Music

Martin Mull, Grammy- and Emmy-Nominated Actor and Comedian, Dies at 80

Martin Mull, the comedic actor best known for his roles on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Roseanne, died on Thursday, June 27. He was 80. Though Mull never reached the highest ranks of comedy stardom, he had a long and active career and received both a Grammy nomination and a Primetime Emmy nod.

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His daughter, TV writer and producer Maggie Mull (Family Guy) shared the news of his death on Instagram.

“He was known for excelling at every creative discipline imaginable and also for doing Red Roof Inn commercials,” she wrote. “He would find that joke funny. He was never not funny. My dad will be deeply missed by his wife and daughter, by his friends and coworkers, by fellow artists and comedians and musicians, and — the sign of a truly exceptional person — by many, many dogs.”

Mull was born in Chicago on Aug. 18, 1943. He moved with his family to North Ridgeville, Ohio, when he was two. They lived there until he was 15, when his family moved to New Canaan, Connecticut.

Mull had his first taste of success as a songwriter. He wrote the novelty song “A Girl Named Johnny Cash,” an answer song to Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue,” which was a 1969 crossover smash for Johnny Cash. Singer Jane Morgan recorded Mull’s song and took it to No. 61 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in 1970.

Mull had a minor hit on the Billboard Hot 100 as an artist in 1973, “Dueling Tubas,” a parody of “Dueling Banjos,” which was featured in the 1972 movie Deliverance. Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell’s instrumental smash “Dueling Banjos” logged four weeks at No. 2; “Dueling Tubas” reached No. 92.

Mull also released a series of comedy albums in the ’70s. His self-titled debut album, released by Capricorn in 1972, featured such well-known musicians as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Levon Helm from The Band, Keith Spring from NRBQ and Libby Titus.

Two of Mull’s comedy albums made the Billboard 200 — I’m Everyone I’ve Ever Loved (1977) and Sex & Violins (1978). The latter album received a Grammy nomination for best comedy recording, but lost to Steve Martin’s smash hit A Wild and Crazy Guy. Both of Mull’s Billboard 200 albums were released on ABC Records. He also bubbled under the chart with albums released on Capricorn and Elektra.

In the early-to-mid 1970s, before his career as an actor really took off, Mull was mostly known as a musical comedian, performing satirical and humorous songs. He opened in concert for such top music stars as Randy Newman and Sandy Denny, Frank Zappa, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen.

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Mull’s breakout acting role was as Garth Gimble in Norman Lear’s 1976 soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. He also starred in the spin-off talk show parodies Fernwood 2 Night (1977) and America 2 Night (1978). He played talk show host Barth Gimble (Garth’s twin brother), opposite Fred Willard.

Mull appeared in 49 episodes of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which was a big cult hit; 44 episodes of Fernwood 2 Night; and 65 episodes of America 2-Night.

Mull appeared in two more long-running TV series. He played Roseanne Barr’s gay boss (and later business partner), Leon Carp, on 46 episodes of her smash sitcom Roseanne (1991-97). His sexual orientation was treated matter-of-factly. That way of treating it was groundbreaking on TV at the time, when gay characters rarely appeared at all. Mull was also a creative consultant on the fourth season of that show and wrote the episode “Tolerate Thy Neighbor.”

He played the nosy Principal Kraft on 39 episodes of Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1997-2000).

Mull also appeared as a voice actor on multiple episodes of Family Dog, Teamo Supremo, Danny Phenom and American Dad!

Mull received a Primetime Emmy nomination for outstanding guest actor in a comedy series in 2016 for playing Bob Bradley on HBO’s Veep. Given his long and active career in TV, the nomination was overdue and most likely given in recognition of a lifetime of solid work.

Mull made his film debut in FM, a 1978 film about an FM radio station. He played the libidinous DJ Eric Swan. The FM soundtrack album, featuring many of the top rock stars of the era, rose to No. 5 on the Billboard 200.

Mull went on to play Teri Garr’s boss Ron Richardson in 1983’s Mr. Mom, and Colonel Mustard in the 1985 comedy Clue.

He also starred in a series of commercials for Michelob and Pizza Hut, and in a series of television and radio spots for Red Roof Inn with his old pal and co-star Fred Willard. (Hence his daughter’s affectionate jibe above.)

Mull began painting in the 1970s. One of his paintings, titled After Dinner Drinks (2008), is owned by Steve Martin. Martin used it as the cover of Love Has Come for You, an album he recorded with Edie Brickell that received a Grammy nod for best Americana album.

Twice divorced, Mull was married to singer Wendy Haas. Mull died at his Los Angeles home following what his family described as “a valiant fight against a long illness.”

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