“From beautiful downtown Burbank,” Gary Owens vaulted to fame playing the zany announcer in the landmark TV comedy series “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” And he never stopped working after that, doing commercials, variety specials, cartoons, radio shows and even theme park announcements in his deep voice that was one of the most famous in show business.
He could have slowed down, but his frantic pace was set early in life. At 9, he was diagnosed with diabetes.
“I overheard a doctor tell my parents he didn’t expect me to live past my teens,” Owens said in 1980 Los Angeles Times interview. “So from that time on I engaged in all kinds of one-upmanship to prove I was as good or better than anyone else.”
Owens, 80, died Thursday at home in Encino. The cause was complications from the long-fought diabetes, said his son, Chris.
In 1967, when he had a popular Los Angeles radio show, a chance meeting in the Smoke House restaurant in Burbank led to “Laugh-In.”
Hosted by comedians Dan Rowan and Dick Martin and featuring short comedy bits — sometimes just a few seconds long — the show was in development at nearby NBC.
Producer George Schlatter was in the men’s room when Owens walked in. “He said, ‘Hello, George!’ in that voice of his,” Schlatter said in an interview Friday. “ ‘The acoustics are great in here.’
“And I said to him, ‘That’s what I want you to do!’ ”
To the bewildered Owens, Schlatter explained that for the fast-paced TV show, he needed someone to say lines that would provide a break between bits.
“It was the shortest audition in show business,” Schlatter said.
It was a good fit for Owens, who as a radio disc jockey likewise used a variety of resources to create a wacky on-air atmosphere.
“You can take music, sound effects, some good voice people and some good writing, and it all happens,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1995. “And you can do it within seconds just off the top of your head.”
The irreverent “Laugh-In,” which premiered as a weekly show Jan. 22, 1968, became a national sensation, making stars of previously little-known performers such as Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin and Jo Anne Worley.
For his bits, Owens would be shown with his hand cupped behind one ear like an old-time announcer.
“He would say things like, ‘Meanwhile, later that evening,’ just to get us to the next bit,” Schlatter said.
But Owens would add his own lines, too. The best known example is “beautiful downtown Burbank,” later adopted by Johnny Carson.
On radio, which he continued to do all through “Laugh-In” and beyond, he used such lines as:
“What do pirates wear on Halloween?”
“My actual life has been so dull that when I almost drowned the other day, Pat Boone’s life passed before my eyes.”
“Laugh-In,” which went off the air in 1973, had a high turnover in performers. Only the two hosts, comedian Ruth Buzzi and Owens were in it for the full run.
“Those were some of the greatest times of my life,” Owens said in a 1995 St. Petersburg Times interview.
He was born Gary Altman on May 10, 1934, in Mitchell, S.D., and grew up in nearby Plankinton, where he graduated from high school.
He enrolled at Dakota Wesleyan University but was mostly enamored of college radio and left after a year. His first job in radio was at KORN in Mitchell, where he was the news director.
He didn’t have to put on the resonant voice; it came naturally.
“I’ve heard recordings of my dad when he was 13,” Chris Owens said, “and he already had the voice.”
At 22, he moved on to KOIL radio in Omaha, where he was still doing news. Then one of the deejays suddenly quit in the middle of a live show, and the manager said Owens had to take over.
Owens protested that he didn’t know how — and proved it.
“He was horrible,” Chris Owens said. “But then his humor came out, his silliness, and people loved it.”
Arriving in Los Angeles in 1961, Owens worked as an announcer at KFWB-AM (980), moving on the next year to KMPC-AM (710), where he had a show for 20 years.
He never had a TV hit as big as “Laugh-In,” but he was the announcer on “The Wonderful World of Disney” and appeared in numerous TV specials with stars such as Bob Hope and Lucille Ball.
He admitted that he never stopped being star-struck.
“One of the greatest thrills” from his “Laugh-In” days, he said, “was when John Wayne came on and imitated me, dressed like me and holding his hand to his ear.”
In addition to his son Chris, Owens is survived by his wife of 47 years, Arleta, and another son, Scott.