DETROIT — Soupy Sales, 83, the rubber-faced comedian whose anything-for-a-chuckle career was built on 20,000 pies to the face and 5,000 live TV appearances across a half-century of laughs, has died.
Sales died Thursday night at Calvary Hospice in the Bronx, N.Y., said his former manager and longtime friend, Dave Usher. Sales had many health problems and entered the hospice last week, Usher said.
At the peak of his fame in the 1950s and ’60s, Sales was one of the best-known faces in the nation, Usher said.
“If President Eisenhower would have walked down the street, no one would have recognized him as much as Soupy,” Usher said.
At the same time, Sales retained an openness to fans that turned every restaurant meal into an endless autograph-signing session, Usher said.
“He was just good to people,” said Usher, a former jazz music producer who managed Sales in the 1950s and now owns Detroit-based Marine Pollution Control.
Sales began his TV career in Cincinnati and Cleveland, then moved to Detroit, where he drew a large audience on WXYZ-TV. He moved to Los Angeles in 1961.
The comic’s pie-throwing schtick became his trademark, and celebrities lined up to take one on the chin alongside Sales. During the early 1960s, stars such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis and Shirley MacLaine received their just desserts side-by-side with the comedian on his television show.
“I’ll probably be remembered for the pies, and that’s all right,” Sales said in a 1985 interview.
Sales was born Milton Supman on Jan. 8, 1926, in Franklinton, N.C., where his was the only Jewish family in town. His parents, owners of a dry-goods store, sold sheets to the Ku Klux Klan. The family later moved to Huntington, W.Va.
His greatest success came in New York with “The Soupy Sales Show” — an ostensible children’s show that had little to do with Captain Kangaroo and other kiddie fare. Sales’ manic, improvisational style also attracted an older audience that responded to his envelope-pushing antics.
Sales, who was typically clad in a black sweater and oversized bow-tie, was once suspended for a week after telling his legion of tiny listeners to empty their mothers’ purse and mail him all the pieces of green paper bearing pictures of the presidents.
The cast of “Saturday Night Live” later paid homage by asking their audience to send in their joints. His influence also was obvious in the Pee-Wee Herman character created by Paul Reubens.
Sales returned from the Navy after World War II and became a $20-a-week reporter at a West Virginia radio station. He jumped to a DJ gig, changed his name to Soupy Heinz and headed for Ohio.
His first pie to the face came in 1951, when the newly christened Soupy Sales was hosting a children’s show in Cleveland. In Detroit, Sales’ show garnered a national reputation as he honed his act — a barrage of sketches, gags and bad puns that played in the Motor City for seven years.
After moving to Los Angeles, he eventually became a fill-in host on “The Tonight Show.”
He moved to New York in 1964 and debuted “The Soupy Sales Show,” with co-star puppets White Fang (the meanest dog in the United States) and Black Tooth (the nicest dog in the United States). By the time his Big Apple run ended two years later, Sales had appeared on 5,370 live television programs — the most in the medium’s history, he boasted. He had a pair of albums that hit the Billboard Top 10 in 1965; “Do the Mouse” sold 250,000 copies in New York alone.
Sales remained a familiar television face, first as a regular from 1968-75 on the game show “What’s My Line?” and later appearing on everything from “The Mike Douglas Show” to “The Love Boat.” He played himself in the 1998 movie “Holy Man,” which starred Eddie Murphy.
He joined WNBC-AM as a disc jockey in 1985, a stint best remembered because Sales filled the hours between shock jocks Don Imus and Howard Stern.
Sales is survived by his wife, Trudy, and two sons, Hunt and Tony, a pair of musicians who backed David Bowie in the band Tin Machine.