Owens, another DWU product, found place in spotlightComedian and announcer Gary Owens has been a Hollywood mainstay for half a century, but he credits Mitchell with giving him his start in the entertainment business. Owens, perhaps best known as the mock-serious announcer on the TV show “Laugh-In,” a mega-hit from 1968 to 1973, is still working hard in Hollywood. At 74, he said he has no plans to retire from a career that has been as enjoyable as it has been successful.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
Comedian and announcer Gary Owens has been a Hollywood mainstay for half a century, but he credits Mitchell with giving him his start in the entertainment business.
Owens, perhaps best known as the mock-serious announcer on the TV show “Laugh-In,” a mega-hit from 1968 to 1973, is still working hard in Hollywood. At 74, he said he has no plans to retire from a career that has been as enjoyable as it has been successful.
“I don’t know of anyone I haven’t worked with,” Owens said. “It’s been a very fulfilling life.”
Owens has been a regular on 18 shows and has been a radio and TV broadcaster for more than 50 years. He got his start in his hometown of Mitchell in the 1950s, writing sports for The Daily Republic and announcing on KORN radio.
His real name is Gary Altman, but he has gone by Owens since an Omaha radio station owner dubbed him that in the 1950s. His sons, Chris and Scott, both successful TV producers, have adopted the name as well.
Owens attended Mitchell schools before enrolling at Dakota Wesleyan University for two years in the mid-1950s.
“It was a fine school, fine school,” he said during a telephone interview Tuesday.
His wife, Arleta, whose maiden name was Markell, is an Aberdeen native.
“We fell in love at Dakota Wesleyan,” Owens said.
Owens said he didn’t have a major in college. He was focused on carving out a career doing something he loved.
While he was racing from The Daily Republic to KORN to campus in his Studebaker, his girlfriend and later wife was more serious about studying. She later earned a degree in psychology from UCLA.
Owens, meanwhile, was moving on up in the radio business, working for stations across the Midwest, South and West. Owens said his shows were always ranked No. 1 and he met numerous celebrities, including Elvis Presley, whom he met when Owens was working at a New Orleans radio station in the late 1950s.
Owens came to Oakland in 1959 and shifted to Los Angeles, where he branched out from radio to TV.
During the 1960s, he was the voice of “Space Ghost” and was the announcer on “Bewitched.”
He provided voices for hundreds of cartoons, usually as a superhero type or as an announcer. Owens said he worked with the top voice talents of the time, including the legendary Mel Blanc, and became friends with many of them.
One of those pals was Arte Johnson, who was cast in “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” in 1968. Johnson recommended Owens for the show and he was added to the mix.
The show was a landmark in TV comedy, with its quick cuts and uproarious, and at times bawdy, humor. Top stars made guest appearances and “Laugh-In” was quickly the top-rated show in the country.
Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, a nightclub comedy team, served as hosts for the show, but Owens appeared in scenes that tied the show together. He provided deadpan announcements, a hand cupped over his right ear.
That mock tribute to old-time radio announcers became a trademark for the Mitchell native.
Owens said at its peak, 40 million people watched “Laugh-In” every week. Today, with the variety of channels and entertainment options, a top-rated show is lucky to draw one-fourth as many viewers, he noted.
Perhaps the most celebrated moment in the history of “Laugh-In” was an appearance by Richard Nixon when he was the Republican presidential nominee in 1968.
Nixon came on the show and delivered its most-famous line: “Sock it to me?”
While critics panned his delivery, some voters were impressed by Nixon’s willingness to make fun of himself.
Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey, a South Dakota native, turned down an offer to appear on the show, Owens said, despite pleas from Dan Rowan, Owens and another staffer. Humphrey’s staff feared he would be made to look foolish on the wild comedy show.
“We knew each other,” Owens said of Humphrey, whom he said loved the show. “He told me later it was the biggest mistake of his life.”
“Laugh-In” ran for five seasons and 140 episodes, with Owens one of the few people to appear in all of them. He said the show taped two days a week, with work starting at 8 a.m. and lasting until midnight.
In 1973, as tastes changed and cast members departed, the show dropped in popularity and left the air.
Owens continued to host radio shows and do voice work on TV while “Laugh-In” aired and after it was canceled. He hosted the pilot episode of the 1970s camp classic “The Gong Show.”
Owens has maintained a busy schedule to this day and has been named to radio and TV halls of fame.
He said when he was young, his uncle told him to find something he loved to do and keep doing it, and he has been fortunate to do exactly that.
While he became friends with comic idols like S.J. Perelman, who wrote for The Marx Brothers, he has also maintained ties with his old “Laugh-In” colleagues such as Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, Jo Anne Worley and Ruth Buzzi.
His deep, resonant voice and sly humor has kept him in demand, sometimes working on six TV shows in a single day. The voice, which sounds the same over the phone as it has for decades on TV and radio, isn’t an affectation, Owens said.
“It just happened,” he said. “It happened when I started at KORN.”
Owens said his sense of the absurd is also a product of his roots. He said he has always looked at life from a comic perspective and wrote comic pieces for college magazines when he was a teen.
“That started in South Dakota,” he said of his comedic style. “I was doing a little of that offbeat stuff at the start.”
While Owens hasn’t been back to Mitchell or South Dakota for many years — “It’s easier to have my relatives come out,” he said — he does keep in touch, he said.
He’s related to the owners of the Plankinton newspaper, he said, which for a long time was owned by his uncle. He gets the paper each week and also receives copies of The Daily Republic from time to time, he said.
“I come from a long line of newspaper people for the most part,” Owens said. “At heart, I’m still an old newspaperman.”
He’s returned to writing now. Owens is writing an autobiography packed with anecdotes about the famous people he has known and worked with over the years.