Dick Martin, who rode 'Laugh-in' to fame, dies at 86 By Neil Genzlinger Published: May 25, 2008 Dick Martin, a veteran nightclub comic who with his partner, Dan Rowan, turned a midseason replacement slot at NBC in 1968 into a hit that redefined what could be done on television, died Saturday night of respiratory complications at a hospital in Santa Monica, California, according to The Associated Press. He was 86. Skip to next paragraph Enlarge This Image Emilio Flores for The New York Times Dick Martin at home in Malibu, California, in January 2007. Related Video Clips From 'Laugh-In' (YouTube.com) Enlarge This Image Associated Press Dan Rowan, left, and Dick Martin on "Laugh-In" in 1969. "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," the hyperactive, joke-packed show that Martin and Rowan rode to fame, made conventional television variety programs seem instantly passé and the sitcom brand of humor seem too meek for the times. The show was a collage of one-liners, non sequiturs, sight gags and double entendres the likes of which prime time had rarely seen, and it proved that viewers were eager for more than sleepily paced plots and polite song-and-dance. "Laugh-In" quickly vaulted to the top of the television ratings, and it spawned an array of catchphrases: "Sock it to me," "Here come da judge" and Martin's signature line, "You bet your sweet bippy." "People are basically irreverent," Martin said in 1968, explaining the appeal of the show. "They want to see sacred cows kicked over. You can't have Harry Belafonte on your show and not have him sing a song, but we did; we had him climbing out of a bathtub, just because it looked irreverent and silly. If a show hires Robert Goulet, pays him $7,500 or $10,000, they're going to want three songs out of him; we hire Robert Goulet, pay him $210 and drop him through a trap door." Though Martin had a respectable career in nightclubs before "Laugh-In" and enjoyed success as a television director after the show went off the air, his five years on "Laugh-In" elevated him to a different level of fame. The show won the Emmy Award for outstanding variety or musical series in both 1968 and 1969, and the special guests who dropped by over the years to deliver one-liners included Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, Cher, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Johnny Carson and, memorably with "Sock it to me?," Richard Nixon. Martin and Rowan, who died in 1987, became international stars; in 1972 they were hosts of a variety show staged before Queen Elizabeth II at the London Palladium. Thomas Richard Martin was born Jan. 30, 1922, in Battle Creek, Michigan His father, William, was a salesman; his mother, Ethel, a homemaker. In the early 1930s the family moved to Detroit, where Dick's teenage years included a bout with tuberculosis that would keep him out of the military. At 20 Martin, with his older brother, Bob, headed for Los Angeles with hopes of breaking into show business. He worked fitfully as an actor, a comic, and as a writer for radio shows like "Duffy's Tavern," but he was plying another trade, bartending, one day in 1952 when the comic Tommy Noonan brought in Dan Rowan, a former car salesman with showbiz aspirations of his own. Noonan introduced the two, and they quickly found their shtick — Rowan the sophisticate, Martin the laid-back lunk. They took their act on the road, inching up the club-circuit pecking order. "It had no real highs or lows, it was just straight-ahead work," Martin recalled of those early nightclub years in a 2007 interview. "I don't think we ever failed. We didn't zoom to stardom, but we always worked." Some of that work was on the small-time television programs that had sprung up in local markets — "Every city had a show like that: 'Coffee With Phil,' whatever," Martin recalled — and the duo achieved a comfort level in the medium that proved useful once they became nightclub headliners. National television shows came calling, including Ed Sullivan's, where Rowan & Martin made at least 16 appearances. Martin also had a recurring role on "The Lucy Show" in the early 1960s, playing Lucille Ball's neighbor, Harry Conners. But it was his work with Rowan that held the big payoff: the two had appeared on Dean Martin's variety show on NBC, and — this being the era when stars took the summer off but their shows didn't — in 1966 they were asked to be the hosts of "The Dean Martin Summer Show" for all 12 episodes. "They were so high-rated that NBC said, 'We want you to do a show for us,' " Martin recalled in 2007, and that led to a pilot for "Laugh-In," which was broadcast Sept. 9, 1967. The show was well regarded — it won an Emmy as the outstanding musical or variety program — and when "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." began to falter in midseason, Rowan & Martin got their shot at a series. Replacing that spy drama, "Laugh-In" made its debut on Jan. 22, 1968. The show, partly the brainchild of the producer George Schlatter (who would later get into a court battle with Rowan and Martin over the rights to it), pushed the envelope of topical humor, something "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" had begun doing the year before. "Laugh-In," though, was more interested in creating a frenetic pace than in creating controversy. To do so it relied on a cast of young, largely unknown comics like Judy Carne, Henry Gibson and Jo Anne Worley — a risky approach that one writer who logged time on the series, Lorne Michaels, would use when he shook up television anew in 1975 with "Saturday Night Live." And, just as with the "SNL" cast, a few "Laugh-In" alumni went on to impressive careers, most notably Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin. "Laugh-In" stayed No. 1 through its first two seasons, garnering 11 Emmy nominations in 1969 for Season 2. The novelty, though, began to wear off, and by 1973 it was off the air. A string of specials in later years revisited the format but without the jolt that the show's first two seasons caused, and a 1969 film featuring Rowan and Martin, "The Maltese Bippy," was panned. Vincent Canby, in The New York Times, called it "a movie that cheapens everything it touches." Martin's friend Bob Newhart helped him transition to the director's chair. He directed a number of episodes of the long-running "Bob Newhart Show," as well as spot episodes of shows like "Archie Bunker's Place" and "Family Ties" and Newhart's later series. Martin also continued to act, playing roles on shows like "The Love Boat" and "Diagnosis Murder," and turned up frequently on game shows and celebrity roasts in the 1970s and 80s. Among his occasional film roles was an appearance in "Air Bud 2: Golden Receiver," a 1998 comedy directed by his son, Richard Martin. In the early "Laugh-In" years Martin and Rowan were as opposite offstage as they seemed to be onstage. Martin, whose 1957 marriage to Peggy Connelly had ended in divorce in the early 1960s, was the swinging bachelor, Rowan the quiet family man. But in 1971 Martin married Dolly Read, a former Playmate of the Month who had appeared in "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." After divorcing four years later, they remarried in 1978. She survives him, as do Richard Martin and another son, Cary, from his marriage to Connelly. Despite the fame and wealth that "Laugh-In" brought, Martin always retained a fondness for the earlier part of his career. "My life has been divided into three parts in the show-business world: nightclubs, television, and then I was a director for 30 years of television shows," he said in a 2006 interview on "The O'Reilly Factor." "And I think the most fun I ever had was nightclubs. I loved nightclubs."