In 1986, Joan Rivers made a fateful call to her mentor Johnny Carson.
Rivers, the brassy comic with the thick New York accent who had made “Can we talk?” her catchphrase, told the all-powerful host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” that she was giving up a role as his handpicked heir to do her own show on Fox.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post misspelled Jack Paar’s last name as Parr.
It was, depending on how one looked at it, a bold bid for bigger stardom — or a stunning act of betrayal. Carson’s reaction was unambiguous. According to Rivers, he hung up on her — twice — and never spoke to her again in the remaining 19 years of his life. After her late-night show on Fox bombed, Rivers said she was virtually blackballed from TV.
“My career was nowhere,” she told the TV Academy in a 2011 interview. “I could not get arrested.”
A less-driven performer might have skulked off into obscurity. But Rivers, who died Thursday at 81, was nothing if not ambitious. The comedian who had started out telling jokes at Greenwich Village nightclubs in the 1960s reinvented herself as an acerbic red-carpet host for E! Entertainment, skewering celebrities and their fashion choices with help from her sidekick and only child, Melissa Rivers. Along the way, the pair helped build pre-awards show hosting into a cottage industry.
Rivers had been admitted to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York last week after going into cardiac arrest during a routine procedure at her doctor’s office. The cause of death has not been determined, but the New York state health department has said it will investigate the events.
Her survivors include her daughter, who announced her death, and a grandson, Cooper.
Rivers’ life was marred by tragedy, notably the 1987 suicide of her manager and second husband, Edgar Rosenberg — a death she blamed on his “humiliation” by the Carson/Fox disaster. But Rivers mined almost everything for comic material, giving quarter to neither herself nor anyone else.
Even the late-life cosmetic surgeries that increasingly made her a punch line for others were fair game. “I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die, they’ll donate my body to Tupperware,” she cracked.
For years she milked an entire routine about how cruel the nurse was to her after Melissa was born.
“She took a puppy, wrapped it in a blanket and said, ‘Looks like you,’” Rivers joked in a 1984 TV appearance.
Joan Alexandra Molinsky was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on June 8, 1933 — although some sources list the year as late as 1937. Her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants who bickered constantly, according to Rivers, with her mother prodding her physician father to make more money.
Rivers, who described herself as a pudgy kid, felt inferior to her older, prettier sister, Barbara.
Two recurring themes in Rivers’ life were born of that household — an inherited fear of poverty, no matter how successful she became, and an iron-willed drive to be seen as special.
“I could not endure the reality that I might end up Joan Molinsky, an unattractive, nondescript little Jewish girl, run-of-the-mill, who might just as well have stayed in Brooklyn and married a druggist and had a normal life,” she said in her 1986 autobiography, “Enter Talking.”
“I had come from normal life, from real life, and nobody there had been happy.”
But while her appearance may have been unremarkable, she discovered early on that she had the ability to be funny, which made her less run-of-the-mill right away.
“It was the first time I ever had the heady feeling, the first time I found this way to be in control,” she wrote, “and I have lived by that knowledge to this day.”
Rivers appeared in school plays and as a teenager got work as an extra in the 1951 movie “Mr. Universe.” But otherwise, she mostly seemed to be following her parents’ dictum that she take a path in life more “normal” than show business.
She attended Connecticut College for Women and then Barnard College. She took acting classes during that time, but majored in English literature, graduating in 1954.
She worked for the Lord & Taylor and then Bond clothing chains, and in 1957 married Jimmy Sanger, the son of a Bond executive. The marriage lasted all of six months.
To her parents’ horror, the newly divorced Joan — she took the stage name Rivers at an agent’s suggestion — began acting in off-off-Broadway plays and supporting herself with temporary office work. Show business success didn’t come easily.
“I was a very serious actress in the Village,” she said in a 1973 Los Angeles Times interview. “But I wasn’t pretty, and at that time you had to be an 8-by-10 glossy, unretouched.”
Eventually, she steered herself in the direction she loved as a child. “I guess I became a comedienne because I had no money,” she observed. “I always made the secretaries at the casting offices laugh.”
She began doing a stand-up act in clubs, hitting bottom when she played a strip club in Boston.
“Even sobbing in the filthy shower in Boston, telling myself, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore, I’m not going to do it anymore,’ I had known I would keep on going, no matter what. My parents were not going to defeat me,” she wrote in “Enter Talking.”
Jan Wallman, who booked the Duplex club in New York, recalled Rivers hauling around a clunky tape recorder to record her routine for later self-evaluation.
“She’d come in the next night with the material refined just perfectly, until she’d make it even better the next night,” Wallman said in an interview on the Cabaret Exchange site.
“I never knew anybody who worked that hard.”
Rivers was booked twice for “The Tonight Show” when Jack Paar hosted the program, but the appearances didn’t go particularly well. More successful was her audition with the famed Second City improvisation troupe, which she joined in Chicago in 1961.
A year later, back in New York, she struck up a friendship with the comic Lenny Bruce, who encouraged her to base much of her humor on her personal life.
She told one audience that her mother “is so desperate to get me married that if a murderer called, she’d say, ‘So, he has a temper.’”
Eventually, the chance to do “The Tonight Show” came again, this time with Carson as host. He took a liking to Rivers and hired her as a writer. But she kept her stand-up routine going throughout.
As a comedian, Rivers was both a pioneer and a throwback. She was a woman in a business that, when she started out, was populated almost exclusively by men.
But Rivers’ material and style often seemed old-school, even when she was young. Bruce was influencing a generation of comics to push boundaries with edgy material about drugs, civil rights, foul language and other hot-button topics. But Rivers tended to prefer talking about everyday topics delivered in the rat-a-tat style of Henny Youngman and other Borscht Belt comics.
“I don’t exercise,” she joked. “If God had wanted me to bend over, he’d have put diamonds on the floor.”
She was successful enough to keep booking TV appearances throughout the 1970s, including a stint on “The Carol Burnett Show.” She also directed and co-wrote a 1978 feature comedy, “Rabbit Test,” starring Billy Crystal as a teacher who gets pregnant. But nothing matched the attention she received in 1983, when Carson tapped her as his permanent guest host on “Tonight.”
Rivers was instantly viewed as the heir apparent to what was the No. 1 show in late night — and the most profitable show on TV. Over the next three years she filled in scores of times for Carson, attaining the level of visibility and success she had always craved. In 1984 she published a bestselling faux memoir, “The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abromowitz.”
But it was not enough.
Rivers — with Rosenberg acting as her manager — felt NBC was being stingy with pay and dragging its feet with a new contract. So when Rupert Murdoch wooed her to start a talk show on his then-new Fox network, Rivers began taking secret meetings in hotel rooms.
“They were in shock when I left,” she later said of NBC. “But they just weren’t coming through.”
Murdoch offered her a $15-million paycheck and a five-year guarantee, she later said.
But “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” was not a hit. Ratings drooped and station managers quickly soured on Rivers. Behind the scenes, Rivers tangled with Fox executives over creative control and other issues. She left in May 1987 and was replaced with a rotating cast of hosts, including Arsenio Hall. Rosenberg committed suicide later that summer.
Rivers’ career sank. But she wasted little time plotting a second act.
She tried a daytime talk show, “The Joan Rivers Show,” which lasted five seasons in the early 1990s.
Then her daughter — by then trying to build her own career as an on-air personality — floated her mother’s name to take over E!'s red carpet pre-show package.
The result was bracing for celebrities and their handlers, who were used to adulatory coverage and harmless questions. Rivers zinged the stars for wearing clothes she deemed atrocious and didn’t mind taking other potshots too. Of the habitually dour Tommy Lee Jones, Rivers said: “He makes Hitler look warm and funny.”
Her harsh criticisms often got in her in trouble with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, like Jennifer Lawrence, who said Rivers’ E! show “Fashion Police” teaches young people “that it’s OK to point at people and call them ugly and call them fat.”
But her success in her new role gave Rivers yet another reinvention. “The red carpet suddenly became ‘the red carpet,’” she later said.
Still, she was not done. She appeared on NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2009. Competing alongside her daughter, Melissa, the elder Rivers beat out poker player Annie Duke and endeared herself to viewers with caustic barbs.
Her stint on the reality show was chronicled in “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” a documentary that premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews. The film revealed a raw portrait of the comedian as she discussed her anxiety over aging and staying culturally relevant.
In one scene, she pointed to an empty calendar and exclaimed: “I’ll show you fear. That’s fear.”
She developed her own merchandise line for QVC, populated mostly by costume jewelry and demure blouses, and moved into her daughter’s Pacific Palisades home to film a reality show about their roller coaster of a relationship; it ran four seasons on WEtv. In June, she published her 12th book, “Diary of a Mad Diva,” a satirical journal which quickly became a New York Times bestseller.
Meanwhile, in an effort to tap into a younger demographic, she started filming a Web series out of her bedroom in Melissa’s home. Called “In Bed With Joan,” the show found Rivers coaxing YouTube stars and comedians such as Sarah Silverman and Kathy Griffin onto her mattress for a chat.
“At this age, to be wanted is a miracle,” she said in an interview with The Times earlier this year. “I’m never satisfied. I’m as driven now as I was when I was 8 years old and said, ‘I want to be an actress’ and sent my picture to MGM. Just as driven. Just as crazed. Just as worried.”
But loneliness could still get to her.
“Age – it’s the one mountain you can’t overcome,” she said in the 2010 documentary. “I have no one to say, ‘Do you remember?…' And that is very difficult.”