Phil Austin, dies at 74; voice of Firesign Theatre's Nick Danger

Firesign Theatre founding member Phil Austin, the voice of Nick Danger, dies at 74

In dorm rooms across the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s, sometimes through a haze of pot smoke, a recording could be heard that sounded like an old-time radio detective show mixed with Eastern mysticism.

He's ready for excitement,

He's ready for anything,

He's Nick Danger, Third Eye!

As many boomers know, Nick Danger was a character created by the highly satirical Firesign Theatre, a comedy group whose albums became a touchstone of the countercultural era.

Phil Austin, 74, the founding member of the group who created and voiced the wacky detective with the mystical "third eye" power, died Friday in Fox Island, Wash.

Firesign co-founder David Ossman said Austin had battled cancer and died of cardiac arrest.

"He was a great comic writer, a great voice talent, a dear friend and colleague," said Ossman of the man behind Firesign's best-known character.

"That's how I think of Phil and how our fans will think of Phil — in the role of Nick Danger, who solved the crime by using his third eye, which of course he kept hidden under his hat."

The group largely faded from the scene in the late 1970s, but retained a cult following and occasionally came back together to do live shows.

Firesign's last appearance was at the 2012 memorial for founding member Peter Bergman.

Even with Bergman gone, Austin was often asked whether Firesign would perform again.

"Very unlikely," he told the Firesign fanzine Chromium Switch last year. "Our last show was in Seattle for Pete's memorial and that seems fitting. Live performance was never the biggest part of our lives together."

It was through albums — Firesign recorded more than a dozen of them — that the group primarily earned its popularity. Nick Danger appeared on the B side of Firesign's 1969 breakthrough album, "How Can You Be in Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All."

Though it marked the debut of the character, the track was called "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger."

"Initially, he's based on the [Dashiell] Hammett Sam Spade character," Austin told Chromium Switch. "But as I got more into writing him over the years, he's become much more like Marlowe. I love [Raymond] Chandler's writing."

The satire was affectionate and the jokes — a mixture of high- and low-brow — often born of wordplay.

The opening of the "Further Adventures," complete with sound effects, included the heavy-handed narration:

Out of the fog, into the smog,

Relentlessly, ruthlessly

And then came Austin with the aside:

I wonder where Ruth is?

"It was those comments, the off-mic things, that made Phil so funny," Ossman said. "He was the most surreal writer of all of us."

Actor John Goodman was in college in the early 1970s when he first heard a Firesign bit played by an alternative radio station.

"Nick Danger was on all of a sudden," Goodman recalled in a 2012 interview with The Times. "I used to listen to radio drama when I was a kid, but this was twisted beyond anything I had heard. It took the obvious and bent it into fantastic shapes, like a balloon animal.

"I was an instant fan."

Austin was born April 6, 1941, in Denver, and grew up mostly in Fresno.

"His mother was a drama teacher," said Philip Proctor, the other surviving member of Firesign. "That's where he got his strong background as an actor."

Austin, in a biography written for the Firesign website, said he studied at several colleges, including Fresno State and UCLA, but didn't get a degree.

He appeared in plays in L.A. in the 1960s, including John Guare's "Muzeeka" at the Mark Taper Forum that also featured Proctor in the cast.

The four members of Firesign first performed together, in a largely improvisational manner, on a late-night talk show in 1966 hosted by Bergman on Pacifica radio station KPFK-FM. A record deal followed, leading to the national following and die-hard fans who could recite whole albums from memory.

Apart from Firesign, Austin became the voice of television commercials for Apple, Pizza Hut, Nissan, Nike and others.

His audio book, "Tales of the Old Detective and Other Big Fat Lies," was released in 1995.

He is survived by his wife, Oona, and a sister, Cathy Andreasen.
Twitter: @davidcolker

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


8:33 p.m., June 20: This article was updated to include an additional survivor.

This article was originally published at 8:55 p.m., Friday, June 19.