Obituary: Jay Thomas, actor, radio host, comedian and perennial guest on Letterman

FILE - AUGUST 24:  Actor Jay Thomas, known for his roles in Murphy Brown, Cheers, and Love & War, had died of cancer.  He was 69. NEW YORK - JULY 21:  Actor Jay Thomas attends the SIRIUS XM Radio celebrity fantasy football draft at Hard Rock Cafe - Times Square on July 21, 2010 in New York City.  (Photo by Mark Von Holden/Getty Images for SIRIUS XM Radio)
FILE - AUGUST 24: Actor Jay Thomas, known for his roles in Murphy Brown, Cheers, and Love & War, had died of cancer. He was 69. NEW YORK - JULY 21: Actor Jay Thomas attends the SIRIUS XM Radio celebrity fantasy football draft at Hard Rock Cafe - Times Square on July 21, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Mark Von Holden/Getty Images for SIRIUS XM Radio)
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Jay Thomas, actor, comic and radio broadcaster. Born: 12 July 1948 in Kermit, Texas. Died: 24 August 2017 in Santa Barbara, California, aged 69.

Jay Thomas, a radio talk show host and actor with recurring roles on the sitcoms Murphy Brown and Cheers, has died, his publicist said. He was 69.

He was “one of the funniest and kindest men I have had the honour to call both client and friend for 25 years plus,” publicist Tom Estey said in a statement on Thursday. He did not provide further details.

Thomas was fighting cancer, the New York Daily News reported on Thursday.

Thomas’s best-known roles were as Eddie LeBec, the former hockey-player husband of barmaid Carla on Cheers, and tabloid-talk-show host Jerry Gold on Murphy Brown, for which he won two Emmys.

Diane English, creator of Murphy Brown, said in a Twitter post that she was heartbroken to hear of his death and called him “gifted”. “I would have loved to write another role for him. RIP Jay,” she tweeted.

Thomas, who in recent years hosted a SiriusXM Radio talk show, was a reliably worthy guest. His annual Christmastime appearance on Late Show with David Letterman became a tradition that included a contest to knock a meatball off a Christmas tree onstage.

The custom began one night in 1998 when New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde was a guest. He and Letterman picked up footballs and began tossing them at the oddly decorated tree, aiming for the meatball. Impatiently watching their failures from the wings was Thomas, former quarterback at tiny Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina. He ran on stage, picked up a football and, in one throw, accomplished what the NFL quarterback couldn’t in several. Thomas was invited back annually for the duration of Letterman’s Late Show run to try to repeat his feat.

With each appearance he also retold a tale of his time as a radio DJ in the South when he and a friend gave a ride to Clayton Moore, star of TV’s Lone Ranger. Letterman hailed it as the “best story I’ve ever heard”.

Thomas called his annual Late Show ritual “the craziest thing I have ever been a part of” in an interview a few years ago with the Associated Press.

Born John Thomas Terrell in Kermit, Texas, he began his radio career as a sports announcer for high school football and college basketball while attending schools including Gulf Coast College and Jacksonville University to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees, according to his online biography.

He worked as a radio disc jockey and station programme manager in so many Southern cities that “I had a career like a Piedmont Airlines schedule,” he joked in an AP interview.

His radio experience led to stand-up comedy gigs and eventually acting on stage and TV. In 1979, he was cast on the hit sitcom Mork & Mindy in the supporting role of delicatessen owner Remo DaVinci.

He starred for three seasons in the sitcom Love & War as a sports writer romancing the woman who owned his favourite sports bar. Thomas also made many guest appearances, most recently on Ray Donovan, NCIS: New Orleans and Bones. His films roles includef Mr Holland’s Opus and the second and third Santa Clause films.

Thomas’s survivors include his wife, Sally, and sons JT Harding and Jacob and Samuel Thomas.

LYNN ELBER