LOS ANGELES – Louie Anderson, whose four-decade career as a comedian and actor included his unlikely, Emmy-winning performance as mom to twin adult sons in the TV series “Baskets,” died Friday. He was 68.
Anderson died at a hospital in Las Vegas of complications from cancer, said Glenn Schwartz, his longtime publicist. Anderson had a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Schwartz said previously.
“'Baskets' was such a phenomenal ‘second act’ for Louie Anderson. I wish he’d gotten a third,” Michael McKean said on Twitter. George Wallace wrote: “You’ll be missed, Louie. What an awesome friend. One in a million.” Gilbert Gottfried posted a photo of himself, Anderson and Bob Saget, who died Jan. 9, with the caption: "Both good friends that will be missed.”
The portly, round-faced Anderson used his girth and a checkered childhood in Saint Paul, Minnesota, as fodder for his early stand-up routines.
In a 1987 interview with The Associated Press, Anderson compared himself to another comedian who mined his childhood for humor.
“Bill Cosby and I had similar goals,” Anderson told AP. “I wanted parents to be able to bring their children and children to be able to bring their parents to my concerts. I feel a family that can laugh about family problems is better off. The difference between Cosby and myself is that he sees it from an adult perspective and I tell it from a child’s viewpoint.”
He had a life-long battle with weight, but said in 1987 that he'd put a stop to using his size as stage material.
“I’ve always been big,” he said. “But I don’t do fat jokes anymore.”
In later years, his life as one of 11 children in a family headed by a troubled father and devoted mother was a deeper source of reflection and inspiration for Anderson, both in his screen work and in his best-selling books.
His latest book, 2018's “Hey Mom,” was a tribute in letters to the lessons he learned from her and how-to tips on facing life’s challenges. He also gave the late Ora Zella Anderson a shout-out for the “Baskets” role.
“I just started writing with one letter, saying, ’Hey Mom, I’m playing you on TV. I hope you see it. I hope you’re a part of it...” Anderson told AP that year.
He won the best supporting actor Emmy in 2016 for his portrayal of Christine Baskets, mother to twins played by Zach Galifianakis, in FX's “Baskets.” Anderson, who received three consecutive Emmy nods for the role, played it with restraint and with specific touches he credits to his mom.
“Nuance is what I go for, tiny rather than bigger things. Mom did things with her eyes or her grimace or her disappointed lips — or her passive-aggressiveness,” he told the AP in 2015, laughing. “Rolling eyes were big in our family.”
Anderson, born March 24, 1953, was the 10th child for Ora and William Anderson. His father played trumpet with musical great Hoagy Carmichael and, Anderson has said, was an alcoholic.
After his father's death, Anderson learned of how difficult his childhood had been and forgave him, he told People magazine in 2018.
Louie Anderson's early jobs included counseling troubled children. He changed course after winning a 1981 Midwest comedy competition, where he was spotted by veteran comic Henny Youngman, who hosted the contest, according to Schwartz.
Anderson worked as a writer for Youngman and then gained onstage experience while crisscrossing the United States. His big break came in 1984 when Johnny Carson, known for showcasing promising comedians on “The Tonight Show,” brought him on to perform.
He was a familiar face elsewhere on TV, including as host of a revival of the game show “Family Feud” from 1999 to 2002, and on comedy specials and in frequent late-night talk show appearances. He continued his stand-up appearances, in Las Vegas where he lived and on the road.
Anderson voiced an animated version of himself as a kid in “Life With Louie.” He created the Humanitas Prize-winning cartoon series, which first aired in prime time in late 1994 before moving to Saturday morning for its 1995-98 run. Anderson won two Daytime Emmy Awards for the role.
He made guest appearances in several TV series, including “Scrubs” and “Touched by an Angel,” and was on the big screen in 1988′s “Coming to America” and in last year’s sequel to the Eddie Murphy comedy.
In a magazine interview, Anderson recounted getting the role after he spotted Murphy, who he knew from working in comedy clubs, at a Los Angeles restaurant. Anderson said hello, then made a costly decision that paid off.
″Take Eddie Murphy’s check and put it on my credit card, but don’t tell him until after I leave,″ Anderson recalled telling a waiter. He ended up with a $600 charge, but Murphy called to thank him and offered to write a part for him in “Coming to America,” Anderson said.
His books included “Dear Dad – Letters From An Adult Child, ” a collection of letters from Anderson to his late father; “Good-bye Jumbo… Hello Cruel World,” a self-help book, and “The F Word, How To Survive Your Family.”
Fellow performers recalled his gentleness. “You were as gracious and kind as you were funny. Rest well!! Keep ’em laughing in Heaven,” Viola Davis said on Twitter.
Rita Rudner, a longtime friend who worked on stage with Anderson, said in a statement: “He was a kind, generous, talented man who leaves behind a legacy of laughter, love and french fries.”
“Oh dear. Another great comedian. Another great Vegas star. Such a sweetheart. We will miss you #LouieAnderson,” Penn Jillette said on Twitter. “Rest now, Louie. You done good,” Jane Lynch tweeted.
Anderson's survivors include sisters Lisa and Shanna Anderson.
Associated Press reporter Katie Vasquez contributed to this story.