Jay Thomas died on Thursday at 69 after a battle with cancer. He was an actor, he was a radio host and he was a comedian. “Jay was one of a kind, never at a loss for words and filled with so much fun and wonderfully whacky thoughts and behavior,” wrote his agent Art Buchwald.
But to millions of television viewers, he was also a goalie.
Thomas was a memorable guest star on the classic sitcom “Cheers” from 1987-89, appearing in nine episodes as Eddie LeBec, the hockey-playing husband of Rhea Perlman’s waitress Carla.
LeBec was a French Canadian goalie for the Boston Bruins who meets Carla during a winning streak and suddenly goes on a losing streak when they start dating. They eventually get back together and, being superstitious, “break up” with each other before every Bruins game he starts.
Not to get too morbid here, but LeBec is probably best remembered for the way he exited the show: He was run over by a Zamboni trying to save the life of a fellow performer as an Ice Capades-like show. (The Bruins had released LeBec, and he became a skating penguin in the show.) You can watch that episode here.
Ken Levine, who wrote on “Cheers,” said the departure of the character was rooted in some real life controversy with Thomas:
He was terrific in the episodes, he and Rhea made a very cute couple and so he was brought back periodically as her boyfriend. It also gave us a story arc for Carla. Finally we decided to marry them. A few episodes of recurring bliss and then one day on Jay’s radio show a caller asked him what it was like to be on CHEERS? He said something to the effect of “It’s brutal. I have to kiss Rhea Perlman.”
Well, guess who happened to be listening. Jay Thomas was never seen on CHEERS again. To explain his departure we decided to just kill him, which led to one of my favorite episodes that David and I wrote, “Death Takes a Holiday on Ice”. First off, we needed a funny demise. Eddie, by then, was working as a penguin in an ice show so we arrived at a Zamboni machine accident. (We were worried that we wouldn’t be able to use the name Zamboni but the company loved it.)
Then we needed (a) some comic spin for the story, and (b) something to discredit Eddie so the audience would ultimately be glad he was out of Carla’s life. The answer was at the funeral Carla learned that he was a polygamist, and had a second wife (who looked just like Carla).
It’s a perfect anecdote in remembering Thomas: He was outspoken and unfiltered, as many experienced during his days on the radio. (I appeared on his Sirius talk show two years ago. It was spirited.) And he was, without question, a terrific comic actor, raconteur and world-class wise-ass. Witness the glory of “The Lone Ranger” story on Letterman:
Condolences to Thomas’s family and friends.
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