Variety is reporting the death of Gary Owens, whose burly baritone lent gravitas to utter silliness—everything from Space Ghost to Laugh-In to the notion that downtown Burbank is beautiful. Owens died yesterday of complications from diabetes, which he’d had since he was a child. He was 80.
Blessed with a rich, booming voice, Owens set to using it primarily for ridiculous purposes, bellowing puns and other nonsensical wordplay as a radio DJ in Los Angeles. He shared a surrealist humor with Jonathan Winters, his best friend and frequent collaborator, with whom he crafted characters and worked on four comedy albums.
As it had for Winters, soon enough, television came calling, and Owens became a familiar voice and face on Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In. He appeared throughout the show in his announcer’s booth, hand cupped to one ear in the style of an old-timey radio man, offering dadaist segues and introducing the show from “beautiful downtown Burbank” (a catchphrase that similarly caught on at Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show). Of Laugh-In’s enormous cast, Owens was one of only four—alongside Dan Rowan, Dick Martin, and Ruth Buzzi—to be with the series from beginning to end.
Naturally, Owens was much sought-after for voiceover work, and he found a more than welcoming place in animation. Most notably, he provided the voices for the title characters of Roger Ramjet and Space Ghost (making a cameo as himself years later in Cartoon Network’s Space Ghost Coast To Coast). He was also both Hanna-Barbera’s Batman spoof Blue Falcon, in Dynomutt, The Dog Wonder, and even Batman himself, in an episode of The New Batman Adventures.
Owens also popped up frequently as an announcer and narrator in cartoons such as The Perils Of Penelope Pitstop, Garfield And Friends, Superhuman Samurai Syber Squad, and Buzz Lightyear Of Space Command. And for a certain generation, he will be best remembered for urging the Pope to cling tenaciously to his buttocks as Ren And Stimpy’s Powdered Toast Man.
Owens also enjoyed a long working relationship with Disney, appearing in movies such as The Love Bug and Return From Witch Mountain, and narrating shows such as Disney’s Wonderful World and DTV Monster Hits. For 14 years, he was also the voice of EPCOT Center’s “World Of Motion” ride.
Owens’ many other, varied credits include writing for Jay Ward’s Rocky & Bullwinkle; guest appearances on TV shows like The Munsters and McHale’s Navy; providing the news reports in the 1975 film The Prisoner Of Second Avenue; hosting the first season of The Gong Show before Chuck Barris took over; filling in for Casey Kasem on American Top 40; hosting the syndicated radio series Soundtrack Of The Sixties as well as a morning show on the Music Of Your Life network; providing promo announcements for the classic TV show network Antenna TV; hosting the TV Land-branded computer games Blast From The Past; and doing more than 30,000 commercials in his long career.
He also published the comedic history The (What To Do While You’re Holding The Phone) Book and How To Make A Million Dollars With Your Voice (Or Lose Your Tonsils Trying), a guide to those aspired to Owens’ considerable heights in the voiceover business. In 1980, Owens was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, right in between Betty White and Walt Disney.
Oh, and you should listen to this: