Dick Martin

d. May 24, 2008

Dick Martin, zany half of the comic team that hosted TV’s hugely popular Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, died May 24 of respiratory ailments at a hospital in Santa Monica. He was 86.

Martin and straight-man Dan Rowan teamed up in 1952 when they both were struggling actors in Los Angeles. By the early 1960s, they had worked their way up to engagements at the country’s top night spots and regular appearances on television. In 1966, they hosted the summer replacement series for the first season of The Dean Martin Show. NBC and producer George Schlatter signed them to front a special titled “Laugh-In,” a quick-cut series of sight gags, blackouts, non-sequiturs and brief skits that eschewed the standard variety-hour format and took advantage of the latest advances in electronic editing of video tape.

The show aired to good notices in September 1967, and when The Man From U.N.C.L.E. faltered in the ratings, NBC quickly canceled that former hit and turned Laugh-In into a weekly series to replace it. Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In debuted Jan. 22, 1968, and was an immediate smash, boosting the careers of its many featured players — including Judy Carne, Arte Johnson, Henry Gibson, Ruth Buzzi, Jo Anne Worley and announcer Gary Owens — and making full-fledged stars of others such as Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin.

Laugh-In ran for six seasons before finally leaving the air in 1973. The hosts capitalized on their fame for several years before parting amicably in 1977, after Rowan developed diabetes and was advised by doctors to take it easy. He died in 1987.

Rowan and Martin were regulars on The Chevy Show, a 1958 summer replacement for Dinah Shore’s Chevrolet-sponsored variety hour, hosted by Edie Adams, Janet Blair and John Raitt, with Stan Freberg as the other comic in residence.

Before he met Rowan, Martin was a writer in the waning days of radio for such series as Duffy’s Tavern and The Bing Crosby Show. He also took solo acting jobs after teaming with Rowan. He was a regular on the first two seasons of The Lucy Show (1962 to 1964) as Harry Conners, Lucy’s happy-go-lucky neighbor, and appeared in the 1966 Doris Day spy comedy “The Glass Bottom Boat.”

Universal tried out the team as film stars in the unsuccessful 1958 comedy western “Once Upon a Horse.” In 1969, they leveraged their Laugh-In fame to star in MGM’s “The Maltese Bippy,” a not-so-funny spoof of haunted-house mysteries.

After splitting with Rowan, Martin was frequently seen on The Match Game and other game shows but reportedly grew tired of such lightweight fare. He turned to directing at the suggestion of friend Bob Newhart and after a reluctant start went on to direct numerous episodes of The Bob Newhart Show, Archie Bunker’s Place, Family Ties, Newhart, Flo, Mama’s Family, Sledge Hammer, Bob and others. He still took occasional acting jobs on episodes of such series as The Love Boat, Sledge Hammer, Coach, Bob, Third Rock from the Sun, The Nanny and Diagnosis Murder.

Dick Martin on the “Laugh-In” set, top, and with partner Dan Rowan, above.