Comic actor Jay Thomas, who grew up in N.O., dies at 69

Jay Thomas, the actor, comedian and radio host who grew up in New Orleans and landed Emmy award-winning TV roles on “Cheers” and “Murphy Brown,” died Thursday. He was 69.

The actor died after a battle with cancer, his agent and longtime friend Don Buchwald said. "Jay was one of a kind, never at a loss for words and filled with so much fun and wonderfully wacky thoughts and behavior," Buchwald, Thomas' representative for 35 years, told the New York Daily News in a statement.

“Jay Thomas was one of the funniest and kindest men I have had the honor to call both client and friend for 25 years-plus,” his publicist Thomas Estey told Variety. “He will be dearly missed by so many.”

Thomas most recently played Marty Grossman, the operator of a sleazy website, on the Showtime drama “Ray Donovan” and hosted a radio show on Sirus XM satellite radio.

Though he was born John Thomas Terrell in Kermit, Texas, he grew up in the Bayou St. John neighborhood. A graduate of Jesuit High School, Thomas’ career had its early roots in the city.

"I was supposed to be taking a typing class at the Lee Circle Y but I'd go off to the Quarter instead," he told former Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose in 2000. "I was really young -- 16, 17 -- and I'd try to get into the clubs and do some stand-up. The old Bayou Room, the Green Turtle on St. Charles. I'd do Cosby imitations and steal material off other comedy albums and I'd mix in some of my own material. I never told anybody about it, especially not my parents. And I never did learn how to type."

Thomas became a radio disc jockey and then scored television and film roles in the 1970s and 80s. His first was as Remo DaVinci on “Mork and Mindy.” One of his biggest roles was as loudmouth TV host Jerry Gold on CBS’ "Murphy Brown," from 1989 to 1998. The role on the Candice Bergen-led sitcom earned him two Emmy awards for outstanding guest actor. He also earned a supporting actor nomination for the same role.

Thomas also had a turn on "Cheers" as Rhea Perlman's TV husband Eddie LeBec, a Boston Bruins hockey player who was killed by a Zamboni.  

He starred as a sportswriter on his own sitcom, “Love & War,” from 1992 to 1995. He appeared in many other sitcoms and films, including “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and starred in a recent episode of “NCIS: New Orleans.”

Locally, he narrated WLAE’s successful series of “Glory Days” documentaries on the history of prep football.  Thomas himself played football while at Jesuit, as did his brother, Tim Terrell, who was on the school’s 1960 state championship team.

For 16 years, Jay Thomas displayed his athletic skills as part of an oddball Christmas tradition with David Letterman. He appeared on Letterman’s "Late Show" on CBS each year at Christmas to toss a football at a Christmas tree topped with a pizza and giant meatball. Thomas first did the bit in 1998 when then-New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde, another guest on the show, tried the stunt but missed. The football toss was also accompanied by Thomas annually retelling a weird and funny encounter with "Lone Ranger" star Clayton Moore.

"I came on at Christmastime. I don't know why," Thomas told former Times-Picayune TV columnist Dave Walker in 2010. "I probably had a movie coming out or something. So I go on there and we sit down and at the break (Letterman) says, 'Oh, I know how much you love football. Vinny Testaverde is here. Why don't you come back out? We're going to throw the football at the meatball on top of the Christmas tree.' "

Thomas had played football at Jesuit and always joked that he had the throwing arm for the Letterman gig. "Even when I was a kid, I could always throw the (stuffing) out of the ball," Thomas said in 2010. "They would never let me play quarterback. I wasn't religious enough to play quarterback at Jesuit, or I talked too much, or something. Everybody who played quarterback was religious and kept his mouth shut and all that (stuff)."

Thomas is survived by his wife, Sally; and sons, Sam, Max and J.T.

© 2017 WWL-TV


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