Rivers had been admitted to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York last week after going into cardiac arrest during a routine procedure at her doctor’s office. The cause of death has not been determined, but the New York state health department has said it will investigate the events.
Her survivors include her daughter, who announced her death, and a grandson, Cooper.
Rivers’ life was marred by tragedy, notably the 1987 suicide of her manager and second husband, Edgar Rosenberg — a death she blamed on his “humiliation” by the Carson/Fox disaster. But Rivers mined almost everything for comic material.
“She took a puppy, wrapped it in a blanket and said, ‘Looks like you,'” Rivers joked in a 1984 TV appearance.
Joan Alexandra Molinsky was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on June 8, 1933 — although some sources list the year as late as 1937. Her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants who bickered constantly, according to Rivers, with her mother prodding her physician father to make more money.
Rivers, who described herself as a pudgy kid, felt inferior to her older, prettier sister, Barbara.
“I could not endure the reality that I might end up Joan Molinsky, an unattractive, nondescript little Jewish girl, run-of-the-mill, who might just as well have stayed in Brooklyn and married a druggist and had a normal life,” she said in her 1986 autobiography, “Enter Talking.”
“I had come from normal life, from real life, and nobody there had been happy.”
But while her appearance may have been unremarkable, she discovered early on that she had the ability to be funny, which made her less run-of-the-mill right away.
“It was the first time I ever had the heady feeling, the first time I found this way to be in control,” she wrote, “and I have lived by that knowledge to this day.”
Johnny Carson designated her as the first permanent guest host for The Tonight Show, and she stood in for him from 1983-86. But when Rivers signed with the then-fledgling Fox network to host The Late Show — a groundbreaking move for a woman — and thus go opposite Carson, he considered it an act of betrayal and refused to speak to her again.
“The first person I called was Johnny, and he hung up on me — and never, ever spoke to me again,” she told The Hollywood Reporter in December 2012, “and then denied that I called him. I couldn’t figure it out. I would see him in a restaurant and go over and say hello. He wouldn’t talk to me.”
Ironically, Rivers was a help to Carson when he was entertaining an idea to leave The Tonight Show in the early 1980s to start a late-night franchise at ABC.
After her Fox show plunged in the ratings and was cancelled after just eight months, she hosted the syndicated Joan Rivers Show for five years and won an Daytime Emmy in 1990. She did not return to The Tonight Show until February, for Jimmy Fallon’s debut.
In 1994 Rivers and her daughter Melissa began hosting E! Entertainment’s red carpet show for the Golden Globes, and that led to their Fashion Police specials for the network. In 2004, she signed a lucrative three-year deal to cover carpets for the TV Guide Channel.
She and Melissa later starred in the reality series Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?. Other notable appearances included Celebrity Apprentice, Nip / Tuck, Louie and the movies The Smurfs and Iron Man 3.
But she also courted controversy with outrageous comments, most recently riffing that the president was gay and his wife was a drag queen.
During Australian visits she was memorable on the Logie Awards, telling the audience “I don’t know why the f*** I’m here” and the trophy the “ugliest” she had ever seen. She also joined Alex Perry, Charlotte Dawson, Julie McCrossin and Pam Ann for Foxtel’s Mardi Gras coverage.
“If there is a secret to being a comedian, it’s just loving what you do,” she told the Hollywood Reporter in 2012. “It is my drug of choice. I don’t need real drugs. I don’t need liquor. It’s the joy that I get performing. That is my rush. I get it nowhere else.”
This post updates.