Veteran comedian Louie Anderson, who won an Emmy for supporting actor for portraying a version of his own mother on FX comedy Baskets, has died. He was 68.
The beloved stand-up comic died Friday morning in Las Vegas of complications from cancer, his longtime publicist Glenn Schwartz said in a statement to The Times.
Anderson, who lived and performed frequently in Las Vegas, was hospitalized earlier this month with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, an aggressive form of the disease and the most common type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The comedian and writer — known for his distinctive look that included a gap-toothed grin — hosted a revival of Family Feud from 1999 to 2002 and earned two Daytime Emmy Awards during his career for his animated children’s series Life With Louie. He created the Fox series and voiced an animated version of himself from 1994 to 1998 while chronicling his adventures as a kid with 10 siblings.
In 2016, he received a Primetime Emmy for Supporting Actor in a Comedy for his portrayal of Christine Baskets in the FX comedy Baskets, which starred Zach Galifianakis as their twin sons. He was nominated for the role two more times.
Born and raised in Minnesota, Anderson was the 10th of 11 children. His mother, Ora Zella Anderson, was a Mayflower descendant while his father was an abusive alcoholic.
The enduringly strong actor said he largely based his character as Christine Baskets on his mother, who died in 1990.
“I embrace every part of her: the good, the bad, the ugly,” Anderson told The Times in 2018, speaking of channeling her. “But mostly I take on my mother’s humanity, which is quite substantial, and I think that’s what resonates with people. ‘Cause this is her standing in the hurricane that was my dad, protecting 11 little chicks from this gale force wind and storm that’s hitting them. So if she could hold her own against him and still protect us from most of this stuff, Jesus, that’s kind of a great being.”
But, he said, sometimes Christine turned out to be a little bit more of his father or one of his five sisters.
“Here’s what happens in life,” the comic said. “If you are 10th out of 11, you are a copy of what came before you. So thank God for these 10 people because they spotted Louie Anderson. I’m just a cheap copy of all these people, but I own it like it’s my own.”
But Anderson was unique and remembered as such on Friday.
“He was always such a lovely man, always caring about those he worked with, always generous. And always so funny” tweeted Friend and filmmaker Paul Feig.
“Louie Anderson was a beautiful, loving soul who lived to make us all laugh and make the world a lot brighter. A great person, a great friend and a great loss,” added Funny You Should Ask comedian Byron Allen.
Actor and director Henry Winkler tweeted that Anderson’s “generosity will cover the world from above.”
“Baskets was such a phenomenal ‘second act’ for Louie Anderson. I wish he had gotten a third.” tweeted „Better Call Saul“-Schauspieler Michael McKean.
Comedian Jeff Ross joked in tribute, citing the death of rock star Meat Loaf the night before: “When Meatloaf died, Louie Anderson said, ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ I loved them both.”
Anderson started out as a stand-up comedian, working clubs with an observational comedy routine, often poking fun at his extended family dynamic — and his tall physique. He once told Conan O’Brien about the first joke he told in front of an audience in 1978. “I walked up on stage and said, ‘I can’t stay long, I’m between meals,'” Anderson said. “And there was a great laugh.”
He also worked as a counselor for troubled children before making his national television debut on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show in 1984 – which led to numerous late-night appearances throughout his career.
He came aboard Comic Relief ’87, the first of his six dozen appearances on the regular HBO comedy fundraiser hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal.
From 1986 to 1988 he sat as a panelist and in the coveted main seat on the game show The New Hollywood Squares. (He also starred in a later iteration from 1998 to 2002.)
Anderson worked to lose weight after publishing his first book, Dear Dad: Letters From an Adult Child, in 1989. Its 5-foot-7 frame supported more than 400 pounds when it was at its heaviest.
“I do it very slowly. I don’t do Oprah,” he told The Times in 1991, back on tour after a rare year’s hiatus from performing. “My goal is to heal my inside and the outside will heal itself.”
During that year off, Anderson also reflected on his unhappy childhood, including whether he could continue to joke about it in his stand-up act.
“I wanted to get away from that and figure out how to get rid of the burden of trauma like that,” he said. “I used to bring all that with me on stage. i wasn’t happy …I wasn’t having fun before. i do now And I think it’s a lot more fun for the audience.”
In 1996, Anderson created and starred in The Louie Show for CBS. He played a Minnesota psychotherapist on the sitcom, which also starred Bryan Cranston, Laura Innes and Paul Feig, but the show only ran for six episodes before it was cancelled.
From 2017 to 2020, Anderson appeared in more than 200 episodes of the game show Funny You Should Ask, where a rotating cast of A-list comics helped contestants win a cash prize.
In a 1993 interview with The Times, two pages of the comic came out. One, freelancer David Kronke wrote, was “the popular comedian whose sardonic, astute routines blow her mind on talk shows, Showtime specials, and national tours.” The other was the “sober writer” of a book of letters from his father, “whose emotionally stark accounts of how he repaired his tarnished self-image after growing up in a dysfunctional family … inspired thousands of fans.”
The second guy got 10,000 letters from readers who could relate to “Dear Dad.” The first guy? He got the laughs.
His 1993 book Goodbye Jumbo, Hello Cruel World explored his lifelong struggles to overcome obesity. In it, he recalled how his mother would overcompensate for her children’s trauma by overfeeding them.
“To write [‘Goodbye Jumbo’] changed everything in my life. I was able to break free from that burden and that low self-esteem and self-loathing that you get into,” Anderson told the Times. “I decided that I would change all that, and I wouldn’t hate myself anymore. That I had been through enough guilt and enough shame to want to move on. And that I have something to offer. And I wanted to offer that and I wanted to have fun.”
Anderson believed that his books – he eventually wrote five of them – made him “less popular as a comedian” because the people who read them thought he was too serious and therefore couldn’t enjoy his comedy. He later paid tribute to his late mother with the 2018 book Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too.
In 1997, Anderson’s life took a dark turn. An Arizona man named Richard John Gordon sent the comic a letter asking for money “to keep your secrets from being exposed and ruining your career,” according to an FBI affidavit.
Gordon described an encounter at a South Bay casino where Anderson allegedly asked Gordon to go home with him, undress and let Anderson “touch” him. Anderson later changed his mind and decided he just wanted to see Gordon undress, the affidavit said.
The two agreed to $100,000 in hush money, and Anderson made regular payments until October 1998, when Gordon agreed to settle her “contract” for a lesser total. But in March 2000, according to the affidavit, Gordon came back and said he felt understaffed. He wanted another $250,000. The comedian ended up with the FBI, who helped him and his manager lure Gordon to LA to get the money.
After a high-profile, high-speed car chase through LA’s Westside led to Gordon’s arrest, he was accused of attempting to extort $250,000 from the “Family Feud” host. Gordon eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison and a $4,000 fine.
“Being the target of criminal activity is an unfortunate and increasingly common by-product of celebrity,” the comic’s publicist said in a statement at the time.
But Anderson bounced back with a string of TV guest roles, including appearances on Scrubs and Nash Bridges.
Anderson’s other notable roles included Maurice in the 1988 Eddie Murphy comedy Coming to America and its 2021 sequel, and a small role in the 1986 cult classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He also played Winston Churchill in the FX anthology Drunk History, Bob on the TBS comedy Search Party and made recurring appearances on Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk show Conan.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2021, Anderson returned again discussed his weight with O’Brien, joked about the intermittent fasting that got him down to 340 pounds and planned for when he’d hit his goal weight.
“You’ve spent a career telling really funny jokes about how heavy you are,” O’Brien said. “What are you doing, you’re losing weight, you’re going to hit that 275 goal weight — are you going to quit those jokes?”
“Yeah, I’ll give up my fat jokes, and then,” Anderson said, pausing, “I guess I’ll always be funny.”
He is survived by his two sisters, Lisa and Shanna Anderson.