Comedian Gallagher, famous for smashing watermelons onstage with a hammer, passed away Friday morning at age 76. The prop comic’s longtime manager confirmed his passing in a statement to TMZ.
According to the report, the comedian died of massive organ failure while at a hospice in Palm Springs, California. Gallagher had reportedly been sick for quite some time, having suffered multiple heart attacks over the years, starting in 2011, when he collapsed onstage in Minnesota. He also suffered a cardiac episode the following year, right before he was supposed to perform in Texas.
Leo Anthony Gallagher Jr. was born on July 24, 1946, in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He also lived in Ohio and Florida before enrolling at the University of South Florida, where he earned a degree in chemical engineering — and then, apparently, never looked back.
The funnyman broke into the mainstream after a stint on the Johnny Carson show in 1975, followed by a string of comedy specials for the Showtime network. He quickly became one of the most recognizable comics in the US.
Gallagher’s signature stunt was the “Sledge-O-Matic,” in which the performer used a giant mallet to pulverize vegetables, fruit and other objects to comedic effect. Initially starting as a spoof of the Ronco Veg-O-Matic commercials, it quickly became the entertainer’s most legendary bit and a major subject of parody.
Gallagher’s irreverent antics would inspire his run for governor of California in 2003. “I did it in order to get publicity,” he told the Vallejo Times Herald in 2019, with the promise of singing the national anthem in Spanish and employing military helicopters to clear traffic on Southern California freeways. As for his politics, he added, “I have insults for both sides.”
Gallagher lost that race, placing 16th out of 135 candidates, with 5,466 votes.
The stand-up wasn’t without controversy. In the 1980s, Leo gave permission to brother Ron to use his Sledge-O-Matic act, so long as he performed it under his own name. Eventually, Ron would assume the moniker Gallagher Too/Two, causing confusion among fans as the siblings shared a strong likeness. This, as well as Ron’s troubles offstage, would bring the brothers into conflict. In 2000, Leo sued Ron for trademark violations and false advertising, and won. Ron’s career as Leo’s impersonator then came to an end.
Leo’s reputation suffered further starting in 1999, after a show in Cerritos, California, made light of Mexican stereotypes. In years to come, critics would note homophobic and racist themes in his jokes. Fellow comic Marc Maron challenged Gallagher in 2011 on Maron’s “WTF” podcast. Gallagher ultimately walked out on the interview, and later blamed Maron for “taking the other side of everything.”
The prolific performer notched a whopping 17 comedy specials during his over-50-year career, as well as appearing on famous shows from “Hollywood Squares” to “Tosh.0.” He was also portrayed by fellow comedian Paul F. Tompkins in the new film “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.”
In 2004, Gallagher placed last on Comedy Central’s “100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time” list — and he was not pleased. Claiming he’d never heard of anyone else on the list, he told the Oregonian‘s Ed Condran at the time, “I made 13 one-hour shows for Showtime, which are available on videotape. I invented the one-man show on cable.”
Gallagher is survived by his daughter Aimee and son Barnaby.
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