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Gallagher, melon-smashing comedian who hurled food into audience, dies at 76

Comedian Gallagher performs at the Ice House Comedy Club in Pasadena.
Comedian Gallagher performs at the Ice House Comedy Club in Pasadena in 2014.
(Michael S. Schwartz / Getty Images)

Gallagher, the uninhibited prop comic best known for pulverizing watermelons — and assorted other foodstuff — with a sledgehammer he called a Sledge-O-Matic, has died. He was 76.

The comedian, whose first name was Leo, died Friday of organ failure in Palm Springs, his longtime manager, Craig Marquardo, said. He had been in hospice care.

He had previously suffered numerous heart attacks, something he and David Letterman talked about on an appearance a few years back, Marquardo said in a statement announcing the comedian’s death.

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Gallagher suffered a minor heart attack in Arizona on March 25, 2012, 11 days after he was hospitalized for a heart attack in Lewisville, Texas. In Texas, he reportedly was put in a medically induced coma for four days and had two coronary stents replaced. He also suffered a heart attack while on stage in a club in Minnesota in 2011.

The melon-smashing comedian, whose comedy specials became a staple on Showtime in the 1980s, was inspired to create his signature Sledge-O-Matic by the Veg-O-Matic manually operated food slicer seen in TV commercials (“It slices! It dices!”).

During his shows, the sledgehammer-wielding Gallagher might send mayonnaise, mustard, honey, chocolate syrup, grapes, olives, cottage cheese and eggs flying into the audience — not to mention “pound cake,” “cheeseburgers to go” and that “last dab of toothpaste.”

Indeed, the first 10 rows at a Gallagher show were known as Death Row.

Fans often came prepared for the onslaught, wearing old clothes and plastic rain ponchos; official Gallagher ponchos, naturally, also were on sale in the lobby.

Comedian Gilbert Gottfried, known for voicing Iago in the Disney classic ‘Aladdin,’ has died after battling an illness.

Gallagher was born July 24, 1946, in Fort Bragg, N.C., and grew up in Ohio and Florida.

He received a degree in chemical engineering from the University of South Florida in 1970 and worked as the road manager for singer-songwriter Jim Stafford before turning to stand-up comedy in the late ’70s.

The impish comic with the wild fringe of long hair and a mustache always had new firepower up his colorful sleeve.

“People think it’s about watermelons,” he told the Idaho Statesman before an appearance in 2000. “But wait till they see three dozen eggs in a wok frying pan with miniature marshmallows. The 45-degree angle of a wok makes the marshmallows and eggs go out the furthest they can.

“The eggs are the explosions and the marshmallows are like shrapnel. Some things explode, and some things have aerodynamics.”

Gallagher also was known to invite audience members onstage to get into his food-smashing act.

At one point in the 1980s, Gallagher’s act included an enormous couch with a built-in trampoline on which he did some impressive jumping. And digging into the couch’s cushion crack, the comedian turned up an oversized potato chip and other “lost” items.

Gallagher’s prop boxes also contained unusual things such as a “handgun” (a pistol that fired plastic hands) and a “baby on board” (a doll nailed to a wooden plank.)

But his act wasn’t only props and a flying-food finale.

He’d riff on cultural trends, politics, relationships and other topics, as well as offer food for thought:

“What makes Teflon stick to the pan?”

“If your knees bent the other way, what would a chair look like?”

“Did Superman’s mom bother to wrap his presents?”

As he said in a 1993 Times interview: “It’s the child in you I’m trying to entertain.”

Gallagher also brought a bit of humor to the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election when he joined a field of 135 candidates that included former child star Gary Coleman, Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, adult-film actress Mary Carey — and front-running eventual winner Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“I was the first ‘not really serious about being governor’ guy to go down there and be a celebrity that wanted publicity from the race,” Gallagher said in an interview with Scripps Howard News Service a month after he finished in 16th place, with 5,466 votes.

In the early 1990s, when he was performing in theaters and other large venues, Gallagher allowed his younger brother, Ron, to perform a replica of his act in comedy clubs.

Ron Gallagher was billed as Gallagher II: The Living Sequel.

But in 1999, Gallagher filed a suit in federal court that said Ron was “violating Gallagher’s right of publicity and trademark rights and was engaging in false advertising and unfair competition, thereby creating consumer confusion.”

In 2000, a federal judge issued a permanent injunction against Ron Gallagher that prohibited him from performing an imitation of his famous brother’s act.

In more recent years, Gallagher received criticism for making racist, sexist and homophobic remarks onstage against French and Mexican people, feminists and members of the LGBTQ community.

When the accusations were mentioned during a podcast taping with comedian Marc Maron in 2011, the comic responded by walking out.

Times staff writer Summer Lin contributed to this report.


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