Trailblazing, bridge-burning Joan Rivers, 81, made us laugh

Posted: September 05, 2014

CAN WE TALK about Joan Rivers?

Because she'd hate it if we didn't.

Rivers, 81, who died yesterday at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital a week after going into cardiac arrest during vocal-cord surgery in a doctor's office, wasn't just a fashion critic with an unfiltered mouth, a QVC jewelry line and a penchant for plastic surgery.

Oh, she was unapologetically all those things, as well as the author of a dozen books, including this year's Diary of a Mad Diva.

But long before Rivers patrolled the red carpet, enforced style rules on E!'s "Fashion Police" or won "Celebrity Apprentice," the Brooklyn, N.Y.-born doctor's daughter with the Barnard education was blazing a trail - and burning a bridge - in male-dominated late-night TV.

An actress-turned-comedian who became Johnny Carson's protege and the first permanent guest host of "The Tonight Show," Rivers was banned from the show by Carson in 1986 after he learned - not from her - that she'd agreed to host a Fox late-night show.

The show lasted only a season, but the exile continued until this year, when Rivers had a cameo in host Jimmy Fallon's debut. She returned for an interview in March in which she reduced Fallon and fellow guest Russell Crowe to helpless laughter with a string of un-PC riffs that neither would touch.

Fallon then asked her if she were afraid of death.

"I'm not afraid," she said, sounding briefly serious, before adding, "My father was a doctor. I was around death all my life. I was very used to it, because he was a [bleeped] doctor."

One death, though, hit Rivers hard.

In 1987, Rivers' husband, Edgar Rosenberg, whose health had been in decline since a heart attack a few years before, committed suicide in his Four Seasons Hotel room in Philadelphia. He was on a business trip to Philly, where the couple's daughter Melissa, then 19, was a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rivers later would say that the failure of her TV show, which Rosenberg had produced, had been a factor.

In his final days, according to an Inquirer story, Rosenberg and a business partner, real-estate developer Thomas B. Pileggi, had made "several trips to the 87-acre Northampton Township site in Bucks County where they and Rivers had once hoped to build a controversial development called Two Ponds" that would include a movie studio, soundstage, golf course and 300 condominiums. The project had been dropped due to local opposition.

Rivers' response to her husband's death was to keep working, but as she told the New York Times in 1990, "Nobody wants to see someone whose husband has killed himself do comedy four weeks later."

Rosenberg's death also led to a period of estrangement between mother and daughter, who later played themselves in a 1994 NBC movie, "Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story."

It wouldn't be their last collaboration. Melissa Rivers is an executive producer on "Fashion Police" - whose future is now uncertain - and for the last four seasons the co-star of WEtv's "Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?"

Her mother may have irked more than a few publicists with her red-carpet reviews of their clients, but from a reporter's perspective, Rivers was great: approachable and quotable (if not always printable).

Daily News casino reporter Chuck Darrow, who covered her appearances in Atlantic City for many years, recalled her yesterday as "always solicitous and interested in what I had to say. . . . If we were at her hotel, she would ask me about my family and keep asking if I wanted something to drink, etc. I remember her as being very haimish - Yiddish for warm, or decent."

I'd encountered Rivers occasionally at press functions in Los Angeles, and at a 2012 E! luncheon in Pasadena, Calif., two years ago, I got to see the mother-daughter dynamic up close, as Joan chided Melissa for what she'd worn on a recent vacation.

"Melissa has a great body and as we all know, as we get a little older, we cover ourselves up. We were just down in Mexico and she's putting on the big shirts," Joan said in disgust.

"My son is 11. I can't be playing football with him on the beach and be falling out" of a bikini, replied her daughter.

"Why not? That'd be a great TMZ."

And when Melissa complained about her mother's tendency to feed her grandson ice cream before dinner, Rivers expressed what might have been her ultimate philosophy:

"Life is short and there's a terrorist lurking behind every door. Enjoy yourself."

A few years earlier, in response to a reporter's question about why she was working so hard, Rivers said, "I must have washed lepers' feet in a previous life. I am doing what I love. From the time I could put two words together, I wanted to be in this business, and I'm still in this business at 197? . . . I'm not working hard. I'm playing every day."

On his show yesterday, David Letterman paid his respects. "Here's a woman, a real pioneer for other women looking for careers in stand-up comedy," Letterman said. "And talk about guts - she would come out here and sit in this chair and say some things that were unbelievable, just where you would have to swallow pretty hard . . . but it was hilarious . . . the force of her comedy was overpowering."

"My mother's greatest joy in life was to make people laugh," Melissa Rivers said in a statement yesterday. "Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon."

- Daily News wire services contributed to this report.

On Twitter: @elgray

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