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Louie Anderson, comedian and Emmy-winning TV actor, dies at 68

Comedian Louie Anderson in 1987. (Douglas C. Pizac/AP)
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Louie Anderson, a comedian and actor who mined laughs from his Minnesota upbringing and his girth for more than four decades and who won an Emmy Award in 2016 as the unlikely matriarch on the quirky, earnest TV comedy “Baskets,” died Jan. 21 at a hospital in Las Vegas. He was 68.

The cause was complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, according to his publicist, Glenn Schwartz.

Mr. Anderson was raised in a home with 10 siblings as well as an alcoholic father who often taunted him for his weight, and he spent his early career as a counselor to troubled children. He had stored up plenty of material — observational and bluntly self-deprecating — by the time he began working in Twin Cities-area clubs in the late 1970s.

He won a Midwest comedy competition in 1981 that earned him work writing for the king of the one-liners, Henny Youngman, but his national breakthrough came in 1984 with his appearance on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.”

His routine was a barrage of Youngman-like gags, delivered with a gaptoothed grin and homespun Midwestern everyman charm. “I can’t stay long — I’m in between meals, so bear with me,” he cracked, getting a huge laugh. “I went shopping today — what’s this one-size-fits-all stuff?” “When I go camping, the bears put their food up in the trees.” “Sorry I’m sweating so much, but if I don’t I’ll explode.”

His size and his extended family became the two staples of his stand-up routine.

“I try to laugh with my audience,” he later told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “I try to say, ‘Hey, aren’t we all pathetic?’ I just put myself out there as the main pathetic person. … I’m laying it out there. That’s the Richard Pryor effect. If you’re honest enough about it all, it’s really rewarding. It is healing.”

In 1994, he created the animated series “Life With Louie” for Fox, voicing a boyhood version of himself and spinning his childhood into a Saturday morning cartoon. He won two Daytime Emmys for his voice performance, and the show won the Humanitas Prize — awarded to entertainment writers who inspire “more compassion, peace, love, and dignity in the human family” — three years in a row.

A live-action CBS sitcom, “The Louie Show,” developed with fellow Minnesota stand-up Matt Goldman, featured Mr. Anderson as a psychotherapist but was canceled after six episodes in 1996.

From 1999 to 2002, Mr. Anderson hosted the daytime game show “Family Feud,” ribbing other people’s families. He never stopped doing stand-up, putting out specials every few years and performing often in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas. He also wrote humor-laced memoirs, beginning with “Dear Dad: Letters From an Adult Child” (1989).

In 2016, Zach Galifianakis created the FX cable series “Baskets” and played two characters: a sad-sack clown in Bakersfield, Calif., and his twin brother. Trying to cast the characters’ mother, he imagined someone with a nasal Land O’Lakes accent. Comedian Louis C.K., a co-creator of the show, offered Mr. Anderson the part of Christine Baskets.

Mr. Anderson didn’t play the female role as a joke, even though Christine’s slight ditziness and obsession with Arby’s, Costco and Ronald Reagan were played for laughs. Instead, he put on a blond wig and floral caftans and channeled his own mother in a balance of eccentric sweetness and vulnerability.

“The very first Christine scene, if you watch it, is completely raw and honest,” he told Los Angeles Magazine. “I wasn’t Louie Anderson playing Christine Baskets. I didn’t let people call me Louie on the set. I needed that. I’d go, ‘Don’t call me Louie. You can call me Mama Baskets if you want, or Christine, but not Louie. He’s not here right now.’ ”

The role earned Mr. Anderson a passionate new following, and he received three consecutive Emmy nominations for best supporting actor before winning the award.

“I have not always been a very good man,” he said in his acceptance speech, “but I play one hell of a woman.”

Louie Perry Anderson was born in St. Paul, Minn., on March 24, 1953, the 10th of 11 children, and grew up in a housing project. His father was a onetime jazz trumpet player who later had odd jobs as a garbage collector and a railroad worker. His mother was a homemaker — and a pack rat, he recalled.

“We weren’t hoarders,” he joked, “because we had aisles.”

Mr. Anderson described food as an early source of comfort and escape from his “chaotic” childhood, including his bullying father. He dropped out of high school at 16 and joined a local gang, once getting arrested for selling stolen snowmobiles.

His probation officer, who took a liking to Mr. Anderson, encouraged him to complete his education. He later became a social worker with abused children in the Twin Cities. “When a kid was saying he was going to kill someone or burn the building, I’d try to diffuse the thing and get him laughing,” he told People magazine.

His after-work hangout was a stand-up comedy stage in St. Paul, and he recalled telling friends how unfunny the acts were. They told him to go up, if he thought he could do better.

He did, spending four years working Minnesota clubs before moving to Los Angeles. He became a paid regular at the Comedy Store before his “Tonight Show” appearance led to major tours with Roseanne Barr and others. He played supporting roles on-screen, as a flower deliveryman in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) and a fast-food worker in the Eddie Murphy vehicle “Coming to America” (1988).

He married his high school sweetheart soon after moving to Los Angeles, but the marriage lasted only a few weeks (“It was a mistake,” he later said). In a 2002 memoir, “The F Word: How to Survive Your Family,” Mr. Anderson said he considered suicide in the 1990s amid crippling debt and the stress of being blackmailed for years by a male casino worker who claimed that Mr. Anderson had propositioned him. The casino worker was later arrested after the comedian alerted the FBI.

Mr. Anderson had been privately battling cancer for a decade. In the last two years, he was plotting a new chapter as a singer, taking voice lessons and writing more than a dozen songs.

Survivors include two sisters.

Mr. Anderson started his comic career with darker, more sarcastic humor before switching to more family-friendly fare.

In a 2016 NPR interview with Terry Gross, Mr. Anderson recounted a joke he once tried out: “I read a thing where this guy killed his whole family. I’d go, ‘I’m surprised I don’t read that every day. I mean, I don’t think you start out where you’re going to kill the whole family, but the rush of the first one must carry you right through to the end.' ”

After laughing, Mr. Anderson said, “But it was too dark for my audience.”