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Comedian Garry Shandling dead at 66

Garry Shandling in 2011. | Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Comedian Garry Shandling, a frequent “Tonight Show” guest host and star of the acclaimed “Larry Sanders Show,” has died at 66.

Los Angeles Police officer Tony Im told the Associated Press that Mr. Shandling died Thursday in Los Angeles, and police will conduct an investigation on the cause. TMZ quotes sources as saying he had a massive heart attack with no warning.

The pinnacle of Mr. Shandling’s career was “Larry Sanders,” which ran on HBO from 1992 to 1998. The series went behind the scenes at a late-night talk show staffed by ambitious writers and hosted by a comedian (Mr. Shandling) wracked with insecurities. Rip Torn played world-weary producer Artie, with Jeffrey Tambor as the dim announcer Hank Kingsley.

Mr. Shandling won an Emmy in 1998 for co-writing the “Sanders” finale.

A stand-up comic himself, he brought an exceptional level of expertise to the project, having appeared often as both host and guest on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and other talk shows. “Larry Sanders” provided dark satirical counterpoint to the late-night wars of that era following NBC’s snub of David Letterman in favor of Jay Leno for “Tonight.”

Here’s a clip (with some racy language) of Sanders talking straight with guest Robin Williams during a commercial break about his joshing of Kingsley, among other things:

“Larry Sanders” proved to be an act of courage, a brave effort led by someone portraying a character dangerously close to himself. As Larry, Garry dug deep to confront his own demons, and did it brilliantly as the series teetered between dual realities: public and private; make-believe and painfully true.

Real-life celebrities appeared as guests on Larry’s show-within-the-show, and also interacted with him “off the air.”

David Duchovny, agreeing to come on the show, also came on to Larry romantically once he got the chance.

Jim Carrey delivered a rip-roaring comic tribute to his host on the final broadcast, then, during a commercial break, turned on him in rage over a long-ago slight.

“Are you doing a bit, now?” asked Larry, perplexed.

“We’re OFF the air,” Carrey hissed. “This is real life now.”

Mr. Shandling followed “Sanders” with a sporadically successful film career that included co-writing and starring in “What Planet Are You From?” (2000), a supporting role in Warren Beatty’s flop romantic comedy “Town and Country” (2001) and playing an irritating senator in “Iron Man 2” (2010) and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014).

Born in Chicago on Nov. 29, 1949, Mr. Shandling grew up in Arizona and began his showbiz career as a writer for the sitcoms “Sanford and Son” and “Welcome Back, Kotter.” Unhappy behind the scenes, he branched out into stand-up with a gig at West Hollywood’s famed Comedy Store.

“I was scared to death. I had no training whatsoever,” he told the Sun-Times in 2000. “As God would have planned it, that first night went well. So I thought, ‘This is not so bad.’ And after that, I bombed every night thereafter for two months in a row.”

Mr. Shandling made his first appearance with Carson in 1981:

An innovative and eccentric humorist with pillowy lips and a voice that always seemed on the verge of a whine, Mr. Shandling claimed to disdain too much logic cluttering his life.

“The answer isn’t gonna be in the facts,” he told The Associated Press in 2009. “It’s gonna be in intuition. That’s how I work creatively. I’m always teaching people that the answer to that creative question is right here, in the room, between us here.”

More to the point, it was dealing with the questions he confronted in himself.

In the 1980s, he began to experiment with TV comedy, and to toy with the sitcom form, with his first series, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” a Showtime project that made no bones about its inherently artificial nature: the actors in this otherwise standard domestic comedy routinely broke the fourth wall to comment on what they were up to. Even the theme song began with the explanatory lyrics, “The theme to Garry’s show….”

In 2000 and 2004, he hosted the Emmy Awards. On the latter occasion, he spotted Donald Trump in the audience and congratulated the billionaire developer for hosting the Emmy-nominated “The Apprentice.”

“Nice to see a man who’s paid his dues, worked hard,” Mr. Shandling said. “We all know what it feels like to have to build 80-story condos and gambling casinos just to get our foot in the door in show business.”

In his own business dealings, Mr. Shandling became one of the rich and famous targeted by private eye Anthony Pellicano, who was sentenced to prison in 2008 on convictions of racketeering and more than six dozen other counts, including conspiracy, wire fraud and wiretapping in the Hollywood wiretaps case.

Pellicano was accused of wiretapping stars such as Sylvester Stallone and bribing police officers to run names of people, including Mr. Shandling, through law enforcement databases.

While Mr. Shandling never married, his most public romance was with “Sanders” co-star and fiancee Linda Doucett, who played Hank’s comely assistant in the series’ early seasons.

Doucett sued Mr. Shandling after he fired her following their breakup in the mid-1990s, receiving a reported $1 million settlement, The New York Times reported in 2006.

The news of Mr. Shandling’s death brought an outpouring of reactions from performers who spoke of his impact.

“Garry was a guiding voice of comedy,” said actor-comedian Bob Odenkirk. “He set the standard and we’re all still trying to meet it.”

And filmmaker Judd Apatow declared, “Garry would see the ridiculousness of me being asked to sum up his life five minutes after being told of his passing. It is a perfect, ridiculous Larry Sanders moment. … I am just too sad. Maybe tomorrow I will do better. ”

Contributing: AP