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A key figure in one of the most influential television comedies of the 20th century, Dave Thomas was the head writer and featured performer on "SCTV" (Global/CBC/NBC/Superchannel, 1976-1984) before enjoying a long and varied career as a writer, director, producer and actor in North American features and television shows. A gifted mimic, Thomas brought a distinctly acidic tone to his impersonations of Bob Hope, Richard Harris, G. Gordon Liddy and other famous and infamous characters on "SCTV," but his greatest contribution was undoubtedly Bob and Doug McKenzie, a pair of dense Canadians he created with co-star Rick Moranis. The characters were breakout stars on the show, and later enjoyed independent success with a hit record, as well as a cult feature, "Strange Brew" (1983). Thomas later divided his time between guest appearances on comedy specials, series regular work on "Grace Under Fire" (ABC, 1993-98), and directing and writing jobs on features "Spies Like Us" (1985) and "The Expendables." He later branched out into animation production with his own company, Animax, which provided content for major companies like Disney and ESPN. Still, it was his work on "SCTV" that made him an icon of Canadian comedy, and one of its primary architects in the halcyon 1970s and 1980s.
Born David William Thomas in the city of St. Catharines in Ontario, Canada on May 20, 1949, he was the eldest son of Welsh medical ethicist, educator and author John E. Thomas and his Scottish wife, Moreen, a composer and church organist. Brother Ian Thomas later became a successful musician and songwriter for such bands as Santana, Manfred Mann's Earth Band ("Painted Ladies) and Chicago, as well as an occasional actor. Thomas moved to Durham, NC after his father won a scholarship to Duke University, where he completed his masters' degree and doctorate in philosophy. Dave Thomas attended elementary school in North Carolina before returning to Ontario in 1961 with his family, who settled in the town of Dundas. While pursuing his masters' degree in English at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Thomas became involved in the school's theater program, where he appeared in numerous plays and penned a stage version of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" with future "SCTV" co-star Eugene Levy. The duo would later reunite for the famed Toronto production of "Godspell," which ran from 1972 to 1973 and featured such future comedy stars as Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Andrea Martin and actor-director Don Scardino.
After graduating from McMaster, Thomas settled into a career as a copywriter for the McCann Erickson agency in 1974, where he became the head writer for Coca-Cola's account in Canada. However, he soon grew tired of his job, and after seeing a production of the Second City improv troupe in Toronto, left the agency in 1975 to join the group as a performer. The following year, he was among the original cast of "SCTV," a sketch comedy series borne out of the Toronto and Chicago editions of Second City, which skewered television programming by presenting the surreal schedule of a fictitious television station based in the tiny American border town of Melonville. In addition to serving as head writer for the series, Thomas was a frequent performer, and gained a reputation for offering dead-on imitations of such beloved cultural figures as Bob Hope, Walter Cronkite, Liberace, Lee Iacocca and Carl Sagan. However, Thomas frequently added a degree of venom to his impersonations, turning Hope into a brittle, mean-spirited egoist who rode his writers mercilessly, while his Cronkite bordered on senility and his Richard Harris bellowed through an endless rendition of "Macarthur Park" that only came to a close when a brick was heaved at him. Other Thomas characters were the manic pitchman Harvey K-Tel, near-psychotic "Mailbag" host Bill Needle, and a member of the hopelessly square vocal group Five Neat Guys, but his most memorable figure was borne out of frustration and largely improvised, appropriately, under the influence of beer and bacon.
When "SCTV" moved to Canada's CBC Network in 1980, its Canadian edition was approximately two minutes longer than the version syndicated to NBC in the United States. The CBC network heads required "SCTV" to fill those two minutes with exclusively Canadian content - a request that Thomas found ridiculous, as the show's cast and crew were all largely Canadians. In response, he teamed with new cast member and longtime friend Rick Moranis to create a sketch that would address Canadian concerns, but in the most stereotypical manner possible. Thomas and Moranis played Bob and Doug McKenzie, a pair of half-witted brothers who host their own television show, "The Great White North," while deliberating on such topics as doughnut shops, flat tires and dog fighting while consuming (real) beer. The sketches, improvised at the end of the shooting day, proved to be the show's most popular recurring bit with both Canadian and American viewers. Both Thomas and Moranis were mortified, as they considered the sketches ridiculous throwaways, but they dutifully produced more McKenzie Brothers material. The sketch's popularity occasionally put Thomas at odds with his castmates, most notably Joe Flaherty and John Candy, who accused him of abusing his status as head writer by emphasizing these routines over others.
After receiving an Emmy for Outstanding Writing, Thomas and Moranis left "SCTV" in 1982 to pursue other acting opportunities, but soon found that the demand for the McKenzie siblings had not dissipated. They quickly assembled a comedy album, The Great White North, which again surprised them by generating a hit single, "Take Off," which featured guest vocals by Rush singer Geddy Lee, but also Top 10 chart placement in both the U.S. and Canada as well as a Grammy nomination. The duo then penned and directed a McKenzie Brothers movie, 1983's "Strange Brew," which took its plotline from Shakespeare's "Hamlet." A modest success in theaters, it remained a perennial cult favorite on home video for decades.
In 1984, Thomas served as star and head writer for "The New Show" (NBC, 1984), a primetime sketch comedy series produced by "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) creator-executive producer Lorne Michaels. Despite consistently solid material and quality guest stars, the show was the lowest rated program in its season, and was canceled after only a handful of episodes. He then settled into a string of guest starring roles on television series and in the occasional feature, including "Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird" (1985), which re-teamed him with Joe Flaherty as a pair of underhanded carnival workers with designs on displaying Big Bird in their rundown funfair. Thomas was also a frequent participant in cable TV specials featuring his old "SCTV" cast mates, including Martin Short in "I, Martin Short, Goes Hollywood" (HBO, 1989) and Andrea Martin in "Andrew Martin. Together Again" (Showtime, 1989).
The late '80s and early '90s saw Thomas involved in a flurry of projects as writer, director and actor. There were early misfires with "Spies Like Us" (1985), a comedy feature he penned with star Dan Akyroyd, and a pair of pilots for CBS in 1986 and 1988; the latter of which was abandoned when he signed on to direct the comedy feature "The Experts" (1989), which was best known as the project that introduced John Travolta to Kelly Preston. He was later front and center for his own summer replacement series, "The Dave Thomas Comedy Show" (CBS, 1990), which featured Thomas in such surreal sketches as "The Humiliator," a parody of "The Equalizer" (CBS, 1985-89) in which the Edward Woodward character used insults instead of guns to incapacitate criminals. It lasted just five weeks, but his next effort, "America's Funniest People" (ABC, 1990-94) was a moderate success in the vein of "America's Funniest Home Videos" (ABC, 1989- ).
Thomas found more consistently well-received work as a guest star on sitcoms and in animated projects. He fared remarkably well in a semi-romantic part as Brett Butler's caring neighbor on "Grace Under Fire" (ABC, 1993-98), and also enjoyed a recurring storyline with Tom Poston as his estranged father. When that series came to an abrupt end due to Butler's substance abuse issues, he moved smoothly into guest shots on "Caitlin's Way" (Nickleodeon/YTV, 2000-02) and "The Red Green Show" (CBC) as Ben Franklin, an expatriate Canadian living in the U.S. and brother of semi-regular Dougie Franklin, played by his own brother, Ian Thomas. In between live-action stints, he provided voices for such animated series as "Mission Hill" (The WB/Adult Swim, 1999-2002) and "King of the Hill" (Fox, 1997-2010). His most successful effort in this medium was the Disney theatrical feature "Brother Bear" (2003), which featured Thomas and Moranis as a pair of addle-pated moose who sounded suspiciously like Bob and Doug McKenzie.
In 2004, Thomas returned briefly to feature directing with the Canadian feature "Intern Academy," a broad comedy that featured such fellow Canuck comic talent as Dan Aykroyd, Maury Chaykin and Saul Rubinek in cameos. The following year, he enjoyed his best screen role in years as Uncle Trevor, a mysterious figure connected to guest star Charlize Theron on "Arrested Development" (Fox, 2003-06). Uncle Trevor eventually revealed that Theron's charming British girl, who came across as flighty to Jason Bateman's smitten Michael Bluth, was actually mentally handicapped.
Despite his lengthy and accomplished career, Thomas' most enduring creation remained the McKenzie Brothers, and in 2007, he reunited with Moranis for "Bob and Doug McKenzie's Two Four Anniversary" (CBC), a one-hour special featuring celebrity tributes from the likes of Ben Stiller and Matt Groening. The pair, who had revived the characters intermittently over the last two decades in successful ad campaigns, essentially retired the characters as live-action figures before launching them as cartoon figures in "Bob and Doug" (Global, 2009). Thomas lent his voice to Doug, while Moranis, who had retired from acting in 1991, was replaced by fellow Canadian comic Dave Coulier.
In addition to his acting, writing and directing career, Thomas was the co-founder of a successful animation company, Animax, which created animated projects and commercials for a wide variety of clients, including Disney, National Geographic and Sesame Workshop. One series of cartoons, "Off-Mikes," was based on the popular Mike and Mike in the Morning program on ESPN radio and earned a Sports Emmy Award in 2005. Animax also oversaw the "Bob and Doug" cartoon, as well as a sketch comedy series for MTV called "Popzilla" (2009), which took aim at celebrities in the media. In 2002, Thomas and his "SCTV" cast mates had received a long-overdue star on Canada's Walk of Fame. Thomas himself was honored with an Honorary Doctor of Letters from his alma mater, McMaster University, in 2009, and also gave the fall convocation speech. That same year, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Humber College in Toronto.
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Born in St. Catherine's, Ontario, Canada
Began acting in college; met Martin Short
Early professional stage credit, Toronto production of "Godspell" starring Short and featuring Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, Paul Shaffer, and Andrea Martin
TV debut, a regular on "The David Steinberg Show", a CBS summer replacement comedy-variety series
Left show business and worked as an advertising copywriter at McCann-Erickson in Toronto
Returned to acting; joined the Toronto company of Second City (date approximate)
Left advertising at age 27 (date approximate)
Co-created, co-starred, and served as a head writer for the Toronto-based "SCTV", a TV show comprised of talents from the Toronto and Chicago companies (syndicated in the USA) (date approximate)
US TV dramatic acting debut, "Home to Stay", a CBS-TV movie shot in Canada
Wrote and acted in "From Cleveland", an unsold pilot videotaped in Cleveland, Ohio
Feature acting debut, "Stripes"
Feature debut as co-director and co-writer (with Moranis), "Strange Brew" (also co-starred)
Served as a performer and writer on "The New Show", a short-lived NBC comedy-variety series from producer Lorne Michaels
Narrated "The Last Polka", an HBO comedy "documentary" about a fictional polka team starring John Candy and Eugene Levy
TV producing debut, executive produced "Steel Collar Man", an unsold pilot for an adventure series about a superhuman android (also scripted)
Received story credit for the feature, "Spies Like Us"
Executive produced, directed, wrote and starred in his first TV special, "The Incredible Time Travels of Henry Osgood", an installment of "Showtime Comedy Spotlight"
Directed "The Experts", a late Cold War comedy starring John Travolta
Executive produced and wrote "B-Men", an unsold comedy adventure pilot aired on the "CBS Summer Playhouse"
Co-created and co-executive produced "America's Funniest People" for ABC
Executive produced, wrote, and hosted "The Dave Thomas Comedy Show", a five-week CBS summer replacement series
Wrote and acted in episodes of "Maniac Mansion", a fantasy comedy series on the Family Channel
Executive produced, wrote, and acted in "Inside America's Totally Unsolved Lifestyles", an ABC comedy special spoofing "reality-based" TV shows
Directed and co-wrote "Ghost Mom", a supernatural comedy TV-movie on Fox
Formed Maple Palm Productions