‘Laugh-In’ comic Henry Gibson dies at 73

LOS ANGELES — Henry Gibson, the veteran character actor who came to fame in the late 1960s as the flower-holding poet on TV’s landmark satirical comedy show “Rowan &Martin’s Laugh-In,” has died. He was 73.

Gibson died late Monday night after a short battle with cancer at his home in Malibu, said his son Jon.

Gibson, who more recently played a recurring role as cantankerous Judge Clark Brown on “Boston Legal,” was part of the original ensemble cast of “Laugh In,” which ran on NBC from 1968 to 1973.

The show, whose original cast included Goldie Hawn, Judy Carne, Ruth Buzzi, Arte Johnson, Jo Anne Worley and others, was an immediate hit.

“Henry was an integral part of ‘Laugh-In’ for a long time, and he was brilliant,” said Gary Owens, the show’s announcer, who remained close to Gibson over the years. “He was a very funny man.”

Worley said Gibson “was probably the kindest person on ‘Laugh-In’ “ and was the person she’d call whenever she needed show-business advice.

“I’m personally devastated that such a good friend is gone,” she said.

George Schlatter, the executive producer and creator of “Laugh-In,” recalled that when Gibson auditioned for the show, “He came in and did a poem and a full back flip. He said, ‘Is that anything?’ I said, ‘Be here Monday.’ “

Gibson, Schlatter said, “brought a wonderful warmth and whimsy and a charm to ‘Laugh-In.’ That went a long way to balance some of the political, satirical and bawdy humor we featured.

“Henry was a sweet, gentle man. Any piece we gave to Henry took on a different shape when he read it because he infused his own whimsy and his own gentle intelligence and wit to it.”

In the show’s famous cocktail party scenes, when the music would stop and each cast member would deliver a funny line, Gibson was a religious figure holding a teacup and saucer.

“My congregation supports all denominations,” he said on one show, “but our favorites are twenties and fifties.”

But Gibson was best known as the poet, holding a large flower and beginning his brief recitations with his signature catchphrase, “A poem, by Henry Gibson.”

“He wrote all those himself,” said Jon Gibson. “It was a point of pride that he only read poems that he himself wrote.”

Gibson’s poems led to two comedy albums, “The Alligator” and “The Grass Menagerie” and the book “A Flower Child’s Garden of Verses.”

Gibson’s family said he used his fame to help support the fledgling environmental movement, including contributing op-ed pieces and poetry to newspapers and other publications.

Looking back on his time on “Laugh-In” in a 1993 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Gibson said, “It was an oasis of laughter and escape.”

As an actor, Gibson went on to appear in four films directed by Robert Altman, most notably “Nashville” (1975), in which he played country singer Haven Hamilton, for which he wrote most of his character’s songs and received a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor.

Gibson also played an Illinois Nazi in “The Blues Brothers,” a menacing neighbor in “The ‘Burbs,” and a priest in “The Wedding Crashers.” He also was the voice of Wilbur the Pig in the animated “Charlotte’s Web.”

He was born James Bateman on Sept. 21, 1935, in Germantown, Pa., and began acting professionally at age 8 as a touring performer for nine years with the Mae Desmond Theatre.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in drama from Catholic University. After serving in the Air Force as an intelligence officer with the 66th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing in France from 1957 to ‘60, he studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

Gibson was still known as Jim Bateman in the early ‘60s when he was living in New York City, where his roommate was another struggling young actor, Jon Voight, whom he had met when they were both students at Catholic University.

Voight recalled today that they developed a small comedy act that they performed at a couple of auditions featuring two naive hillbilly characters. Voight said he came up with the names: Harold and Henry Gibson, the latter a derivative of playwright Henrik Ibsen’s name.

Gibson, who wrote some simple poems for his character to recite in the act, received a big break when he was invited to appear as the Henry Gibson character on the “Tonight” show.

“He was the kind of guy at that time, nothing could stop him” said Voight. “He was very talented. I just thought the world of Jim and was so glad for his success.”

Gibson made his feature film debut playing a college student in Jerry Lewis’ 1963 comedy “The Nutty Professor.”

He also had a small role in Billy Wilder’s 1964 comedy “Kiss Me, Stupid.” And he made guest appearances on 1960s TV shows such as “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “My Favorite Martian,” “F Troop” and “Bewitched.”

Gibson’s wife of more than 40 years, Lois, died in 2007.

In addition to his son Jon, he is survived by two other sons, Charles and James; his three sisters, Elizabeth Malloy, Adele Donahue and Mary Lee; and two grandchildren.

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