Jan. 23 marks the 100th anniversary of Ernie Kovacs’ birth. Sadly, the groundbreaking TV comic only lived to be 42, but he packed a lifetime of professional creativity — and personal turmoil — into those years.
Ernie’s topsy-turvy view of the world began during his childhood in Trenton, NJ when his Hungarian-immigrant father took the family from poverty to wealth after he started bootlegging during Prohibition. When booze became legal again, the family went from riches back to rags. “He had a rollercoaster childhood,” Diana Rico, author of Kovacsland: A Biography of Ernie Kovacs, exclusively tells Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “That’s reflected in his adulthood — his vision was about subverting expectations.”
After high school, Ernie contracted pleurisy and spent almost a year in the hospital. “He wasn’t sure if he was going to live or die,” Josh Mills, son of Ernie’s second wife, Edie Adams, tells Closer. “He realized life needs to be lived, and he had this manic energy, taking on all these projects. It was almost like a weird prophecy, and it shaped a lot of his comedy.”
He brought his skewed sense of humor to the new medium of TV, stretching the limits of technology with absurdist visual gags. “There was something magnetic and charismatic about him,” says Paley Center for Media curator Ron Simon. “He was able to create an astounding world of humor and comment on the struggles and craziness of life.”
Even as he invented the morning TV format with Today precursor Three to Get Ready, Ernie was experiencing trauma at home. His first marriage, to Bette Wilcox, ended in divorce in 1952, and Ernie was granted custody of their two young daughters because his ex-wife was ruled mentally unstable. She kidnapped the girls and took them to Florida; Ernie spent two years searching for them. “While he was trying to be funny on TV, he was paying private investigators to find them,” says Mills.
He eventually regained custody and doted on the girls as well as his youngest daughter, Mia, with his second wife, actress Edie Adams. “The girls’ memories of their father was being adored by him,” says Rico. “He was like a grown-up playmate for them.”
Ernie found an ideal mate in Edie, whose upbringing had been as traditional as his was unorthodox. “She had grown up in an extremely conservative household in Pennsylvania Dutch country,” says Rico. “His wildness and unpredictability really appealed to her.” Adds Simon, “They were able to inspire each other.”
Keeping up his relentless pace, he branched out into movies like Bell, Book and Candle, and North to Alaska. After one long day’s work, Ernie was driving home from a baby shower for Milton Berle’s family when he lost control of his car, crashed into an LA light pole and died in 1962. “It was shocking,” says Simon. “He was hitting a stride artistically, and you wonder what he would’ve done.”
His innovative style influenced comics like David Letterman and Conan O’Brien and continues to be felt. “Ernie had a way of looking at things in a new, fresh manner,” says Rico. “That spirit lives on.”
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