LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Comedian George Carlin, a counter-culture hero famed for his routines about drugs, dirty words and the demise of humanity, died of heart failure at a Los Angeles-area hospital on Sunday. He was 71.
Carlin, who had a history of heart and drug-dependency problems, died at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica about 6 p.m. PDT (2 a.m. British time) after being admitted earlier in the afternoon for chest pains, spokesman Jeff Abraham told Reuters.
Known for his edgy, provocative material developed over 50 years, the bald, bearded Carlin achieved status as an anti-Establishment icon in the 1970s with stand-up bits full of drug references and a routine called “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.” A regulatory battle over a radio broadcast of the routine ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the 1978 case, Federal Communications Commission vs. Pacifica Foundation, the top U.S. court ruled that the words cited in Carlin’s routine were indecent, and that the government’s broadcast regulator could ban them from being aired at times when children might be listening.
The Grammy-winning Carlin remained an active presence on the comedy circuit. Carlin was scheduled to receive the John F. Kennedy Center’s prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in November and his publicist said Carlin performed in Las Vegas this month.
His comedic sensibility revolved around a central theme: humanity is a cursed, doomed species.
“I don’t have any beliefs or allegiances. I don’t believe in this country, I don’t believe in religion, or a god, and I don’t believe in all these man-made institutional ideas,” he told Reuters in a 2001 interview.
Carlin told Playboy in 2005 that he looked forward to an afterlife where he could watch the decline of civilization on a “heavenly CNN.”
“The world is a big theatre-in-the round as far as I’m concerned, and I’d love to watch it spin itself into oblivion,” he said. “Tune in and watch the human adventure.”
Carlin wrote three best-selling books, won four Grammy Awards, recorded 22 comedy albums, headlined 14 HBO television specials, and hosted hundreds of variety shows. One was the first episode of “Saturday Night Live” in 1975, when he was high on cocaine.
Drug addiction plagued him for much of his life, beginning with marijuana experimentation as a teen, graduating to cocaine in the 1970s, and then to prescription painkillers and wine. During the cocaine years, Carlin ignored his finances and ended up owing about $3 million in back taxes. In 2004, he entered a Los Angeles rehab clinic for his alcohol and Vicodin abuse.
George Dennis Carlin was born on May 12, 1937, in New York City, where he was raised with an older brother by their single mother. He fondly recalled that the nuns at his school tolerated his early comedic inclinations.
After a brief, troubled stint in the U.S. Air Force, he started honing his comic act, developing such characters as Al Sleet, a “hippie-dippie weatherman.”
Carlin told Playboy that his sensibilities developed in the 1950s, “when comedy stopped being safe ... (and) became about saying no to authority.” He cited such influences as Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory and Bob Newhart.
He also dabbled in movies and television, recently voicing a hippie Volkswagen bus named Fillmore in the Pixar cartoon “Cars.”
Carlin is survived by his second wife Sally Wade; daughter Kelly Carlin McCall; and brother Patrick. His first wife, Brenda, died of cancer in 1997. News of his death was first reported by the television show “Entertainment Tonight.”
Additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Patricia Zengerle