Obituaries

Jay Thomas, 69, actor on ‘Murphy Brown’ and ‘Cheers’

On “Cheers,’’ Mr. Thomas played a hockey player who was married to a waitress.
Nick Ut/aSSOCIATED pRESS/FILE 1992
On “Cheers,’’ Mr. Thomas played a hockey player who was married to a waitress.

NEW YORK — Jay Thomas, an actor and radio personality whose work on the television series “Murphy Brown” won him two Emmy Awards in the early 1990s, died Thursday at his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. He was 69.

The cause was cancer, said his agent, Don Buchwald.

Mr. Thomas was a disc jockey in 1979 when he was cast in a recurring role on “Mork & Mindy,” the ABC sitcom about a space alien played by Robin Williams. Mr. Thomas played Remo DaVinci, co-owner of a deli, and appeared in dozens of episodes during the run of the show, which ended in 1982.

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After that, the work came fairly regularly, often in the form of smaller TV roles but also the occasional movie appearance, most notably in “Mr. Holland’s Opus” in 1995.

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Between “Mork & Mindy” and “Murphy Brown” his most prominent role was a recurring spot on “Cheers” in the 1980s as Eddie LeBec, a hockey player who was married to Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman), a waitress at the Boston bar of the show’s title.

Mr. Thomas was a main character in “Love & War,” a CBS sitcom that ran for three seasons beginning in 1992. His other television credits included the ABC ensemble series “Married People” in the early 1990s and the recent Showtime series “Ray Donovan.”

Mr. Thomas’s good looks and ability to play a wiseacre were something of a calling card, and his secondary roles could brighten even a weak show or movie. When he and Joan Cusack played best friends to the central couple in the 1997 movie “A Smile Like Yours,” Janet Maslin wrote in her review in The New York Times, “Ms. Cusack, Mr. Thomas, and a brief bit about budget airlines are notably funnier than the rest of the film.”

His quick tongue also served him well on the talk-show circuit. He was especially ubiquitous on the “Late Show With David Letterman,” where he appeared every Christmas season and always told the same story about meeting Clayton Moore, the actor who played the Lone Ranger on TV, a tale that also involved marijuana and a broken headlight. (Mr. Thomas, an athlete in his younger days, would also engage in a challenge that involved throwing footballs at a Christmas tree.)

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He also pursued a radio career, even as he developed his acting side. Most recently he had a show on SiriusXM satellite radio.

Mr. Thomas found amusement in the way people confused him with his television characters.

“I always seem to play the role of a Jewish person,” he said in an interview with The Times in 2000. “On ‘Love and War’ I played Jack Stein, a left-wing Jewish man. On ‘Murphy Brown’ I was Jerry Gold, a right-wing Jewish man. And I won an Emmy for that part. The trouble is, I’m not Jewish. But everyone I met in LA thought I was a Jewish man from Brooklyn.”

“I’m from New Orleans,” he added. “My father was a WASP and my mother was Italian.”

Mr. Thomas was born Jon Thomas Terrell in Kermit, Texas, on July 12, 1948, and raised in New Orleans. During college — he attended several universities — he started dabbling in sportscasting and also did stand-up comedy; he eventually found himself on the radio in New York. He later became well known for his work on Power 106 in Los Angeles.

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He leaves his wife, Sally Michelson, whom he married in 1987, and their two children, Samuel and Jacob. In recent years he reunited with a son he had fathered in his 20s who was given up for adoption, country singer J.T. Harding.

“I met my biological mother, and she told me, ‘Your father is an actor, and he’s on ‘Cheers,’ ” Harding said during an appearance he and Mr. Thomas made on “The View.” “So for about a week I thought Ted Danson was my father.”