Louie Anderson, the big-hearted everyman who rose to fame as a stand-up comic, then channeled the spirit of his late mother for his Emmy-winning turn as Christine Baskets on the FX series Baskets, has died. He was 68.
Anderson died Friday morning of complications from cancer, his longtime publicist Glenn Schwartz told The Hollywood Reporter. Anderson was being treated in a Las Vegas hospital after being diagnosed with a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Mentored by legendary stand-up Henny Youngman, the gap-toothed Minnesota native was named one of “100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time” by Comedy Central in 2004. He also co-created Life With Louie, the Saturday morning animated series in which he played a version of his 8-year-old self, and hosted a revival of the game show Family Feud.
For his first big part, Eddie Murphy picked Anderson to portray Maurice, a upward-striving employee at McDowell’s, in Coming to America (1988), and he returned for the 2021 sequel.
“You know, I started on clean-up just like you guys,” he tells Murphy and Arsenio Hall’s characters in the original. “But now, see I’m washing lettuce. Soon I’ll be on fries, then the grill. In a year or two, I make assistant manager, and that’s when the big bucks start rolling in.”
Baskets, created by Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis and Jonathan Krisel, starred Galifianakis as Chip and Dale Baskets, one a struggling circus clown, the other his obnoxious identical twin. Yet it was Anderson, as their melancholy yet optimistic single mom, who stole the show during its four-season (2016-19) run.
When Galifianakis began describing Christine’s voice to his Baskets‘ co-creators, both immediately thought of Anderson to take on the part. The comic immediately related to the character, whom he said was just like his mother, who died in 1990.
“I’m pretty sure my mom orchestrated it from the great beyond,” Anderson told the Los Angeles Times in 2017. “I mean, how would that come up otherwise? She always could have been a star herself, so she’s finally getting a chance to act.”
Anderson’s portrayal of Christine earned him his Primetime Emmy in 2016, the first of three straight years with a nomination.
“Mom! We did it!” he exclaimed after making his way to the podium on Emmy night. “I haven’t always been a very good man, but I play one hell of a woman. This is for my mother, Ora Zella Anderson, who I stole every nuance, shameful look, cruel look, loving look [and] passive-aggressive line from.”
“In its first year, Baskets laid the groundwork to prove that having ’80s stand-up icon Anderson playing the mother to the main characters played by Galifianakis was not a stunt,” THR chief TV critic Daniel Fienberg wrote in 2017.
“Honestly, it never felt like one, and in episodes like ‘Easter in Bakersfield,’ Anderson made Christine into a character of subtle complexity, exactly the sort of quiet, spotlight-shy work you wouldn’t expect from a former game show host who put himself and his autobiography at the center of much of his material. Anderson’s investment was always in honoring Christine as a person, not in getting attention for oddball casting.”
Louie Perry Anderson was born on March 24, 1953, in St. Paul, Minnesota. The second-youngest of 11 children (six boys and five sisters), he grew up poor in the Roosevelt Homes housing project. He blamed his father, Louis, an abusive failed musician who battled alcoholism, for the family’s woes and praised his mother for filling the household with love and hope.
After graduating from Johnson Senior High School in St. Paul, Anderson spent several years counseling troubled youngsters.
While attending a comedy show at Mickey Finn’s in Minneapolis in 1978, Anderson noted the lack of laughs and thought he’d take a crack at stand-up. “I signed up next week, my mom and dad came down, my family came down, my co-workers,” he said. “And I did three minutes, and I felt like I did good.”
Anderson mined his early material from his family life, his oversized frame and his love of eating. Two early jokes: “Let me move the microphone so you can see me” and “I was the first kid on the block voted most likely to become a group.”
In 1981, Anderson took first place in the Midwest Comedy Competition, hosted that year by Youngman, who hired him as a writer and helped shape him as a performer.
“His work ethic had the biggest influence on me,” Anderson told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2019. “He said, ‘Just do your jokes.’ But I was more of a person that wanted to tell stories. I didn’t want to just present jokes. But I did have a bunch of one-liners when I started my act each time. I got that from him and his work ethic.”
Anderson’s breakthrough came in November 1984 when he made his national TV debut on The Tonight Show. True to form, his 5 1/2-minute routine was mostly made up of fat jokes, starting with, “I can’t stay long, I’m in between meals, so bear with me.”
A few months later, Anderson was featured alongside Bob Saget, Rita Rudner and Sam Kinison on HBO’s ninth annual Young Comedians special.
Anderson made his film debut as a taxi driver in Cloak & Dagger (1984), then showed up in the 1986 films Quicksilver, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Ratboy. In 1988, he starred with Richard Lewis and Richard Belzer in The Wrong Guys and had his memorable cameo in Coming to America.