Gary Owens, who had one of the most memorable baritone voices in entertainment history and who used that voice in a myriad of different scenarios, ranging from being the announcer on the 1960s smash TV show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In to the voice of Space Ghost, died on Thursday, February 12, 2015, at his home in Los Angeles, CA, according to CNN. He was 80. The cause of death is complications of Type 2 Diabetes, a condition that the entertainer had had since he was a child.
Owens, with his distinctive look — mustachioed with glasses, almost like a Stan Lee in many ways — never seemed to take himself seriously with his fun, charming, and gregarious manner. Yet when his voice inflections boomed through the airwaves, he sounded like he was the most serious man in the room. Reading manically wacky one-liners and joke after joke on Laugh-In (which was a number one show for multiple seasons on NBC during the late 1960s) with a deadpan and instantly memorable style, Owens had the rare quality, like a Don Pardo, of an instantly recognizable voice, known by the masses coast-to-coast, yet not many people knew what he looked like. During Laugh-In, he was on camera for the most part, always appearing hilariously urgent in his verbal diction, hand cupped to ear and dressed in the manner of a respected newsman, usually with three-piece suits and an air of professionalism. It all acted as perfect counterpoint to the inanity Laugh-In presented.
But it wasn’t just that program that the radio personality cut his talented teeth. He could also announce a straight assignment with equal confidence and class. Because of being imbued with such a distinctive voice, the announcer could made reading a tube of toothpaste out loud sound like a rendition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And because of this, he was also proficient in voiceover work, most notably as the voice of Roger Ramjet of the cartoon of the same name as well as the voice of the title character on Space Ghost, in which he even made an appearance on-camera during the show’s run, in essence being interviewed by himself. He was also the narrator of the The Perils of Penelope Pitstop cartoon.
The South Dakota-born voice actor also memorably lent his vocals to Powdered Toast Man, an off-shoot character part of the Ren and Stimpy cartoon universe. In the one cartoon that was made (the character had also been in various interstitials on Ren and Stimpy), which was met with some controversy at the character of Powdered Toast Man throwing the Constitution and The Bill of Rights into a fireplace, Owens shared some scenes with musician Frank Zappa, who supplied the voice of the Pope. The cartoon was one of the wackiest and hilarious animated shorts ever produced, and stands as one of Owens’ more bizarre, yet equally satisfying works. Other highlights of his career included stints hosting the first season of the people-will-do-anything game show The Gong Show and lending his voice to over a reported 30,000 commercials, a record that has to stand in some annals somewhere. He also had guest appearances on TV sitcoms Mad About You, Roseanne, and That ’70s Show.
Here’s the statement made about his death by his son Chris Owens, via CNN:
“His body just kind of failed. We are grateful that he died so peacefully with all of us present and that he was able to remain vital throughout his life. I would like people to remember how good my father was. It would be hard to count how many times people approached my brother and I to tell us how much they loved working with my dad.”
Owens leaves behind his wife, Arleta Owens, and two sons, Chris and Scott Owens.
RIP Gary Owens
May 10, 1934 – February 12, 2015