His death was announced to the New York Daily News by his agent and friend of 35 years Don Buchwald, who told the paper, “Jay was one of a kind, never at a loss for words and filled with so much fun and wonderfully wacky thoughts and behavior.”
Thomas’ publicist Tom Estey tweeted, “My dear friend and client – you will be missed!”
Thomas, a two-time Emmy winner for his guest appearances as tabloid talk show host Jerry Gold on Murphy Brown, is perhaps even better remembered for his recurring role as Eddie LeBec, the washed-up hockey goalie husband of barmaid Carla on NBC Cheers in the late ’80s. He took starring roles in two 1990s sitcoms — ABC’s Married People and CBS’ Love & War — but found greatest success in supporting roles, including, most recently, Showtime’s Ray Donovan.
Other TV credits include Mork & Mindy, Law and Order: SVU, Cold Case, Boston Legal and Hung, along with the features Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dragonfly, The Santa Clause 2 and The Santa Clause 3.
In more recent years, Thomas had developed a large radio following after a long career as a DJ and talk show host. Since 2005, he had hosted The Jay Thomas Show on SiriusXM. He also hosted a Friday afternoon show on Sirius’ Howard 101 channel.
SiriusXM ran an encore episode of Thomas’ radio show today and announced that, in keeping with Thomas’ wishes, the company and his staff would not comment on his passing. The show will return with a live installment Monday.
It was Thomas’ youthful radio days that led to what Letterman often called “the greatest talk show story ever.” Each year on the Late Show with David Letterman Christmas episode, Thomas would drop by to tell the story of how, as a young, herbed-up rock DJ, he and a co-worker squired an aging Clayton Moore — star of the classic TV series The Lone Ranger — from a publicity event, only to get in a minor auto accident. The punch line came when Moore, in full Ranger garb, emerged from Thomas’ backseat to put the angry driver of the other vehicle in his place.
Watch his 2014 Letterman appearance above.
The holiday visit, a tradition that began in 1998 and continued until Letterman’s retirement from the show in 2015, always ended with Thomas and Letterman competing to see who could knock off a treetop meatball with a football. Thomas usually, but not always, won. He missed one holiday show entirely when, in 2013, he was recuperating from throat surgery; tennis star John McEnroe took his place, doing his best to tell the Lone Ranger story exactly as Thomas so often had told it.
According to the actor’s website bio, Thomas was born Jon Thomas Terrell in Kermit, TX, the son of Katharine — “a beautiful giddily outspoken Southern belle” — and “Texas oil man” Harry. He was raised “in his Italian-American mother’s plantation on the banks of the Atchafalaya River in south Louisiana.”
Though he typically played blue-collar types, he once told the co-anchors of KTLA – where he was a frequent guest – that his upbringing was anything but. “My father was incredibly wealthy and I am a rich kid,” he said, getting laughs. “I have just had money since I’m a kid. My career really hasn’t been that great.”
During stints in Jesuit and military schools and, later, college, Thomas was both an athlete and actor, eventually being drafted, he said, by the short-lived World Football League in the mid-’70s.
He is survived by wife Sally, and sons Sam, Max and J.T., who were at his side when he died.