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Louie Anderson, comedy icon, dies in Las Vegas

Updated January 21, 2022 - 7:18 pm

As if scripted, Louie Anderson’s final shows in Las Vegas were on Mother’s Day weekend.

Anderson performed what would be his send-off shows May 8-9 at the Laugh Factory at the Tropicana. He headlined at the club operated by his friend and fellow stand-up Harry Basil.

The great stand-up comedian who made Las Vegas his home won an Emmy Award portraying a version of his own mother, Ora, on the FX comedy series “Baskets.”

Anderson died Friday at St. Rose Dominican Hospital, Siena Campus in Henderson. He was 68. Anderson had recently been treated for diffuse large B cell lymphoma, the most common type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma reported in the U.S. Up until the last week of his life, he kept the condition and his treatment private, even from some of his closest friends.

The famed stand-up had been a Las Vegas resident since 2006 and a popular headliner on and off the Strip since the mid-1980s. He was famous for homespun storytelling from his youth in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Large family

Anderson was the second-youngest of 11 children from Ora Zella and Andrew Mortimer Anderson. He had five brothers and five sisters. His two surviving siblings are Lisa and Shanna.

Anderson always spoke lovingly of his mother, saying she managed a family “where every day it was a family feud,” because of his father’s alcoholism and frequent abuse. (Anderson’s line was also an off-handed reference to the syndicated television game show he hosted from 1999-2002.)

“I could always tell when my mom was uncomfortable with what I was saying on stage, because she crossed her arms over her heart, using the body language of parents who are uncomfortable or don’t approve,” Anderson said in a 2018 interview. “Whenever I did my material about my dad, I always remember that, when I’d joke about him yelling at us. It cut right through her, and I was always careful when she was there for a performance.”

Anderson had based his role of Christine Baskets on “Baskets” on his mom. Series star and co-creator Zach Galifianakis said he heard Anderson’s distinctive, nasal voice in his head when conjuring the character and quickly called Anderson to see if he would take the role.

Anderson said yes, and went on to win the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy after the show’s first season, in 2016. Anderson starred in the series through its 2019 finale and was also nominated for Emmys for supporting actor in 2017 and 2018.

“It’s the role of a lifetime. Let’s face it, I was, what, 62 years old when I took the role. There aren’t a lot of roles out there for 62-year-old comics, but I can say there are more portals to reach people than before — especially online,” Anderson said after being honored. “But as far as TV roles, there is not a lot of work out there for us older comics.”

He also appeared in several film roles. In 1988, he was cast as the McDowell’s fast-food restaurant employee Maurice, alongside Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall in “Coming To America,” reprising the role in the 2021 sequel, “Coming 2 America.” It would be his final film appearance.

Murphy and Hall, both friends of Anderson, said they were initially told they needed to add “a white character” to the film. Anderson was their first, and only, call out.

“I had no idea,” Anderson said in an interview in March . “I just lean into it. I have no problem with it.”

The big break

Anderson’s big break was his Nov. 20, 1984, appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Anderson was a rising club comic when he appeared on the highly influential late-night talk show.

“On Nov. 21, I was booked at The Comedy Store at the Dunes,” Anderson recalled. “The next week I was opening for the Commodores at Bally’s.”

Anderson created the animated series “Life with Louie,” voicing an 8-year-old version of himself. He and authored four books, including “Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too,” which was published in 2018.

Anderson made several TV and film appearances. He was a regular guest on “The New Hollywood Squares” in the late-1980s. In 1996, he created and starred in the CBS series “The Louie Show,” playing a psychotherapist in Duluth, Minnesota. The show was canceled after six episodes.

He guest-starred on such series as “Scrubs,” “Grace Under Fire,” “Touched By an Angel,” “Ally McBeal” and “Chicago Hope.” Anderson took part in the reality-TV show “Splash.” During rehearsals for a diving competition show, a gasping Anderson was helped from the pool by NFL star Ndamukong Suh.

Throughout his career, Anderson was a favorite of David Letterman, “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” the annual charity show “Comic Relief,” along with specials airing on Showtime and HBO. His film roles included the flower deliveryman in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Louie in Vegas

Anderson’s move to Las Vegas coincided with his “Louie: Larger Than Life” show at Excalibur, which opened in 2003. Anderson then shifted to Palace Station in 2010 for a show titled, “Louie LOL,” spending three years in that venue before relocating once more for a run at the Plaza. He headlined at Red Rock Resort’s Rocks Lounge in 2017 and would occasionally pop in for unbilled sets at Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club and Jimmy Kimmel’s Comedy Club.

Anderson frequently joked about his weight, which at its peak was in the 400-pound range. He often moved the mic stand, saying, “Let me move this so you can see me.” He remarked that on the beach, “Every time I’d lay down, they tried to push me back into the water.”

Anderson moved away from the weight material and last year had lost 40 pounds primarily through intermittent fasting.

“I took it very serious. I got a trainer. I worked out. I swam. This has been a lifelong struggle for me: food addiction,” he told Daily Blast Live. “I learned a lot and feel good. I’m no longer compulsively eating like I was and that was the big thing for me.”

Anderson and Basil had planned to stage Anderson in residency from July 26-Sept. 6, but Anderson bowed out of that series as he was due for tests in Los Angeles. Those results turned up the cancer that would take his life.

Anderson performed his final two shows while seated. The comedian who would headline 200 shows a year at his peak was just glad to be back in front of a crowd after the pandemic shutdown.

“When I had this taken away from me for a year, I realized, this is such a big part of my life,” Anderson said. “You don’t realize that when you’re going through it, but I am feeling it now. I’ve never been more excited about a new set than I am now.”

As the famed comedian said at the time, “Las Vegas has meant so much to me.”

Contact John Katsilometes at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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