Louie Anderson, who received a supporting actor Emmy for playing a version of his own mother in the FX comedy “Baskets,” has died. The actor was 68. His publicist, Glenn Schwartz, told the Los Angeles Times that he died of complications from cancer on Friday morning in Las Vegas.
As a result of diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, the most common form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Anderson, who lived and often performed in Las Vegas, was hospitalized earlier this month. As a comedian and writer famous for his gap-toothed grin, he hosted a revival of “Family Feud” from 1999 to 2002 and earned two Daytime Emmy Awards during his career for his animated children’s program “Life With Louie.” He created the Fox series and from 1994 to 1998 voiced an animated version of himself chronicling his adventures as a child with 10 siblings.
The FX comedy “Baskets,” in which Zach Galifianakis played her twin sons, earned him a Primetime Emmy in 2016 for supporting actor in a comedy. He was nominated for the role two more times. Louie Anderson was born and raised in Minnesota and was the 10th of 11 children. His mother, Ora Zella Anderson, was a Mayflower descendant, and his father was an abusive alcoholic. He based his character Christine Baskets on his mother, who passed away in 1990.
“I embrace every part of her: The good, the bad, the ugly,” Anderson told the L.A. Times in 2018, talking about channeling her. “But mostly what I do is embrace my mom’s humanity, which is quite substantial, and I think that’s what’s resonating with people. Because this is her standing in the hurricane that was my dad, protecting 11 little chicks from this gale-force wind and storm battering her. So if she could stand up to him and still shield us from the majority of that stuff, Jesus, that’s some kind of magnificent being.”
Christine sometimes reminded him more of his dad, or of one of his five sisters, he said. “Here’s what happens in life,” the comic said. “When you’re the 10th of 11, you’re a carbon copy of who came before you. So thank God for those 10 people because they are what made up Louie Anderson. I’m just a cheap copy of all those people, but I own it like it’s my own.”
Louie Anderson got his start as a stand-up comedian, performing observational comedy routines that poked fun at his large family dynamic and large build. Conan O’Brien once asked him about the first joke he ever told. “I walked up on stage and I go, ‘I can’t stay long, I’m between meals,’” Anderson said. “And it got a big laugh.”
Prior to debuting on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” in 1984, he worked as a counselor for troubled children, which paved the way for a series of late-night appearances. The first of his half-dozen appearances on the HBO comedy fundraisers hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, and Billy Crystal was “Comic Relief ’87.”. Between 1986 and 1988, he starred as a panelist and in the center square on “The New Hollywood Squares.” (He returned in a later version from 1998 to 2002.)
After releasing his first book, “Dear Dad: Letters From an Adult Child,” in 1989, Anderson began to lose weight. In his prime, his 5-foot-7 frame carried more than 400 pounds. “I’m doing it very slowly. I’m not doing an Oprah,” he told the L.A. Times in 1991, when he was back on the road after taking a rare year off from performing. “My goal is to heal my insides and the outsides will heal themselves.”
He also contemplated his unhappy childhood during that year off, as well as whether he could continue joking about it in his stand-up act. “I wanted to move away from it and figure out how to disconnect the burden of having that kind of trauma,” he said. “I used to bring that all up on stage with me. I wasn’t happy. … I didn’t have fun before. I do now. And I think it’s a lot more fun for the audience.”
Louie Anderson created and starred in “The Louie Show” for CBS in 1996. The sitcom starred Bryan Cranston, Laura Innes and Paul Feig, but only six episodes were produced before it was canceled. Anderson appeared on more than 200 episodes of the game show “Funny You Should Ask” during which a rotating cast of A-list comics helped contestants win a cash prize.
In a 1993 interview with the Los Angeles Times, both sides of the comic were revealed. One, freelancer David Kronke wrote, was “the popular comedian, whose sardonic, incisive routines knock ‘em dead on talk shows, Showtime specials and nationwide tours.” The other was the “sober-minded writer” of a book of letters from his father “whose emotionally naked accounts of repairing his tattered self-image after growing up in a dysfunctional family … inspired thousands of fans.”
A second guy got 10,000 letters from readers who could relate to “Dear Dad.” The first guy? People laughed.
In his 1993 book “Goodbye Jumbo, Hello Cruel World,” he recounted his lifelong struggle with obesity. He described how his mother would overfeed her children in order to compensate for the trauma they were experiencing. “Writing (‘Goodbye Jumbo’) changed everything in my life. I was able to be freed up from that burden, and that low self-esteem and self-hatred that you get into,” Anderson told the L.A. Times. “I decided that I was gonna change all that, and I was not gonna hate myself anymore. That I had gone through enough guilt, and enough shame, and I wanted to move on. And that I had something to offer. And I wanted to offer that, and I wanted to enjoy myself.”
His books – he wrote five of them – made him “less popular as a comedian” because people reading his books thought he was too serious and could not enjoy his comedy as a result. In 2018, he wrote the book “Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them, Too.” as a tribute to her.
His life took a dark turn in 1997. According to an FBI affidavit, Richard John Gordon sent the comic a letter asking for money “so your secrets don’t get out and blow your career.” Anderson allegedly asked Gordon to go home with him, disrobe and let Anderson “touch” him during an encounter at a casino in the South Bay. Later, Anderson changed his mind and only wanted to see Gordon undress, according to the affidavit.
They agreed to exchange $100,000 in hush money, and Anderson made regular payments until October 1998, when Gordon agreed to settle their “contract” for a lesser amount. Gordon returned for more in March 2000, saying he felt shortchanged, according to the affidavit. The additional $250,000 was his request. The comic turned to the FBI, which helped him and his manager entice Gordon to Los Angeles and get the money.
The “Family Feud” host was charged with trying to extort $250,000 from Gordon following a high-profile, high-speed car chase through L.A.’s Westside. Gordon pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison and a restitution fine of $4,000.
In 2007, the comic’s publicist said: “Being a target of criminal activity is an unfortunate and increasingly common byproduct of celebrity.”
But Louie Anderson rebounded with a run of TV guest roles including appearances on “Scrubs” and “Nash Bridges.”
He also played Maurice in the 1998 Eddie Murphy comedy “Coming to America” and its 2021 sequel, as well as a small role in the 1986 cult classic “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Anderson also played Winston Churchill in the FX anthology “Drunk History,” Bob in the TBS comedy “Search Party,” and appeared repeatedly on Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk show “Conan.”
The COVID-19 pandemic rolled on in March 2021, and Anderson once again discussed his weight with O’Brien, joking about the intermittent fasting he had used to drop to 340 pounds and planning for his goal weight.
“You’ve spent a career telling really funny jokes about being heavy,” O’Brien said. “What do you do, you’re losing weight, you’re going to get down to this goal weight of 275 — are you going to retire those jokes?”
“Yes, I’m going to retire my fat jokes, and then,” Anderson said, taking a pause, “I think I’ll always be funny.”
He is survived by his two sisters, Lisa and Shanna Anderson.