Don Imus, one of radio’s most popular and polarizing figures, who sparked a national firestorm with a racially charged joke about the Rutgers University’s women’s basketball team, has died. He was 79.
The pioneering shock jock, whose career spanned nearly 50 years, was hospitalized on Christmas Eve and died Friday morning at Baylor Scott and White Medical Center in College Station, Texas, according to a statement from his family. No cause of death was given.
Imus, or “the I-Man” as many of his friends and guests tagged him, reshaped radio with his crass but often insightful observations about current events and helped open the floodgates for the coarsened chatter that animates talk radio today. He retired from his show “Imus in the Morning” in March 2018.
Despite the base nature of his programs, the ex-Marine was still able to attract a lengthy and enviable guest list of prominent journalists, historians and politicians that included governors, U.S. senators and presidential candidates. At the height of his popularity, Imus reportedly earned about $10 million a year, and split his time between a Central Park West penthouse, a ranch in New Mexico and an estate on Long Island Sound.
“He’s one of the first who stretched the envelope on what could be said,” said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, a radio industry trade magazine. “He was dangerous in terms of language, an early pioneer in making the culture of radio reflect the mood of the street. He had moved beyond shock jock and influenced a lot of younger talent.”
Born in Riverside on July 23, 1940, John Donald Imus Jr. became one of the medium’s first so-called “shock jocks.” A hint of his wild and pranksterish behavior came early in his radio career in the late 1960s when he was at KXOA in Sacramento. He telephoned a local McDonald’s on-air and ordered 1,200 hamburgers — with and without various condiments.
The stunt earned him scores of listeners and eventually led to a Federal Communications Commission rule requiring disc jockeys to identify themselves when telephoning listeners.
Soon he moved to New York, and by the early 1970s was a top broadcaster for WNBC, where his biting humor earned him stellar ratings. But in what would be one of many personal setbacks suffered in his career, Imus was fired from the station for drug and alcohol abuse in 1977. After a stint in rehab, he came back after a couple years stronger than ever on another station.
From that point, he was more candid about his shortcomings, frequently speaking about his struggles with addiction and crediting recovery programs with making him a better person.
“Don Imus didn’t just go through the barriers of radio, he crashed through them,” said Tom Taylor, a journalist who has long covered the radio industry. “His irascibility and his determination to play the game by his own rules made him the opposite of all disc jockeys before him.”
As his show matured, Imus began infusing it with politics, a tack that began attracting politicians who were eager to court his millions of daily listeners. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton appeared on the show to helped revive his then-battered campaign, which had just suffered a sound defeat in Connecticut by former California Gov. Jerry Brown. Clinton and Imus clicked.
The future U.S. president went into “his good ol’ boy routine,” recalled Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, and “talked about the fact that he drove a pickup when he was a kid with Astro Turf in the back. ... and this fit squarely with the Imus constituency — with country music and pickup trucks and politics.”
In many ways, Imus was his own mixed message — a cranky, crude comedian one minute, a well-read authority on history and politics the next. And even though he treated some of his political guests harshly, the show soon became a regular pit stop for pundits and members of the Washington/New York politico-media elite.
Among Imus’ many guests were NBC newsman Tim Russert, newspaper columnist Maureen Dowd, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, NBA star Charles Barkley, Arizona Sen. John McCain, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf.
Frank Rich, the New York Times columnist, appeared several times on the show and said: “Imus was never an ideologue. At his best, despite the various meltdowns and controversies and egregious embarrassments, his show was a real meeting ground for an oddball collection of people, politicians from both parties and all over, and journalists both well known and obscure.”
Rich added that one of Imus’ defining traits was that he was “incredibly candid. He didn’t require you to speak in sound bites, and he was not afraid to ask the rude question, the question that would not be asked on the Sunday morning shows or NPR.”
Imus also had a charitable side. He and his wife ran the Imus Ranch, a cattle ranch near Ribera, N.M., where children with cancer or serious blood disorders, and those who had lost siblings to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), could work as cowhands and experience a cowboy lifestyle.
To many radio fans, Imus will be remembered for his ongoing, bitter yet colorful feud with shock-jock rival Howard Stern. Both men worked at WNBC during the early 1980s, and their brief overlap fueled decades of name-calling and excoriating comments.
Imus’ uncensored style landed him in trouble on more than a few occasions as he routinely made offensive remarks on his program about gays, Jews, blacks and women. But nothing he said compared to the tempest prompted by his remarks on April 4, 2007, when he referred to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.”
The comment might have passed without notice were his show solely on radio. But at the time his show was also simulcast on cable TV channel MSNBC, and the video snippet soon took on a life of its own across the internet. The reaction was swift and angry, with personalities ranging from NBC weatherman Al Roker to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama calling for Imus to be fired.
Imus apologized, first on his show and then in an appearance on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio show, but the furor still escalated. MSNBC and CBS, which owned the station broadcasting his radio show, then tried to quell the storm by suspending Imus for two weeks, but protests continued and sponsors were still withdrawing their support.
Next, the Rutgers team held a nationally televised news conference to condemn Imus, and a few days later MSNBC yanked the simulcast off the air. Finally, on April 12, Imus was fired, ending his syndicated program that had aired on 70 stations.
He largely disappeared from public life for about eight months. But on Dec. 4, 2007, Imus returned to the airwaves on WABC-AM (with a simulcast on Fox Business Network added in the fall of 2009).
He introduced a new cast of characters, including two black comedians, and told listeners he had learned his lesson: “I didn’t see any point in going on some sort of Larry King tour to offer a bunch of lame excuses for making an essentially reprehensible remark about innocent people who did not deserve to be made fun of.”
Despite the uproar, Imus’ career will not be overshadowed by the Rutgers remark, Taylor said.
“He really didn’t want to go out that way,” he said. “He wanted to redeem himself in the eyes of those people. When he said he was sorry, he was really speaking from the heart.”
Imus is survived by his wife of 25 years, Deirdre; daughters Nadine, Ashley, Elizabeth and Toni; and sons Wyatt and Zachary.
The family will hold a small private service in the coming days and requests that any donations be made to the Imus Ranch Foundation.
Times staff writer Christie D’Zurilla contributed to this report.
Former New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton’s tell-all book “Ball Four,” which detailed Mickey Mantle’s carousing and the use of stimulants in the major leagues, shocked and angered the baseball world. The right-hander was an All-Star in 1963, going 21-8 with six shutouts, but he finished his 10-year career with a 62-63 record and 3.57 ERA. He was 80.(AP)
Billionaire Ross Perot blazed across America in the 1990s as a third-party presidential candidate and won nearly 19% of the popular vote in the 1992 election, finishing third behind Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican President George H.W. Bush. The diminutive Texan was an early tech entrepreneur who founded Electronic Data Systems, a computer services company, in 1962 with $1,000 in savings. He was 89.(Peter Muhly / AFP/Getty Images)
Lee A. Iacocca’s swaggering persona dominated the automobile industry like nobody since Henry Ford. The salesman extraordinaire had a spectacular career, punctuated by his role as father of the wildly popular Ford Mustang in 1964, his epic 1978 firing at the hands of Henry Ford II and his dramatic rescue of Chrysler in the early 1980s. He was 94.(Associated Press)
Pitcher Tyler Skaggs grew up an Angels fan in Santa Monica and joined the organization as a first-round draft pick. He battled injuries throughout his career but started 24 games last season and showed signs of dominance this year. He was 27.(Charlie Riedel / AP)
Judith Krantz wrote blockbuster romance novels including “Scruples” and “Princess Daisy” that sold more than 80 million copies worldwide. Her books have been translated into more than 50 languages, and seven have been adapted as TV miniseries, with her late husband, Steve Krantz, serving as executive producer for most. She was 91.(Aaron Rapoport / Getty Images)
Gloria Vanderbilt transcended her famously disjointed childhood and later upheavals to become an actress, artist, author and fashion and merchandising icon. The “poor little rich girl,” as newspapers tagged the heiress, ultimately created a fortune that exceeded the immense one left by her great-great-grandfather, 19th-century shipping and railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt. She was 95.()
Italian director Franco Zeffirelli was best-known for his films, including the 1968 critical and box office hit “Romeo and Juliet” and a 1990 “Hamlet” with Mel Gibson. His massive opera productions included a version of Puccini’s “La Boheme” that became the most-often presented production in the Metropolitan Opera’s history. He was 96.(Paolo Cocco / AFP/Getty Images)
Danish-born socialite Claus von Bulow, left, shown with attorney Alan Dershowitz in April 1985, was convicted in 1982 and then acquitted three years later on two counts of attempting to murder his American heiress wife, Sunny, with injections of insulin. The high-profile case has been called one of the most sensational courtroom dramas in modern U.S. history. He was 92.(Charles Krupa / AP)
Bill Buckner’s 22-year Major League Baseball career started with the Dodgers and included seasons with the Cubs and Red Sox. He had more than 2,700 career hits and won the National League batting title in 1980, but he was best known for an error in the 1986 World Series that allowed the Mets to win Game 6 and extend Boston’s championship drought. He was 69.(AP)
Herman Wouk explored the moral fallout of World War II in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Caine Mutiny” (1951) and other widely read books. Determined to produce a “great war book,” Wouk wrote “The Winds of War” and its sequel, “War and Remembrance,” in the 1970s, and the two sweeping novels became the basis for a pair of television miniseries. He was 103.(Douglas L Benc Jr / AP)
Architect I.M. Pei had a client list that included French President Francois Mitterrand for the Louvre and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston. Among several Pei projects in the Los Angeles area are the former Creative Artists Agency headquarters in Beverly Hills and the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. He was 102.(Pierre Gleizes / AP Photo)
Tim Conway came to prominence on television as a bumbling ensign in “McHale’s Navy” opposite Ernest Borgnine from 1962 to 1966, then became a regular on “The Carol Burnett Show,” where he famously developed a knack for making costar Harvey Korman crack up. He also starred in the “Apple Dumpling Gang” movies in the 1970s and gained fame with a new generation as the voice of Barnacle Boy on “SpongeBob SquarePants.” He was 85.(George Brich / AP)
Doris Day was a big-band singer who became a Hollywood star in such lighthearted movies as “Pillow Talk” (1959) and “Lover Come Back” (1961), two of the three films she made with Rock Hudson. From 1948 to 1968, Day appeared in 39 films, but in the early 1970s she walked away from Hollywood and spent most of her time in Carmel, where she was an animal rights activist. She was 97.(AP)
Actress Peggy Lipton rose to stardom in the late 1960s on the counterculture police series “The Mod Squad” and later starred on TV’s “Twin Peaks.” Over five seasons, “Mod Squad” earned Lipton four Emmy nominations and a 1971 Golden Globe award for best actress in a TV drama. The wife of music producer Quincy Jones and mother of Kidada and Rashida Jones, Lipton was 72.(ABC)
Peter Mayhew played the Wookiee warrior Chewbacca in the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Standing at 7 feet 3, the British actor brought the character to life physically, whether battling Stormtroopers alongside Han Solo or playing chess against R2-D2. He was 74.(AP)
John Singleton’s 1991 debut, “Boyz n the Hood,” was an inner-city coming-of-age story that earned two Oscar nominations and put the young filmmaker in the company of emerging black moviemakers such as Spike Lee and Mario Van Peebles. Singleton went on to direct “Poetic Justice” (1993), “Higher Learning” (1995) and “Baby Boy” (2001), which featured Taraji P. Henson at the start of her career. He was 51.(Christopher Polk / AFP/Getty Images)
John Havlicek, shown above dribbling against Bill Bradley of the New York Knicks, was the all-time leading scorer in Boston Celtics history. Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984, Havlicek played all 16 of his professional seasons in Boston from 1962-1978, winning NBA titles in each of his eight Finals appearances, including five over the Lakers. He was 79.
Charles Van Doren was one of the first intellectual stars of the television era as a contestant on the NBC show “Twenty One,” but quickly became the country’s leading villain after admitting that his winning streak had been rigged. After he and nine other game show contestants pleaded guilty to perjury and were given suspended sentences, Van Doren slipped into obscurity and became an editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica. He was 93.(Hulton Archive / TNS)
Grammy-nominated rapper Nipsey Hussle was gunned down outside his Marathon Clothing store in the same South L.A. neighborhood where he was known as much for his civic work as he was for his hip-hop music. He was 33.(Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images for Warner Music)
Luke Perry played bad-boy heartthrob Dylan McKay in the 1990s TV drama “Beverly Hills, 90210.” The series put the affluent ZIP Code on the map as it became a pop-cultural phenomenon with Perry as the disaffected, ever-mysterious love interest of the romantic leads. He was 52.()
Sidney Sheinberg, right, with Steven Spielberg and Lea Adler, Spielberg’s mother, at a 1994 Beverly Hilton gala.
(Shepler, Lori / Los Angeles Times)
Jan-Michael Vincent was a golden boy of 1970s Hollywood action films and went on to star in the mid-1980s TV adventure series “Airwolf.” But his erratic behavior and cocaine consumption was a major reason “Airwolf” was canceled. He was 74 by most accounts, but the death certificate listed him as 73.(Alex Garcia / Los Angeles Times)
Sitcom star Katherine Helmond had memorable roles as ditzy matriarchs in “Soap,” “Who’s the Boss?” and “Coach.” Her work as Jessica Tate on the 1970s parody “Soap” earned her seven Emmy nominations, and she was nominated again in 2002 for her guest role in “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Helmond also starred in director Terry Gilliam’s films “Brazil” and “Time Bandits.” She was 89.(Chuck Burton / AP)
André Previn conquered L.A. with his artistic genius twice: first as an Academy Award winning composer of Hollywood movie music, then as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A conductor and pianist who toggled between classical, pop and jazz, Previn won Oscars for “My Fair Lady” (1964), “Irma la Douce” (1963), “Gigi” (1958) and “Porgy and Bess” (1959). He was 89.(Patrick Downs/ Los Angeles Times)
Guitarist Peter Tork, far right, became an overnight star in 1966 as one of the Monkees. Critics derided the made-for-television rock band as the “Prefab Four,” but their slapstick NBC comedy series helped make them a phenomenon and foreshadowed the craze for music television that emerged in the early 1980s. He was 77.(Michael Ochs Archives)
Dodgers right-hander Don Newcombe was the first outstanding African American pitcher in the major leagues and in 1949 became the first to start a World Series game. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound hurler was also the first player in major league history to have won the rookie of the year, Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards. He was 92.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Michigan Democrat John Dingell Jr. used his considerable power in the House of Representatives to uncover government fraud and defend the interests of the automobile industry. Known as “Big John” and “The Truck” for his forceful nature and 6-foot-3-inch frame, Dingell was the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history. He was 92.(Win McNamee / Getty Images)
Albert Finney starred in films as diverse as “Tom Jones,” “Annie” and “Skyfall.” One of the most versatile actors of his generation, he played an array of roles, including Winston Churchill, Pope John Paul II, a southern American lawyer and an Irish gangster. He was 82.(Graham Barclay / For The Times)
Hall of Fame outfielder Frank Robinson was the only major leaguer to be named most valuable player in both the National and American leagues. One of baseball’s most feared sluggers, he became the first African American to manage in the big leagues in 1975, when he filled that position for the Cleveland Indians. He was 83.(Richard Stacks / TNS)
Michelle King was the first African American woman to lead Los Angeles Unified School District. Her major accomplishment was pushing the graduation rate to record levels by allowing students to quickly make up credits for failed classes. She was 57.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Grammy-winning singer and songwriter James Ingram topped the charts in the ‘80s with hits like “Baby, Come to Me” and “Somewhere Out There.” He also co-wrote the Michael Jackson hit “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing).” He was 66.(Stefano Paltera / AP)
Emmy Award-winning writer Bob Einstein was best known as stuntman Super Dave Osborne, whose feats always went wrong. The comedy veteran got his start writing for 1970s variety shows such as “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and he later played Larry David’s devout friend Marty Funkhouser on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” He was 76.(Archive Photos / Getty Images)
Carol Channing was a Broadway star best known for her enduring portrayal of the title character in the musical “Hello, Dolly!” A winner of three Tony Awards, including one for lifetime achievement, she appeared in the play at least 5,000 times. She was 97.(Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images / Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Mary Oliver, one of the country’s most popular poets, focused on spirituality, nature and New England. Her poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 and the National Book Award in 1992. She was 83.(Josh Reynolds / For the Times)
Herb Kelleher built Southwest Airlines into the biggest discount carrier and set the standard for budget air travel for more than three decades. He and co-founder Rollin King used a formula of short, no-frills trips that spawned dozens of imitators. He was 87.(Ed Betz / AP)