Comedienne, talk-show host, fashion critic, trailblazer: The riveting Rivers kept audiences laughing for more than 50 years
THE EARLY DAYS
Born Joan Molinsky in Brooklyn, New York, on June 8, 1933, Rivers got her first taste of performing at New York’s Barnard College, where the literature/anthropology major appeared in numerous productions. After graduation, she became a buyer for a clothing chain and married the owner’s son. When that marriage ended after six months, Rivers tried her hand at acting, and in 1959 played opposite then-unknown Barbra Streisand in an Off-Broadway play. But she soon switched to comedy, testing out her skills in nightclubs and coffeehouses in New York City.
HER BIG BREAK
In 1965, after years of struggling, Rivers did her stand-up act on The Tonight Show, where the young comedienne, now making a name for herself with her sharp-tongued humor and trademark line “Can we talk?”, won over host Johnny Carson. With the cameras rolling, he told her, “You’re going to be a star” – and, indeed, her career took off. “He gave me everything,” she told PEOPLE.
FALLING IN LOVE AGAIN
Following her successful turn on The Tonight Show, Edgar Rosenberg entered Rivers’s life in 1965. Taken with his British charm and sophistication – and obsessive commitment to show business – she married the producer/businessman in a courthouse just four days after they met. “We filled each other’s gaps like two pieces of a puzzle,” she told PEOPLE in 1987. “I gave him warmth. He gave me style.”
A HOUSEHOLD NAME
After daughter Melissa was born in 1968, Rivers continued her winning streak in the 1970s with appearances on popular programs including The Carol Burnett Show and Hollywood Squares. Still, Rivers always put family first. “Mom and Dad would fly in from wherever for even minor school events,” Melissa recalled to PEOPLE in 1993. Added Joan: “I was even a Brownie troop mother. Now that was a picture.”
Besides acting, Rivers directed Billy Crystal and Doris Roberts (shown here) in 1978’s Rabbit Test, a comedy about the world’s first pregnant man, and wrote a 1973 TV movie, The Girl Most Likely To…, about an unattractive woman who undergoes plastic surgery and becomes beautiful. Rivers herself had always been open about her own nips-and-tucks over the years. “I thinned my nose and raised the tip, had my eyes done, a full face-lift, liposuction, breast reduction, chin tucks, botox, collagen … I’m sure I’ve spent at least $80,000 over the years,” she told PEOPLE in 2009.
A GREAT HONOR
For two decades, Rivers made frequent appearances on The Tonight Show and considered Johnny Carson her mentor. In 1983, the comic (here with Betty White) was named his permanent guest host, the first time such a distinction was given to another entertainer. “I think TV should be gossipy, exciting, unpredictable,” Rivers told PEOPLE of her interviewing style in 1983. “I ask questions that I would want answered as a private person.”
Rivers’s career continued to climb through the 1980s. Her Carnegie Hall debut sold out in two days, her comedy album, What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most?, earned a Grammy nomination in 1983, and three years later, she wrote a best-selling autobiography, Enter Talking. “My whole career has been one rejection after another,” she has said, “and then going back and back and pushing against everything and everybody. Getting ahead by small, ugly steps.”
HOST WITH THE MOST
Her popularity on The Tonight Show made her a natural choice to helm her own late-night program, which Fox – then a fledgling network – hired her to do in 1986 (here, she’s shown with the show’s first guests, Elton John, Cher and Pee-wee Herman). The decision didn’t sit well with Carson, who was livid that Rivers hadn’t consulted him and would be competing against him. Despite Rivers’ reported overtures to make peace, Carson banned her from his show, and the two never spoke again.
In 1987, after The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers was canceled, Rosenberg, Rivers’s husband of 22 years, died by suicide. His death put a strain on her already fragile relationship with then-19-year-old Melissa. “The way I see it,” Rivers told PEOPLE in 1993, “Melissa blamed me.” Joan and Edgar had only recently separated when he died.
LIFE GOES ON
After her husband’s death, Rivers moved from L.A. to New York to start over. In 1989 she hosted a syndicated daytime talk show, which ran for four seasons and won a Daytime Emmy Award. In 1990 she launched an eponymous jewelry line for QVC, which has been a best seller since its inception. And then in 1994, she returned to the stage in Broadway’s Sally Marr…and Her Escorts, a play she co-wrote and for which she received a best actress Tony nomination.
RED CARPET ROASTING
Rivers’s tell-it-like-it-is brand of humor was put to good use when she and Melissa hosted Live from the Red Carpet for E! beginning in the mid-1990s, savoring and skewering stars’ fashion choices at the Oscars, Emmys and other major awards shows. After Ryan Seacrest and Giuliana Rancic took over red-carpet duties in the early 2000s, the mother-daughter team headed to the TV Guide channel to report on awards show fashions for a reported $8 million.
In 2009, Rivers joined Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice, where she and Melissa competed against Khloé Kardashian and Dennis Rodman, among others. In the finale, Rivers bested poker player Annie Duke for the win. That same year, the comedienne was roasted on Comedy Central by yuksters like Kathy Griffin, Whitney Cummings and Tom Arnold. Referencing Rivers’s many plastic surgeries, comic Greg Giraldo teased, “You used to look your age; now, you don’t even look your species.”
In 2010, Rivers debuted a documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, at the San Francisco International Film Festival. The movie, which was met with critical praise, followed the then-76-year-old star for 14 months, showcasing her stand-up and daily life.
For her 2011 WE tv reality show, Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?, Rivers moved to California to bunk with her daughter and grandson, Cooper (shown here in a promo for Celebrity Wife Swap). Viewers got to see the comedienne in rare form as she went about her daily life, forcing herself into Melissa’s business much to her chagrin.
AIRING HER OPINION
Rivers found a new place to get laughs in 2010 on the E! hit Fashion Police, where she and a panel of pros, including reality star Kelly Osbourne, E!’s Giuliana Rancic and George Kotsiopoulos, critiqued celebrities’ wardrobe choices.
HER TONIGHT RETURN
In a bittersweet homecoming, Rivers returned to The Tonight Show on Feb. 17, 2014 (new host Jimmy Fallon’s first night), 28 years after her famous feud and 49 years to the day of her first appearance on Carson’s show. She sat down for a chat a month later, in March 2014. “Being in the studio brought back the most wonderful, wonderful memories of the night that jump-started my career,” Rivers said. She died on Sept. 4, 2014, at age 81, following complications from surgery.