It was a simple gag, but one that made Soupy Sales a household name: a pie in the face, or 20,000 pies, to be exact. That slapstick comedic trick, along with a warehouse of goofy faces and wacky characters helped elevate Sales (born Milton Supman) to one of the country's most beloved comedians in the late 1950s. Sales died on Thursday at the age of 83 at a hospital in the Bronx, after several years of declining health.
"We have lost a comedy American icon," longtime friend and manager Paul Dver said, according to CNN. "I feel the personal loss, and I also feel the magic that he had around him being gone. That's a much more severe loss than a loss of a friend."
With his loose-limbed physicality and malleable face, Sales honed his craft on children's television programs in the 1950s, blazing a trail for everything from "The Simpsons" to Pee-Wee Herman by cracking wise for kids while making jokes their parents found funny too. He's best known for his long-running kids show "Lunch With Soupy Sales," where he originated the pie-throwing gag. He moved on to "The Soupy Sales Show," which ran for 13 years in Detroit, New York and Los Angeles, before being picked up in other cities and overseas.
The program was salted with silly puppets named Pookie, White Fang and Black Tooth, but it was Sales who commanded center stage with his pratfalls, campy jokes, loopy characters and puns. The obligatory pie-in-the-face gag became such a phenomenon that the Los Angeles Times noted that stars such as Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney, Tony Curtis and Sammy Davis Jr. lined up to be smeared for its hip cachet.
Sales was born in the tiny town of Franklinton, North Carolina, on January 28, 1926. He was the son of the only Jewish family in a town where his father's dry goods store sold sheets to the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan. The family's name was so often mispronounced as "Soupman" that his parents jokingly nicknamed his brothers "Hambone" and "Chickenbone," bestowing on him the name "Soupbone," which was eventually shortened to Soupy.
After fighting in the Pacific in World War II and participating in the invasion of Okinawa (while honing his comedic chops aboard his ship's public address system), Sales returned and began his entertainment career in 1949 in Cincinnati, where he worked as a morning DJ and did stand-up in local clubs. By the early 1950s, he did stints as a script writer at radio stations in West Virginia and Cleveland, while moonlighting as a stand-up comedian and DJ.
He launched his TV career in 1953 with the live children's show "Soupy Sales Comics" on a Detroit station, which led to a nighttime show called "Soupy's On." The show was renamed "The Soupy Sales Show" in 1955, and it was in that version that he honed his stable of wacky characters, such as seductive Marilyn Monwolf and her vampiric neighbor the Count, Willie the Worm, "Onions" Oregano and private detective Philo Kvetch. While meant for kids, the show developed a cult following among adults in the early 1960s as it spread in syndication, with Sinatra's pie-slap helping to open the door for a series of celebrity pie cameos.
Along with his signature gag, the show featured jazz greats such as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington in the pre-civil-rights era, when black performers were rarely seen in prime-time slots. The show earned Sales a spot in the pantheon of iconic TV funnymen, alongside such legends as Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason.
But he almost blew it on New Year's Day in 1965 when he had to vamp for a minute while producing a show for a New York affiliate. Sales told the kids watching to find their parents' wallets and "get some of those funny green pieces of paper with all those nice pictures of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Hamilton" and mail them to him. He promised a postcard from Puerto Rico in return. When he repeated the gag in Los Angeles and Detroit, it led to a complaint from a viewer to the FCC that got Sales' show suspended. After a flood of complaints about the cancellation, though, many of them from teenage fans of the program, the show was back on the air within a week.
While his TV fame had faded by the late 1960s, Sales continued to be a staple in the medium, thanks to appearances on TV game shows such as "What's My Line," "To Tell the Truth," "Match Game" and "Hollywood Squares." Modern comedians like Howard Stern continued to sing his praises to a new generation. His sons, Hunt and Tony Sales, performed with rock icon David Bowie in the band Tin Machine in the late 1980s and served as the rhythm section on Iggy Pop's Lust for Life album.