Also Credited As:Joan Alexandra Molinsky, Pepper January
|Actor, Director, Writer|
|Joan Alexandra Molinsky on June 8, 1933 in Brooklyn, New York, USA|
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Born Joan Alexandra Molinksy on June 8, 1933 to Russian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, NY, Rivers spent her childhood in the famed New York borough until her physician father's salary enabled the family to move to upper class Westchester County. Rivers was educated at both Connecticut College and Barnard College, where she earned degrees in English and Anthropology while appearing in school theatrical productions. After college, Rivers went to work in retail, first as a publicist for Lord & Taylor, then as a fashion coordinator for Bond department stores. In the mid-1950s, she had a failed marriage to Bond heir, James Sanger, which forced her to make a drastic life readjustment and set her sights on becoming a serious actress. She studied drama and appeared in a few off-Broadway plays, including one with an equally novice Barbra Streisand, when she was told by an agent she should be doing comedy.
Rivers put together an act, billed herself as "Pepper January, Comedy with Spice," and began playing anywhere that would book her - from seedy clubs and strip joints to bohemian Greenwich Village clubs to Borscht Belt hotels. She spent nine months working with the Second City touring troupe in Chicago and returned to New York where she resumed her ambitious performance schedule. Rivers was soon tapped to write material for other female entertainers such as Zsa Zsa Gabor and Phyllis Diller. In 1965, she landed her big break with an appearance on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (NBC, 1962-1992) where the legendary host proclaimed she would be a star. Following her high-profile breakthrough, Rivers released her first comedy album, Joan Rivers Presents Mr. Phyllis and Other Funny Stories, then married Edgar Rosenberg, a British television producer who guided her career and worked with her to refine her act for a wider audience. The emphasis became somewhat self-deprecating, Rivers portraying herself as a fat child turned flat-chested woman who could not cook and loved to shop. River's lampoon of the postwar housewife struck a chord, prompting a showcase in Las Vegas, where she opened for music acts before becoming a headlining comedian.
Despite her mounting success, career choices were few and far between for female writers and comedians, while her unabashed upper-middle-class Jewish background further limited her options in the sitcoms and movies of the period. Nonetheless, Rivers persevered. In 1967, Rivers was hired as a gag writer for "Candid Camera" (CBS, 1960-67) and the following year she made her big screen debut in the Burt Lancaster vehicle, "The Swimmer" (1968), in which she had one line in a party scene. Following the birth of her first and only child, Melissa, in 1968, the new mom scored big when she became the host of "That Show With Joan Rivers" (NBC 1969-1972), which lasted two seasons. During the early 1970s, while guest starring on variety shows and continuing to headline in Vegas, Rivers established herself as a satirical writer with a nationally syndicated newspaper column distributed in the Chicago Tribune. She joined the cast of psychedelic kids show "The Electric Company" (PBS, 1971-77) as the narrator of the spelling superhero "Letterman" segments, then made her debut as a Broadway playwright and star with "Fun City" (1972).
Rivers moved to Los Angeles in 1972 where she penned scripts, released a humorous book on motherhood called Having a Baby Can Be a Scream in 1974, and wrote and directed the unsuccessful feature film "Rabbit Test" (1977), starring Billy Crystal as a man who gives birth. She also co-created a television series, "Husbands, Wives and Lovers" (CBS, 1977-78), an unsuccessful hour-long comedy following the lives of five couples. Throughout it all, Rivers kept in the public eye particularly as a frequent guest of Johnny Carson on his "Tonight Show." By the early 1980s, Rivers was often the substitute host, eventually leading NBC to give her a contract in 1983 and declaring her the first permanent co-host for the veteran comic, who at the time was trying to reduce his air time. At this juncture, Rivers' act had moved away from self-deprecation and more towards lampooning public figures, beginning each rant with her trademark "Can We Talk?" Her quips about Elizabeth Taylor's weight gain and Queen Elizabeth became part of the greater public culture, while Rivers - always a snappy dresser - turned herself into a fashion plate and an advocate of plastic surgery. Meanwhile, she released a second comedy album, What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most, in 1983.
Rivers "Tonight Show" guest-host ratings were strong, but when the network put together a list of potential replacements for Carson upon his imminent retirement, her name was conspicuously left off. Smarting from the snub, Rivers joined the fledgling Fox network as the host of "The Late Show" (Fox, 1986-88), with a three-year, $15 million contract and husband Edgar serving as producer. The agreement made her the time-slot competitor of the man she credited with launching her career; public perception was that Rivers had betrayed her benefactor. "The Late Show" premiered in October 1986 and her attempts to smooth things over with Carson were met with icy silence. Meanwhile, ratings at the brand new Fox network were low. Rivers and Rosenberg butted heads with Fox head Barry Diller, resulting in his firing of Rivers in May 1987. Several weeks later, Rosenberg committed suicide by overdosing in a Philadelphia hotel room. Even that personal tragedy turned into a public relations disaster for Rivers, when article after article painted her as an image-crazed woman with little sentiment for her dead spouse. In reality, Rivers became bulimic, estranged from her daughter and contemplated suicide herself.
After finally pulling herself together, Rivers was in need of cash and became the lively center square on "The Hollywood Squares" (NBC/syndicated, 1966-2004). The smarting widow moved her base to New York and won the mother role in Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound" (1988), where her reviews were strong as was the box office. The following year, Rivers launched "The Joan Rivers Show," which had an emphasis on celebrity gossip. Her only co-host was her tiny dog, Spike, who frequently appeared in her arms. Ratings were strong and in 1990 Rivers won a Daytime Emmy Award for Best Talk Show Host. That same year she teamed with home shopping giant QVC to sell her own line of jewelry, The Joan Rivers Classics Collection. Adding to her visibility, she created a weekly half-hour show, "Gossip! Gossip! Gossip!" (USA, 1990-91). But by 1994, both her talk shows had run their course and were effectively canceled. Rivers tried a different format with "Can We Shop?" a syndicated semi-version of home shopping in 1994, but the show failed to catch on.
Finally reconciled with daughter Melissa, the pair joined forces to write and star in "Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story" (NBC, 1994), a TV movie that dramatized the events surrounding Rivers' firing from Fox, Rosenberg's death, and mother and daughter finding common ground. The project sparked a whole new professional relationship between the two, who joined the E! Network as a red carpet correspondent team and fashion commentators for big celebrity events like the Oscars and Emmys. Meanwhile, Rivers returned to Broadway and won a Tony Award for her role in "Sally Marr and Her Escorts." Back at the top of her game, Rivers brought her brash, catty wit and glamour to guest spots on sitcoms like "Suddenly Susan" (NBC, 1994-99) and the daytime soap "Another World" (NBC, 1996-2000). Ever the entrepreneur, she founded Joan Rivers Worldwide Enterprises and began selling her own line of skin care and cosmetics, then signed a deal with New York's WOR to host a nationally syndicated talk radio show.
In 2002, Rivers performed her one-woman show "Broke and Alone" at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where rave reviews led to performances in London, Sydney and Los Angeles. After eight years with E!, Rivers and daughter signed a deal with the TV Guide Network to perform similar red carpet duties, while Rivers parodied her own gossip show image with an animated cameo in "Shrek 2" (2004) as a host on Medieval Entertainment Television. Still a Vegas headliner and ubiquitous presence on television and radio, including in several episodes of "Nip/Tuck" (FX, 2003-2010), Rivers planted her foot in the reality door in 2008 with an appearance on the U.K. series "Big Brother: Celebrity Hijacker" as the comedic dictator of the house, then made an appearance as a contestant on "Celebrity Family Feud" (NBC, 2008- ). The 75-year-old comedian also maintained a schedule of weekly performances in New York, a role on the IFC series "Z Rock" (2008- ), and was slated to bring her one woman show "A Life in Progress by a Work in Progress" to the Edinburgh Fringe Fest and London theaters in the fall of 2008.
A prolific author since publishing her first book in 1974, Rivers penned the controversial advice book Men Are Stupid... And They Like Big Boobs: A Woman's Guide to Beauty Through Plastic Surgery in 2008. Taking the old axiom of "write what you know," to heart, she made her first foray into the realm of fiction with the novel Murder at the Academy Awards: A Red Carpet Murder Mystery the following year. On television, the always tenacious Rivers won the second installment of Donald Trump's reality competition series "Celebrity Apprentice" (NBC, 2004- ) for the 2009 season, prior to good-naturedly suffering the comedic slings and arrows of her peers as the guest of honor for "The Comedy Central Roast of Joan Rivers" (Comedy Central, 2009). Far more respectful in its approach was the feature film documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" (2010), which took an in-depth, frequently humorous and often heart-breaking, look at Rivers' live and career. Shown in limited release, it earned high praise from critics and fans of the comedienne. A surprise only in the sense that it had taken her so long to get around to, Rivers entered the reality series arena with "Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?" (WE tv, 2011- ). Based on the premise that Rivers - newly arrived in L.A. and looking to buy a home, had moved in with her daughter - the show drew criticism from critics who felt the scenarios seemed heavily prefabricated, lending the show an almost scripted, sitcom feel. In 2013, Rivers debuted her first podcast, "In Bed With Joan," a weekly celebrity interview that takes place in Rivers' bedroom. Although Rivers remained as busy as ever as she entered her fifth decade in show business, she underwent a major health scare in August 2014. During outpatient surgery on her vocal cords at an endoscopy clinic in New York on August 28, the 81-year-old Rivers went into cardiac arrest and briefly stopped breathing. After initial reports that she was "resting comfortably" at Mt. Sinai Hospital, it was revealed several days later that Rivers was in a medically induced coma. Joan Rivers died on September 4, 2014.