Edie Adams; Tony Winner, Muriel Cigar Pitchwoman

Edie Adams won a Tony for her portrayal of Daisy Mae in
Edie Adams won a Tony for her portrayal of Daisy Mae in "Li'l Abner" and served as a foil for her husband Ernie Kovacs on his TV comedy show. (1963 Photo By Associated Press)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008

Edie Adams, 81, a Tony Award-winning actress who appeared on TV with her comedian husband Ernie Kovacs and who lent her voluptuous appeal to memorable commercials for 10-cent cigars, died Oct. 15 at West Hills Hospital in Los Angeles of pneumonia and cancer.

A Juilliard-trained classical singer, Ms. Adams won a Tony as the curvy Daisy Mae in "Li'l Abner" (1956), based on Al Capp's cartoon, while maintaining a promising nightclub and television career.

She became a featured performer on Kovacs's delightfully absurd TV show in the 1950s. She displayed first-rate comic timing in skits such as " The Nairobi Trio," which featured actors dressed as musical apes, and an impersonation of Marilyn Monroe singing "The Ballad of Davy Crockett."

Starting in the late 1950s, she spent nearly 20 years as the sultry pitchwoman for Muriel Cigars. In TV advertisements, Ms. Adams hinted at Mae West with her proposition, "Why don't you pick one up and smoke it sometime?"

"I was always the cartoon sex symbol, the sexy girl putting on a clown suit," Ms. Adams told the Chicago Tribune in 1990. "The awful surprise, however, was finding out that although I was trying to be satirical and funny -- trying to make fun of the sexy vamp character -- people actually were taking it all seriously."

Her skill as a ballad singer was apparent from cameo roles on television shows such as the 1960 finale of the " The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour," on which she sang the standard "That's All." She hosted a musical variety show on ABC in the early 1960s that included such guests as jazz stars Duke Ellington and Stan Getz.

Her handful of supporting movie roles also underscored the range of her talent.

In "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (1963), she was part of a comic ensemble that included Sid Caesar, Milton Berle and Jonathan Winters. The next year, she played the lonely wife of an unscrupulous politician (Cliff Robertson) in "The Best Man" (1964), based on Gore Vidal's play. She also was the spurned secretary-mistress of Fred MacMurray's character in Billy Wilder's "The Apartment" (1960).

"There are some things Edie won't do," comedian Groucho Marx once said, "but nothing she can't do."

Edith Elizabeth Enke was born April 16, 1927, in Kingston, Pa. She was raised in a strict Presbyterian household and was prohibited from attending films, an exception being Jeanette MacDonald musicals. During Ms. Adams's television career, when she appeared in movie parodies, she often would have to ask to see the films in question for the first time.

Her mother, a former music teacher, allowed Ms. Adams to sing on stage as a young girl. She attended the Juilliard School of Music in New York and did modeling before joining Kovacs's show in 1951.

She said of the comedian, whose antic personality, cigar habit and bushy moustache evoked Groucho Marx: "I met this crazy man who had an imagination I just can't explain. The back of his head went clear to Cleveland."

For one skit, he scored Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" to snapping celery stalks and slamming desk drawers. She and "the mad Hungarian," as she called Kovacs, married in 1955.

Their union was made difficult by Kovacs's gambling and extravagance. After he died in a car crash in 1962, the widow found herself $520,000 in debt. She had adopted the two daughters from Kovacs's early marriage, but they grew estranged. A natural daughter from her marriage, Mia Kovacs, died in a car accident in 1982.

Ms. Adams's subsequent marriages to photographer Marty Mills and trumpeter Pete Candoli ended in divorce. Survivors include a son from her second marriage, Josh Mills of Los Angeles.

To pay her husband's debts, Ms. Adams worked relentlessly and appeared on game shows, sitcoms, prime-time dramas and TV miniseries into the 1990s. She continued to appear on the regional stage in light operas and musicals, designed party gowns for the Neiman Marcus department store and lent her name to a beauty salon chain.

She also helped to preserve Kovacs's early shows and patented a cigar-holder ring for women.

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