Gallagher Dies: Watermelon-Smashing Comic Was 76

Gallagher, the prop comic famous for smashing watermelons onstage and drenching up-close crowd members, died today of organ failure at his Palm Springs home, a family member told NBC News. He was 76.

Leo Anthony Gallagher Jr. had been in ill health and suffered multiple heart attacks, his son-in-law told the outlet.

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Thriving during the late ’80s/early-’90s Golden Era of stand-up comedy, Gallagher was a prop comic whose signature bit was deploying the “Sledge-O-Matic” — a sledgehammer-like wooden mallet he used to pulverize watermelons and other items. Audience members in the front rows were given the option to wear see-through plastic wraps to avoid the gooey mess.

Often sporting his trademark Tam o’Shanter lid and madcap grin, he appeared in dozens of TV specials from 1980-2000 — many for Showtime — and on talk/variety shows including many visits to the The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He also appeared on David Letterman’s NBC and CBS shows; Howard Stern’s TV and radio programs; a Bob Hope special; and game shows including Match Game, The Hollywood Squares and Make Me Laugh; and late-night performance shows The Midnight Special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert; among many other small-screen appearances.

Born on July 24, 1946, in Fort Bragg, NC, Gallagher got his start in showbiz in the late 1960s as the road manager for musical comic Jim Stafford, who went on to have a number of novelty hits and his own brief variety series. Gallagher’s first TV appearance came on ABC’s The Jim Stafford Show, which aired for a few months as a summer replacement series in 1975.

He became a favorite of Johnny Carson, make his Tonight Show debut in 1975 and appearing 18 times through the mid-’80s. In one memorable 1979 appearance, Gallagher engaged in a verbal sparring match with fellow guest Chevy Chase, who had smugly dismissed Gallagher’s routine as “pretty much set up by machines.” At one point, Gallagher snapped back, “Chevy doesn’t like it if somebody else gets a laugh,” and when Chase mockingly said, “Just for the record I think he’s a fine young comedian and I think he’s going a long way,” Gallagher snapped, to considerable applause and the clear delight of Carson, “For the record, you don’t matter.”

Gallagher had several more TV stints in the late 1970s, including frequent visits to the popular daytime talker The Mike Douglas Show. His first of more than a dozen Showtime comedy specials premiered in 1981, and he would continue to make them through 2000.

His trademark stage bit was the Sledge-O-Matic, which Gallagher deployed on many an unsuspecting inanimate object — building up to the show-closing watermelon pulverizing. Some unprepared patrons down front were none too thrilled to get hit with the debris, but audiences tended to lap it up. He became a regular on the era’s comedy circuit alongside such popular acts as Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres, Sinbad, Margaret Cho, fellow prop comic Carrot Top and many others.

Comedy Central ranked Gallagher the 100th-best stand-up comics of all time in its 2004 list — of 100.

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