The thought occurred to me after Robin Williams died that one of the greatest talk show guests of all time had left. Don Rickles was another and now Jay Thomas, who died on Thursday at the age of 69 after a battle with cancer.
Unlike the other two, Thomas wasn’t someone that you’d classically define as a star. He was a character actor because that’s what we call journeymen who pop up on this show and that show in small but pivotal roles. It’s not meant to be an insult, even though it sounds like one. It shouldn’t be an insult because it takes a lot of talent, magnetism, and luck to be the kind of actor who sticks around in people’s brains even when they don’t stick around on their favorite TV shows. Jay Thomas had that thanks to a long, scene-stealing career playing mischievous and fast-talking types.
As Eddie LeBec on Cheers, Thomas played opposite Rhea Perlman’s Carla in what could have been a career-making role, but he was written off the show, allegedly for saying on his radio show that he got “combat pay” for kissing Perlman. (Though, that has been disputed, the show offed the character by explaining he’d been run down by a Zamboni.) Instead of being implanted in viewers’ memories on a bar stool beside Cliff and Norm or maybe besting Frasier in the Cheers spin-off game, Thomas went on to Murphy Brown where he recurred as Brown’s sometimes sleazy conservative talk show host love interest Jerry Gold.
Murphy Brown creator Diane English must have connected’s with Thomas’ particular skillset because she later cast him as Jack Klein, a newspaper writer who hung out in a bar in Love And War. It was a smartly written romantic comedy with a fun cast that included Annie Potts (in the second and third season) and Joel Murray (Mad Men). Nobody remembers the show, but that doesn’t make it bad. Amusingly, English thought so highly of Thomas and the Jack Klein character that she brought him (and the character) back for a few appearances on Ink, another less than successful sitcom.
From the mid-’90s until recently, Thomas briefly appeared on a number of shows and in a few films, most notably opposite Richard Dreyfus in Mr. Holland’s Opus and in a recurring role on Ray Donovan. He remained on radio, pivoting from a career on the air in New York in the 1970s to time in LA and later on satellite thanks to his connection to Howard Stern. Thomas also made regular appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman until that show went off the air in 2015, appearing 24 times, usually around Christmastime.
Fans of Letterman know that he collected oddballs and game foils throughout his run on both CBS and NBC. Calvert DeForest, Biff Henderson, and Chris Elliott spring to mind because of how often they were on. But some guests stick out as well, either because Letterman was curious about what they’d do (Harvey Pekar) or because he felt some kind of connection, as was seemingly the case with Regis Philbin and Jay Thomas.
The Lone Ranger Story and knocking the meatball off the Christmas tree (both are included below and in many other clips on YouTube) are the primary reasons that Thomas will be remembered for those appearances on Letterman and, really, the hokey charm of the former and the stunt-y absurdity of the latter pretty much sum up Letterman’s genius and the kind of fun-loving and funny guy Thomas was. A real character, that Jay Thomas.