Garry Shandling, actor and comedian, dead at 66


Garry Shandling, an actor and comedian who pioneered a pretend brand of self-focused docudrama with The Larry Sanders Show, has died at 66.

The performer, who had been relatively healthy, called emergency 911 for help himself and suffered an apparent heart attack, his publicist, Alan Nierob, told Reuters.

He added that Shandling had no history of heart disease, “zero.”

Lieutenant Brian Elias of the Los Angeles County medical examiner’s office confirmed the entertainer apparently died of natural causes. “There’s nothing suspicious about the case, whatsoever,” Elias said.

An innovative and eccentric humorist with pillowy lips and a voice that always seemed on the verge of a whine, Shandling claimed to disdain too much logic cluttering his life.

“The answer isn’t gonna be in the facts,” he told The Associated Press in 2009. “It’s gonna be in intuition. That’s how I work creatively. I’m always teaching people that the answer to that creative question is right here, in the room, between us here.”

More to the point, it was dealing with the questions he confronted in himself.

Born on Nov. 29, 1949 in Chicago, Shandling was raised in Tucson, Arizona. On arriving in Los Angeles as a young adult, it was a short hop from a brief stint in the advertising business to comedy writing and stand-up.

Then in the 1980s, he began to experiment with TV comedy, and to toy with the sitcom form, with his first series, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, a Showtime project that made no bones about its inherently artificial nature: the actors in this otherwise standard domestic comedy routinely broke the fourth wall to comment on what they were up to. Even the theme song began with the explanatory lyrics, “The theme to Garry’s show….”

Then, in August 1992, Shandling created his comic masterpiece with The Larry Sanders Show, which starred him as an egomaniacal late-night TV host with an angst-ridden show-biz life behind the scenes.

It was just three months after Johnny Carson had retired from The Tonight Show, where Shandling had appeared as a stand-up and occasional Carson stand-in. It seemed a wry but deeply felt homage to the King of Late Night.

But it was more. Larry Sanders proved to be an act of courage, a brave effort led by someone portraying a character dangerously close to himself. As Larry, Garry dug deep to confront his own demons, and did it brilliantly as the series teetered between dual realities: public and private; make-believe and painfully true.

Real-life celebrities appeared as guests on Larry’s show-within-the-show, and also interacted with him “off the air.”

David Duchovny, agreeing to come on the show, also came on to Larry romantically once he got the chance.

Jim Carrey delivered a rip-roaring comic tribute to his host on the final broadcast, then, during a commercial break, turned on him in rage over a long-ago slight.

“Are you doing a bit, now?” asked Larry, perplexed.

“We’re OFF the air,” Carrey hissed. “This is real life now.”

The show explored the fuzzy distinction between TV life and real life, and the loneliness of someone at its crossing. The closest thing Larry had to friends were his chronically needy announcer Hank (Jeffrey Tambor) and his Napoleonic producer, Artie (Rip Torn). Together the three actors were among TV’s best-ever trios.

“Garry redesigned the wheel of comedy and he was the kindest and funniest of geniuses,” Tambor, who stars in the TV seriesTransparent, said in a statement.

After Sanders ended in 1998, Shandling’s public appearances were few.

He was mentioned as a candidate to follow David Letterman as a bona fide late-night host for CBS’ 12:30 a.m. slot, but no deal was made.

“I would not do a show where you just sit and talk to somebody,” Shandling had said back in 1993 when he was courted by NBC to take over for Letterman on Late Night.

His films included Hurlyburly in 1998, What Planet Are You From? in 2000 and Zoolander in 2001.

He hosted the Emmy Awards in 2000 and 2004.

On the latter occasion, he spotted Donald Trump in the audience and congratulated the billionaire developer for hosting the Emmy-nominatedThe Apprentice.

“Nice to see a man who’s paid his dues, worked hard,” Shandling said. “We all know what it feels like to have to build 80-storey condos and gambling casinos just to get our foot in the door in show business.”

In his own business dealings, Shandling became one of the rich and famous targeted by private eye Anthony Pellicano, who was sentenced to prison in 2008 on convictions of racketeering and more than six dozen other counts, including conspiracy, wire fraud and wiretapping in the Hollywood wiretaps case.

Pellicano was accused of wiretapping stars such as Sylvester Stallone and bribing police officers to run names of people, including Shandling, through law enforcement databases.

While Shandling never married, his most public romance was withSanders co-star and fiancee Linda Doucett, who played Hank’s comely assistant in the series’ early seasons.

Doucett sued Shandling after he fired her following their breakup in the mid-1990s, receiving a reported $1-million settlement, The New York Times reported in 2006.

The news of Shandling’s death brought an outpouring of reactions from performers who spoke of his impact.

“Garry was a guiding voice of comedy,” said actor-comedian Bob Odenkirk. “He set the standard and we’re all still trying to meet it.”

And filmmaker Judd Apatow declared, “Garry would see the ridiculousness of me being asked to sum up his life five minutes after being told of his passing. It is a perfect, ridiculous Larry Sanders moment. … I am just too sad. Maybe tomorrow I will do better. ”

CBC News with files from Reuters.

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