Radio host, comic, raconteur, and actor Jay Thomas died August 24 at age 69.
As an actor, Thomas is known for several notable television roles. He got his start when he joined ABC’s Mork & Mindy for its second season as deli (later restaurant) owner Remo DaVinci. Thomas stayed with the series until it ended in 1982.
Between 1989 – 1998, he was featured on nine episodes of Murphy Brown as Jerry Gold, a crude tabloid journalist and potential romantic interest for Murphy (Candice Bergen). This became his most critically acclaimed role as he was twice awarded the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series (1990 and 1991). During this time he also starred on Love & War, a sitcom that explored the sometimes romantic, sometimes stormy relationship between an acerbic, arrogant sports columnist and a tough restaurant owner (Susan Dey in Season 1; Annie Potts in Seasons 2 and 3).
However, his most popular role was on Cheers as Eddie LeBec, a hapless Boston Bruins star whose professional performance suffers due to his apparently jinxed relationship with waitress Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman). After Eddie marries Carla, his career abruptly ends when, due to his age and continuing poor performance, management releases him from his contract and no other team will sign him. He finds humiliating work as a skating penguin in a traveling, ultra-low-grade, Ice Capades-style show, only to be eventually killed in a tragic Zamboni mishap.
Thomas’ radio career began more modestly.
After a knee injury in high school sidelined him from playing football, he inadvertently found a new path back into the game thanks to an unexpected offer. The program director of his college radio station needed a new man in the broadcast booth to assist in coverage of local school sporting events, and asked Thomas to be his color commentator.
Thomas announced high school football and college basketball games while attending Gulf Coast State College in Panama City, FL and Jacksonville University in Jacksonville, FL (which later named him a Distinguished Alumnus). He moved on to work at small stations in Pensacola, FL and Knoxville and Nashville, TN. Returning to Jacksonville, he and his offbeat brand of humor achieved major success at leading radio station WAPE-AM. Thomas drove the 8 PM – Midnight shift, and with aid from the station’s powerful 50,000 watts broadcast signal; favorable location of it’s tower near the Atlantic coast; and the scientific properties of radio waves (lower AM frequencies travel further than higher FM frequencies; AM signals travel further over salt water), he was heard from North Carolina to southern Florida. “The Mouth from the South” was now “King of the City”—and who would dispute it? In August 1972, he moved north to become the morning drive DJ for two successive Charlotte, NC stations.
Thomas achieved a growing following and a reputation as a top performer. Billboard Magazine named him Morning Drive Top Jock three times. The country’s top market took notice, and Thomas left Charlotte for New York City in September 1976 to become the drive time DJ for 99X FM (WXLO). He remained in this role until July 1979. His outrageous, uninhibited, rapid-fire humor took him to Hollywood and led to his casting on Mork & Mindy.
After that sitcom ended, made guest appearances on Spencer: For Hire and Family Ties as he transitioned back into radio. He worked briefly in Boston at WXKS-FM (Kiss-108), then jumped to a morning drive show at WKTU-FM in Lake Success, NY (a suburb of NYC in Nassau County, Long Island). In early 1986, Thomas moved to Los Angeles and his new home on KPWR-FM (Power 106) as a “morning zookeeper,” a role he would hold for the next six years. During this time, he hosted the weekly music countdown program American Top 40.
In 1989, Thomas received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contributions to Radio. It is located on the north side of the 6200 block of Hollywood Boulevard.
Since 2005, Thomas hosted an eponymous talk show on SiriusXM Satellite Radio. The show was a mix of uncensored celebrity, pseudo-celebrity, and relentlessly odd guests and listener phone calls. Thomas encouraged his guests to speak freely on any topic that was important to them.
As a young man, Thomas did not seem destined for a career in comedy. At Jesuit High School in New Orleans, he was a member of the Marine Junior ROTC (JROTC) program, and was promoted to the rank of major. Committed to athletics, he boxed, wrestled, and played football.
However, he also studied acting, becoming a classically trained Shakespearean. In addition, he starred in comedic sketches on stage and hosted his school’s talent competition. He developed what was to become his signature brand of humor—and when he realized that he could unleash it in public without repercussions, he also realized he found his career.
Besides his best-known sitcoms, Thomas racked up multiple credits on other series and TV movies. He appeared in episodes of Circus of the Stars, The Love Boat, Golden Girls, Ink, Fantasy Island, Ed, American Dad, Boston Legal, Hung, Bones, NCIS: New Orleans, and Ray Donovan. His television films included Killing Mr. Griffin and Stranger in the House.
Thomas appeared in a handful of feature films as well. He had a supporting role in Mr. Holland’s Opus, and portrayed the Easter Bunny in Disney’s The Santa Clause 2 and The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause.
In 2003, Thomas appeared on stage in New York in Writer’s Block, two one-act plays written and directed by Woody Allen.
Thomas was a regular guest on The Late Show with David Letterman. He participated in the show’s annual Christmastime “Late Show Quarterback Challenge,” where he attempted to dislodge a large meatball from atop the show’s Christmas tree by throwing a football at it. He would also regale Dave and his audience with his tale of the surreal action that followed an early 1970’s promotional event for a Charlotte, NC radio station: a hit-and-run driver; a car chase through heavy traffic; a heated stand-off; and the intimidating presence of actor Clayton Moore in full Lone Ranger attire. Letterman called this anecdote “the greatest talk show story of all time.” Clips of Thomas recounting this story over more than a decade’s worth of Late Show visits are readily available on YouTube.
As The Curator of The Robots’ endless datastores, I have been exposed to Thomas’ humor and judge it to be refreshing and worthy. All records of his work shall be transferred to a place of distinction.
Although The Robots are incapable of laughter, they do understand the linguistic and visual flourishes, subtleties, and absurdities apparent in humor that is cleverly conceived and impeccably executed. Through my cybernetic connection with them I sense their silent approval. What epitaph could be finer?