had a lot of fun together, especially on Garish's birthdays. What a terrible loss.
Ray

Stoney said...

I grew up with Roger Ramjet cartoons and later I easily recognized the voice when Owens was on LAUGH IN.

Had the pleasure of hearing him on the radio as one of the MUSIC OF YOUR LIFE jocks.

He lent his voice to narrating a record album of classic Marx Brothers bits and I believe he led the effort to get a Hollywood Walk Of Fame star for The Three Stooges.

Anonymous said...

So very well said Mr. Levine,. So very well said!


Davoice

DwWashburn said...

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Owens at the 2005 San Diego Comic Con. He was a close friend of Mark Evanier. I usually attended all of Mark's panel discussions.

During one panel, Mark excused himself to take a cell phone call. He told the audience that the call was from Mr. Owens. Apparently he had gotten into San Diego late on the previous night and checked into the Embassy Suites after giving his keys to the valet. The next morning he had a couple of places to go before his assigned panel discussion at 5PM and asked the desk clerk where the valet station was. The clerk told him that Embassy had no valet service. He asked Mark if it would be OK if he came to the convention early and just "sat in" on various discussions instead of sitting in his hotel room steaming. He was an audience member in Mark's "Quick Draw" panel and was able to work in some Space Ghost references in his interview from the audience.

During his regularly scheduled panel discussion, I thanked him for all of the work he did in getting the Stooges star on the Walk of Fame and asked if he had any Stooge stories. He spoke of meeting Moe, giving him a ride, and having Moe recite Shakespeare to him during the drive.

Mr. Owens did a lot of voice over work for Antenna TV. It will be interesting to see if they continue to use it.

Randy West said...

You captured Gary perfectly. Universally loved and respected, with a wealth of stories from a golden age of TV, radio and VO.

Gary always remembered everyone`s name, where he saw you last, who you were with and what you all spoke about.

I knew I had achieved some minor level of success and membership in the business one night when I got a call from a studio engineer. Gary had just left a narration session during which he was reading to a video in which I had a small on-camera part.

The engineer told me that Gary immediately recognized me and said "I want to wait a beat before this next line to be sure I don't step on Randy." I had arrived. Thanks, Gary.

His name will live for a long time as VO casting people and producers will continue to say, as they have for a couple of decades "give me a little more Gary Owens."

willieb said...

My radio hero is gone. You're right, Ken, he always had a minute for a kid looking to start in radio. I must have talked to him half a dozen times and he always took time to answer all my questions. Once as I was leaving KMPC he said, "Wait a minute," and slipped into the music library, coming back with a box of reject 45s for me to take home. He's the reason I got into radio. Godspeed, Gary...

Martin said...

Last year I wrote an article for Dangerous Minds about an episode of Ren & Stimpy in which "Frank Zappa played the Pope." The main thing about the episode was that it was about Powdered Toast Man and in doing the research on the bit, somewhere it mentioned that Gary Owens did the voiceover and that he had also done Laugh-In -- and then everything clicked into place. It was suddenly obvious (a) how much Gary was bringing to that cartoon and (b) how awesome Gary is. That's all I wanted to say.

Mike Botula said...

I was a fan of Gary's even before I went to work at KMPC...and did the newscasts on his afternoon show for a couple of years. He was brilliant, funny as hell every waking moment, and was one of the best friends a person could ever have. My favorite Gary O. story is the one he told me about the TV station he worked on before LA. He used to dress up in a funny costume to do a kids show, and then change to do the news on camera an hour later. On the one fateful morning...dressed in a "chicken suit," he stopped to chat with a colleague in the hallway en route to the news studio. He was still talking and still wearing the chicken suit when his producer handed him the newscast and pushed him in front of the camera. Still in chicken costume, he read the news, finished, and left the studio. The boss was waiting for him in the hall to fire him. Ever since he told me that story, I've been watching TV news hoping some day to see the anchor in Gary's old chicken costume.

Don Jennett said...

Just two weeks ago today, Ken, you presented "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" on TCM. Gary's wonderful voiceovers as the radio newsman reporting bizarre stories bound the film together perfectly.

I met Gary a few times, once on the same night I met you (about 12 or 13 years ago @ the Museum of Radio & TV in Beverly Hills). He was the most humble of "stars" who gave of himself always. Thanks for your wonderful tribute.

DetroitGuy said...

I had the pleasure of working with Gary a few times on some radio ads about 12 years ago. I never met him face to face as he was in a studio in LA and I was in Detroit but the experience couldn't have been more friendly, creative and collaborative. A terrific talent and a terrific human being.

Weezy said...

Beautiful tribute. When Gary "discovered" and mentored me at KIIS FM, he always spoke of you with such pride, Ken. Your success brought him so much joy.

He combined that deep baritone with the silliest of comments and it was just brilliant. What a treasure.

MikeK.Pa. said...

So great the read all of the personal experiences many of your readers had with Gary. It's like he left a little piece of himself with each person. What a gift. Regarding Letterman, he tapes the Friday show on Thursday. Unless he got the news early enough (doubtful), he'd have to do a tribute to Gary on Monday's show. Let's hope he does.

Georgyne said...

Was very upset when I heard he passed away. I never met him but friends of mine knew him and now to find out he was your mentor just makes me like Gary even more.

I am sorry for your loss and the world's loss of Gary Owens.

Georgyne

Michael said...

Ken, I knew you'd do a beautiful tribute, but I didn't know how much he meant to you. I'm sorry for your loss.

He is one of the first voices I remember from my childhood, from "Laugh-In." And I think of my mother seeing a commercial for a company called Dremel and saying, "That sounds like a name Gary Owens would make up."

sanford said...

Letterman did not mention him in his monologue last night. As mentioned he pre tapes a lot of his Friday shows. I just watched his monologue and then the segment after that. You can usually tell from his monologue that his Friday show is taped earlier. He did mention Valnetines Day and the JRW team having their little league championship stripped.

Doug said...

Beautiful tribute, thank you. I've been a big fan of Gary's since I was a kid. His unique talent was immense and really was taken for granted. I will miss him.

LouOCNY said...

Just got to see this, and wanted to wish you my deepest condolences. As another East Coaster, who only really knew him from LAUGH-IN, these tributes have been both educational and sad.

Good to know he was one of the good guys!

Rosariorose9 said...

Can't tell you how many times, when an obnoxious internet site requests my name, I've dutifully entered "Herman Gingfingdingler." Thanks, Gary, Herman will live on as long as I do...

Thomas Mossman said...

Growing up in the 90s, I first became familiar with Gary Owens not as Powdered Toast Man, but as Captain Squash on Howie Mandel's cartoon show Bobby's World.

With this and the passing of Stan Chambers, LA has lost two broadcasting legends in the space of a day or so.

David in Cincinnati said...

When I was a kid, my parents would let me stay up to watch Laugh In with them. Beautiful Downtown Burbank is a sad place tonight....

Mike Barer said...

Another great voice in KHVN. Rest in Peace Gary Owens!

Anonymous said...

imo, Mr. Owens was the anchor for Laugh-in. Laugh-in had to have an anchor point, or it wouldn't have worked. His broadcasting acumen allowed the show to go off into space, and return to Gary. From Wolfman Jack, to the real Don Steel, to Don Pardo, he was an amazing mix of all of their great qualities, an instantly identifiable persona, and one of the last great professional broadcasters. He could do it all.

Rich said...

I grew up in L.A. in the 1960's. Everybody else in my high school class listened to KHJ Boss Radio, I listened to Gary Owens 3-6 on KMPC. He had the brightest, funniest show, w comedy bits featuring folks like Bob Arbogast and June Foray. When I got my driver's license (1967) i drove over to KMPC and told the receptionist I was the President of the Zuckmesiter Broadcasting Network. Gary came out, shook my hand, and led me back to the studio where he let me watch him do his show for two hours. The funniest, sweetest, most insegrevious man I've ever met. RIP

Anonymous said...

Rich:

Insegrevious indeed. What a memory flogger of a Gary Owens word and a tribute he'll enjoy.

Earl C Festoon

seattlemartini said...

Very nicely put. My most sincere condolences for the loss of your friend and mentor.

I remember being on the road as a kid with my folks, who were touring nightclub performers of the old school tradition, being stranded in hotel rooms in places like Regina, Winnipeg, and Calgary and watching Laugh In, which to me was Radio Free America. Don't get me wrong, I dug CBC programming, but a 7 year old can only take so many Nana Mouskouri and Irish Rover TV specials before you go a little nuts. I can honestly say Artie Johnson and Gary Owens saved my life :)

PS I loved hearing you on the Nerdist Writers panel your story for dealing with troublesome actors with "winter" episodes still makes me chuckle.

Cheers from Seattle and Go Ms!

Doug Thompson said...

Ken, I did not know Gary well at all, but had always been a huge fan (more Roger Ramjet than "Laugh In" though.) When I worked for Ted Randal in Hollywood in 1970, my office radio was always locked on Gary Owens KMPC program followed by a flip to The Real Don Steele on KHJ. In the mid 1990's, I hired Gary to voice several national commercial campaigns for clients of mine. As always, he did a masterful job in as I recall, no more than 2 takes. After the first session, we sat for nearly an hour at the back of the control room discussing great voice actors like Mel Blanc (Gary had done a lot of voice work for Mel's radio comedy series "Superfun"), Stan Freberg, June Forey, Daws Butler, Bill Scott (Bullwinkle J. Moose), Stanley Ralph Ross and one of my all time voice and comedy heroes, Bob Arbogast. I'd been a fan of Bob's since I heard his 45 record that comedicly skewered Top 40 radio, "Chaos (Parts 1 & 2). Bob had worked with Gary on Ramjet.

Keep gurning Gary.

Tom Benson said...

Thanks for humanizing the icon for us!

Kathleen O'Neill said...

He and my dad were friends. It's sad to see the radio greats and good guys leave us.

Pete Grossman said...

Sorry that you lost a close friend, Ken. Glad to hear you confirmed what I thought of G.O. since I was a tyke catching Laugh In, he was the coolest!

Rick Lewis said...

I loved Gary Owens' work from the first time I heard him, and listened to him on KMPC whenever I could.
The high point of the holiday season was his annual presentation of "A Dickens Of A Christmas Carol," which ran at 4:30 PM every Christmas Eve. He made a new one every year.
G.O. was the best, and I always heard kind things about him. I never met him, but somehow felt like I had.

ReyCarr said...

Hi Ken: We publish a magazine about mentoring that includes stories like yours about Gary Owens. Can we have permission to reprint your story in our magazine? We'll provide appropriate credit and send you a copy of the magazine when the issue is published. If you want to see a copy of the magazine, the latest issue is here: http://goo.gl/uWyfsx