For more than six decades, sharp-tongued comedienne, talk show host and fashion critic Joan Rivers blazed a trail for women in the male-dominated bastion of stand-up comedy specifically — and the entertainment industry in general.
Host of popular E! Entertainment series Fashion Police since 2010, alternately skewering and applauding celebrity wardrobe choices with her panel of style critics, Rivers died Thursday, September 3, 2014, after going into cardiac and respiratory arrest on August 28.
Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky, the Brooklyn, New York, native attended Connecticut College for Women and Barnard University, and worked at the retail chain Bonds before embarking on a career in show business. She got her start in small clubs and, for a time, performed with Chicago’s Second City troupe before returning to New York. There, she built a following through appearances at downtown nightspots.
She scored work as a writer for the television show Candid Camera, as well as for comics such as Phyllis Diller and Bob Newhart, while continuing to perform on her own. A turning point came on February 17, 1965, when she appeared on The Tonight Show and wowed Johnny Carson, who told her, on air, "You're gonna be a star." As a regular guest, Rivers was so well received that she became a fixture as the show’s fill-in host when Carson took time off. The platform elevated her career to another level and led to expanded club engagements throughout the U.S.
Always seeking new opportunities, Rivers went on to appear on TV variety shows and games shows, including frequent slots on Hollywood Squares. She also wrote the 1973 made-for-television movie The Girl Most Likely to..., starring Stockard Channing, and wrote and directed the 1978 feature film Rabbit Test, starring Billy Crystal.
In addition, she released a Grammy-nominated comedy album, What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most?, and in 1984, she published a best-selling faux-memoir, The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abramowitz. Diary of a Mad Diva, published in 2014, was her twelfth book.
In 1986 she had a falling-out with Carson when she launched her own talk franchise, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, on the then-fledgling Fox network. The program’s 11:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. time slot made it a direct competitor to Carson, who reportedly cut off communications and banned her from The Tonight Show. Indeed, she did not return to the show again until 2014, when Jimmy Fallon succeeded Jay Leno as host.
Her talk show was short-lived, and following disputes with the network, she and her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, who had been one of its producers, were dismissed. In 1987, Rosenberg committed suicide.
In time, she returned to work, which included roles on Pee-wee’s Playhouse and, in 1989, a daytime talk show, The Joan Rivers Show, which ran for five years and earned her a Daytime Emmy Award.
Rivers also co-wrote and starred in Sally Marr...and Her Escorts a play about Sally Marr, mother of the late comedian Lenny Bruce, which had a brief Broadway run in 1994.
Also in 1994, she and her daughter Melissa made their debut as red carpet interviewers when they hosted a pre-Golden Globes show for the cable network E! In the years that followed, mother and daughter became a fixture on the red carpet before top awards shows such as the Emmys and Oscars. In 2003, they left E! for TV Guide Channel.
Her other work included appearances on the shopping channel QVC, where she pitched jewelry, as well as on the 2009 season of the reality competition series Celebrity Apprentice, which she won.
Throughout her career, Rivers also took the occasional acting role — including episodes of shows such as Here’s Lucy, The Love Boat, Suddenly Susan and Nip/Tuck and Louie — and did voice overs for commercials and animated series.
In addition, she was the subject of a widely publicized celebrity roast that aired on Comedy Central in 2009, as well as the 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. She also had a reality series on TV Land called How’d You Get So Rich? and another, along with her daughter, on WEtv, titled Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?
In 2010, she became co-host of the E! series Fashion Police, along with Giuliana Rancic, Kelly Osbourne and George Kotsiopoulos, and in 2013, on the digital video website YouTube, she premiered another talk show, In Bed with Joan. Each episode included a celebrity interview in her bedroom, located in daughter Melissa's Malibu home.
In a statement upon Rivers's passing, Melissa Rivers said:
“It is with great sadness that I announce the death of my mother, Joan Rivers. She passed peacefully at 1:17 p.m. surrounded by family and close friends. My son and I would like to thank the doctors, nurses and staff of Mount Sinai Hospital for the amazing care they provided for my mother.
Cooper and I have found ourselves humbled by the outpouring of love, support and prayers we have received from around the world. They have been heard and appreciated.
My mother’s greatest joy in life was to make people laugh. Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon.”Joan Rivers was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 2017.