“From beautiful downtown Burbank,” Gary Owens vaulted to fame playing the zany announcer in the landmark TV comedy series “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” He never stopped working after that, doing commercials, variety specials, cartoons, radio shows and even theme-park announcements in his deep voice that was one of the most famous in show business.
He could have slowed down, but his frenetic pace was set early in life. At 9, he was diagnosed with diabetes.
“I overheard a doctor tell my parents he didn’t expect me to live past my teens,” Mr. Owens said in a 1980 Los Angeles Times interview. “So from that time on I engaged in all kinds of one-upmanship to prove I was as good or better than anyone else.”
Mr. Owens died Feb. 12 at his home in Encino, Calif. He was 80. The cause was complications from his long-fought diabetes, said his son Chris Owens.
In 1967, when Mr. Owens had a popular Los Angeles radio show, a chance meeting in the Smoke House restaurant in Burbank led to his work on “Laugh-In,” which was hosted by comedians Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, featured short comedy bits and was in development at nearby NBC.
Producer George Schlatter was in the men’s room when Mr. Owens walked in.
“He said, ‘Hello, George!’ in that voice of his,” Schlatter said in an interview Friday. “ ‘The acoustics are great in here.’
“And I said to him, ‘That’s what I want you to do!’ ”
To the bewildered Mr. Owens, Schlatter explained that for the fast-paced TV show, he needed someone to say lines that would provide a break between bits.
“It was the shortest audition in show business,” Schlatter said.
It was a good fit for Mr. Owens, who as a radio disc jockey used a variety of resources to create a wacky on-air atmosphere.
“You can take music, sound effects, some good voice people and some good writing, and it all happens,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1995.
The irreverent “Laugh-In,” which premiered as a weekly show Jan. 22, 1968, became a national sensation, making stars of previously little-known performers such as Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin and Jo Anne Worley.
For his bits, Mr. Owens would be shown with his hand cupped to his ear like an old-time announcer.
“He would say things like, ‘Meanwhile, later that evening,’ just to get us to the next bit,” Schlatter said.
But Mr. Owens would add his own lines, too, including “beautiful downtown Burbank,” later adopted by Johnny Carson.
On radio, which he continued to do while on “Laugh-In” and beyond, he used such lines as, “What do pirates wear on Halloween?”
When “Laugh-In” went off the air in 1973, only the two hosts, comedian Ruth Buzzi and Mr. Owens had been with the show for its full run.
Mr. Owens was born Gary Bernard Altman on May 10, 1934, in Mitchell, S.D., and grew up in nearby Plankinton, where he graduated from high school.
He enrolled at Dakota Wesleyan University but was mostly enamored with college radio and left after a year. His first job in radio was at KORN (1490 AM) in Mitchell, where he was the news director.
He didn’t have to put on the resonant voice — it came naturally.
“I’ve heard recordings of my dad when he was 13,” Chris Owens said, “and he already had the voice.”
At 22, Mr. Owens moved on to a radio station in Omaha, where he began using Owens as his last name. When one of the station’s DJs suddenly quit in the middle of a live show, the manager said Mr. Owens had to take over.
After arriving in Los Angeles in 1961, he landed a year later at KMPC-AM, where he had a show for 20 years.
In addition to his work on “Laugh-In,” he was the announcer on “The Wonderful World of Disney” and appeared in numerous TV specials with stars including Bob Hope and Lucille Ball.
In addition to his son Chris, Mr. Owens’s survivors include his wife of 57 years, the former Arleta Markell, and another son, Scott Owens.
— Los Angeles Times