Dan Rowan, 65, who played the straight man for more than 20 years to Dick Martin in nightclubs, movies, and especially on the immensely irreverent and popular comedy, "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," which ran on NBC television from 1968 to 1973, died of cancer yesterday at his home in Englewood, Fla.
"Laugh-In" was an overnight sensation that became a television classic. It was seen first as a one-time special on Sept. 9, 1967. It was such an enormous hit that it became a series premiering the following January and continuing through 1973. According to the Nielson ratings, it was the nation's most popular show during its first two full seasons, 1968 to 1970, and won Emmys in 1968 and 1969.
Fast-paced and highly innovative, it brought a vast array of new comedic talent to the American public. Among those who went on to stardom were Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin. Others who appeared "from beautiful downtown Burbank" were Gary Owens, Arte Johnson, Henry Gibson, Judy Carne, Jo Anne Worley, Pigmeat Markham, Alan Sues, Richard Dawson and Ruth Buzzi.
In some ways, "Laugh-In" was not original at all, being a cross between "Olsen & Johnson's Helzapoppin'" and the highly topical satire "That Was The Week That Was." But Laugh-In crystalized a kind of contemporary, unstructured comedy ripe for an agitated America in 1968.
Blackouts, sketches, one-liners, and cameo appearances by the famous, including then-President Nixon (who repeated the show's trademark "Sock-it-to-me" line), gave the show its special character.
Some of the devices of the show were the Cocktail Party hosted by the cohosts, Letters to Laugh-In, The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award, Laugh-In Looks at the News and the gags written on the undulating body of a bikini-clad girl. The regular cast was large and the turnover high, and of 40 regulars who appeared in the series only four were with it from beginning to end: the two hosts, announcer Owens, and Buzzi.
The essence of "Laugh-In" was schtick, a comic routine or trademark repeated over and over until it is closely associated with a performer. Among the favorites were Johnson as the German soldier, peering out from behind a potted plant and murmuring "Verrry interesting," Buzzi as the little old lady with an umbrella, forever whacking the equally decrepit old man who snuggled up beside her on a park bench, and Tomlin as a sarcastic, nasal telephone operator. And the last schtick of the night, was the sound of two seemingly lonely hands clapping.
Mr. Rowan's banter with Martin brought a string of strange catchphrases into everyday language. These included "Blow in my ear and I'll follow you anywhere," "You bet your sweet bippy," "Look that up in your Funk and Wagnall's," and "Say goodnight, Dick."
Rowan and Martin were close friends off-camera and were proud of the fact that their partnership endured longer than almost any other comedy team. In addition to "Laugh-In," they starred in two feature films, "The Maltese Bippy" and "Once Upon a Horse."
Mr. Rowan was born in Beggs, Okla. At age 4 he was dancing and singing in a touring carnival with his parents. Orphaned at 11, he was placed in an orphanage in Colorado, where he was eventually adopted.
After graduating from high school, he hitchhiked to Los Angeles and at 19 found a job as a junior writer at Paramount Studios. He quit to become a pilot in the Army Air Forces during World War II and was shot down in New Guinea.
After the war, he returned to Los Angeles to sell used cars. He met Martin, a Los Angeles bartender, and together they began working on a nightclub act.
Mr. Rowan also became one of the best celebrity tennis players in Hollywood and a yachtsman who piloted his 27-foot sailboat from Los Angeles to Hawaii. During the last 15 years he lived most of the time on a barge on the inland waterways of Europe, often making Paris his headquarters. During the winter he lived at his home on the beach.
He was married three times. Survivors include his third wife, Joanna, and three children by his first marriage.