Don Imus, who spent more than half a century in radio and television skating along the edge of propriety and occasionally falling into the abyss of the unacceptable, died Dec. 27 at a hospital in College Station, Texas. He was 79.
His family announced his death in a statement. The cause was not immediately available.
In a roller-coaster career in which he grew chummy with prominent politicians, repeatedly got suspended or fired for offensive cracks, abused drugs and touted health foods, Imus won a loyal following, made millions and transformed himself from a bad-boy DJ into a host whose program became a nearly mandatory stop for presidential candidates.
In his later years on the radio and on TV, Imus pioneered a form of talk show that went both low and high, reaching for cheap yuks even as he created a place in pop culture for discussion of serious literary and political topics.
By breaking the rigid format of Top 40 hit music radio and injecting brash, irreverent satire, Imus opened the door to a generation of even coarser radio DJs and talk show hosts, such as Howard Stern, “Mancow” Muller, and Opie and Anthony. And by turning his show into a raucous salon for Washington politicians and news celebrities, Imus created a bridge between the nation’s leaders and disaffected citizens who largely tuned away from politics.
Imus, known to listeners as “Imus in the Morning” and “the I-man,” was a high school dropout, a railroad worker and a singer-songwriter who rattled around playing Top 40 records on tiny California AM radio stations in the late 1960s. As “Jay Jay Imus,” he recorded pop tunes with his brother Fred.
He quickly discovered that wild pranks and bad behavior were a surefire path to big ratings and widespread acclaim. He got fired from a station in Stockton, California, for saying “hell” on the air; in later years, that would be one of the milder cuss words in his repertoire.
In 1969, at KXOA in Sacramento, he called up a McDonald’s and, posing as a National Guard sergeant feeding his hungry troops, he ordered 1,200 hamburgers to go – “now listen, on 300 of those, I want you to hold the mustard but put on plenty of mayonnaise and lettuce.” The entire zany exchange aired live on the radio.
Posing as a “Mr. Huey,” he called the Tyde Dyde Diaper Service seeking extra-extra-large diapers for his exceedingly large baby, whose name, it turned out, was “Baby Huey.”
Even in those early shows, Imus was building toward harder-edged fare that would win him notoriety in a less-innocent era. He greeted young female callers with a leering “Are you naked?” He spoofed evangelicals with his lunatic preacher character, the Right Rev. Billy Sol Hargis, pastor of the First Church of the Gooey Death and Discount House of Worship. He imitated NBC News anchorman David Brinkley in bits poking fun at politicians.
At his best, the husky-voiced Imus created memorable comedy that won comparisons with classic radio performers such as Stan Freberg or Bob and Ray. At the same time, Imus was given to ugly personal attacks and racial slurs that diminished his reputation and derailed his career.
A frequent guest, commentator Jeff Greenfield, once called Imus “the court jester to the powerful,” whose show was “a very comfortable place to have real conversations about real stuff.” But others viewed him as an egotistic faux-cowboy who picked on the weak and gave voice to ugly stereotypes.
“I could never figure out if there was really a heart of gold under that crusty, nasty old leathery soul of his,” said David Von Drehle, a Washington Post columnist who worked with Imus’ second wife, Deirdre, on a book she wrote about vegan cooking. “He had such a dangerous job. You’re supposed to push the envelope constantly, but never step over the line.”
John Donald Imus Jr. was born July 23, 1940, in Riverside, California, to a well-to-do local beauty and a third-generation cattle rancher who was an alcoholic. From an early age, Imus was a leader – class president in eighth grade – and a cutup, “the rotten kid who made fun of the fat kid in school,” he later said of himself.
He spent late nights listening to Wolfman Jack’s mysterious pirate broadcasts from a transmitter just over the border in Mexico.
Imus left high school in 1957 to spend two years in the Marines, tried his luck as a blue-eyed soul singer and worked as a uranium miner and gas station attendant. In 1967, he enrolled in broadcasting school. Two years later, he got his first DJ job.
The first time Imus was fired from a station, in Stockton, it was for an on-air riff about “spooks” on Halloween, which came soon after he had invited listeners to take part in an Eldridge Cleaver look-alike contest (first prize, a $5,000 fine and 10 years in jail), which Imus meant as a commentary on the FBI’s inability to find the fugitive Black Panther.
The same eagerness to break the Top 40 radio formula that got Imus in trouble made him attractive to employers seeking big audiences. In Sacramento, Imus developed running sketches featuring characters such as Crazy Bob, who twisted fairy tales into modern stories of randy wolves and lascivious grandmoms, and Judge Hangin’, who got very excited about the joys of police brutality.
In 1971, when he took his act from Cleveland to New York City’s WNBC, the Cleveland Plain Dealer headline said, “Garbage Mouth Goes to Gotham.”
Imus soared to celebrity status in New York, did stand-up comedy in Greenwich Village, opened a restaurant named for himself, recorded comedy albums and won huge ratings. But by his own account, he also became dangerously addicted to vodka, speed and, later, cocaine. He often started his show late, missed dozens of days entirely and was eventually fired, as much for drunken excesses as for any wayward comedy routine.
He returned to Cleveland in 1978 but was rehired in New York a year later. This time, WNBC put Imus in a lineup with fellow bad boy Howard Stern and promoted the two with the slogan, “If We Weren’t So Bad, We Wouldn’t Be So Good.” The two hated each other. Stern called Imus “vodka breath” and considered him a lazy purveyor of cheap gags; Imus saw Stern as a childish interloper, self-obsessed and unpolished.
In 1987, after a drinking binge that lasted nine days, Imus checked into the Hanley-Hazelden rehabilitation center in West Palm Beach, Florida. He said he remained sober from that point on.
The next year, when WNBC went off the air and Imus moved to an otherwise all-sports station, WFAN, he no longer had to play music. He gradually transformed his show into a blend of interviews, rants and riffs on the day’s news.
With a growing cast of regulars including columnists such as Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich, Sens. John McCain and John Kerry, TV news personalities such as Tim Russert and Andrea Mitchell, and longtime sidekicks Bernie McGuirk and Charles McCord, the show took on a locker-room atmosphere, with a musty mix of gossip, insider analysis and flat-out name-calling – attracting a high-end audience that advertisers would pay a premium to reach.
Imus dubbed fellow talk-show host Rush Limbaugh a “fat, gutless, pill-popping loser”; called then-developer (now president) Donald Trump “a hideous, transparent goon . . . an unctuous, gauzy, pumping twit”; slurred William Rhoden, an African-American New York Times sports columnist, as a “quota hire”; and referred to the late Gwen Ifill of PBS’ “Washington Week” as a “cleaning lady.”
Then he’d turn around and have a delightfully erudite conversation with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin about Abraham Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt.
“How can he do five minutes on the size of his penis and then interview Bill Bradley?” asked former Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser on his Washington radio show after his station, WTEM, added “Imus in the Morning” to its lineup.
“I have varied interests; they range from NAFTA to my penis,” Imus told his biographer, Kathleen Tracy, in “Imus: America’s Cowboy.”
In the 1990s, getting on the Imus show was considered one of the most powerful publicity boosts a book could get.
For his high-end guests and listeners, Imus was a window onto a coarser America, a place where real men dished out ethnic slurs and poked fun at the overeducated. The Imus show was a way to listen in on the chatter at a fictive clubhouse of the rich and influential.
When the journalist Buzz Bissinger spent a week with Imus in 2006 for a profile in Vanity Fair, the writer concluded that the radio host had many faces: “Perverse. Smart. Savvy. Curious. Child-like. Moody. Mercurial. Out of it. Into it. Appealing.”
The radio show was nationally syndicated in 1993 and expanded to cable TV in 1996, when MSNBC began simulcasting the radio program.
In 1993, Imus landed a 20-minute interview with President Bill Clinton, in which they talked about U.S. trade policy, but Imus also asked a leering question about why the president might have installed AstroTurf in the back of his pickup truck when he was a young man. The host’s jabs, though often bawdy, were usually delivered with enough tongue in cheek to keep high-profile guests comfortable.
But the next year, Imus delivered a searing roast of Clinton and other politicians at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, making pointed barbs about the president’s sexual infelicities, with Clinton and his wife on the dais. The comedy fell flat, and some regulars distanced themselves from Imus, but most stood by him.
The notoriety of the roast proved profitable: “Imus in the Morning” added 20 affiliates and raised its ad rates 25 percent in the wake of the controversy. Imus’ fame bought him a penthouse on Central Park West in Manhattan, a $30 million house in Connecticut and the 4,000-acre Imus Ranch in New Mexico, where he and his second wife, the former Deirdre Coleman, hosted children who had cancer or lost siblings to sudden infant death syndrome.
His first marriage, to Harriet Showalter, ended in divorce. Besides his wife of 25 years, survivors include four daughters from his first marriage, and two sons from his second marriage. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.
In 2007, CBS Radio and MSNBC sacked Imus after a national outcry over his calling the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.” Advertisers had deserted the show and the two media companies had suspended Imus for two weeks, but that did not quell the outrage. Neither did a three-hour meeting between Imus and team players and their parents, whom he promised he would “never give them reason to be sorry they forgave me.” Civil rights leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton led protests against Imus.
His time in the wilderness lasted eight months.
Contrite but eager to show he could still be biting, Imus staged his return as a $100-per-ticket benefit for his camp for children. He apologized for his “reprehensible” comment, introduced two new black cast members, and noted that “Dick Cheney is still a war criminal, Hillary Clinton is still Satan and I’m back on the radio!”
Imus’ on-air buddies welcomed him back, taking their places once again as the target of his barbs but also basking in his avid compliments on their latest books or other projects. McCain, running for president in 2008, came on the show to receive Imus’ endorsement; regulars such as Kerry, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. Joe Lieberman came back, too. Even Sharpton welcomed the show’s return: “We were not trying to destroy Imus,” he told reporters then. “I hope he does well.”
“Friends of mine wanted to defend me,” Imus told The Post at the time. “They wanted people to consider what a wonderful guy I was, because I helped kids with cancer. Being a wonderful person doesn’t enable you to say whatever the [blank] you want to say.”
But six months after returning to the air, Imus again drew attention for injecting race into his show. In a discussion of the arrest of NFL player Adam “Pacman” Jones in connection with a shooting outside a Las Vegas strip club, Imus asked, “What color is he?”
“African-American,” said sports reporter Warner Wolf.
“There you go,” Imus replied. “Now we know.”
At its peak, his radio program was on more than 100 stations, including his flagship, WABC in New York. In 2018, when the company that owned many of the stations his show aired on declared itself bankrupt, Imus signed off for the last time. He left with one final shot at Sharpton, who he called a “racist, bigoted civil rights charlatan;” with an emotional tribute to the wounded soldiers for whom he had raised millions of dollars; and with tearful thanks to those who listened: “I always thought and still think I was always talking to one person. I didn’t know if you were male or female, I just knew there was one person that I talked to and that would listen to me.”