Martin Mull, Comic Actor in ‘Fernwood 2 Night,’ ‘Clue,’ ‘Arrested Development,’ Dies at 80

Martin Mull, the comic musician and actor who started with 1970s TV series “Fernwood 2 Night” and went on to appear as Colonel Mustard in “Clue” and on “Arrested Development” and “Roseanne,” died Thursday in Los Angeles. He was 80.

His daughter Maggie announced his death on Instagram, writing “I am heartbroken to share that my father passed away at home on June 27th, after a valiant fight against a long illness. He was known for excelling at every creative discipline imaginable and also for doing Red Roof Inn commercials. He would find that joke funny. He was never not funny. My dad will be deeply missed by his wife and daughter, by his friends and coworkers, by fellow artists and comedians and musicians, and—the sign of a truly exceptional person—by many, many dogs. I loved him tremendously.”

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Mull was nominated for an Emmy in 2016 for his guest role as political aide Bob Bradley in “Veep.” Most recently he had made guest appearances on “The Afterparty,” “Not Dead Yet” and “Grace and Frankie.”

He guested in 2015 on NBC comedy “Community” as George Perry, the father of Gillian Jacobs’ Britta Perry, and on CBS’ comedy “Life in Pieces.”

Mull had a recurring role from 2008-2013 on “Two and a Half Men” as Russell, a pharmacist who uses and sells drugs illegally and attended Charlie’s funeral in the Season 9 premiere episode. The actor also recurred on “Arrested Development” as a rather incompetent private investigator named Gene Parmesan who has a habit of showing up in inane disguises.

Mull was a series regular on Seth MacFarlane’s single-season Fox comedy “Dads,” starring Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi as the owners of a video-game company, in 2013-14, playing the father of Ribisi’s character.

In 2008 he guested on “Law & Order: SVU” as Dr. Gideon Hutton, whose denial of the existence of AIDS leads to his conviction for willful negligence in the deaths of several people.

Mull’s film and television career really all began with his stint as talk show host Barth Gimble on the wickedly satirical, Norman Lear-created TV series “Fernwood 2 Night,” which was later renamed “America Tonight,” in 1977 and 1978. The mock talk show also featured Fred Willard co-starring as Gimble’s dimwitted sidekick Jerry Hubbard. These shows were spin-offs from Lear’s seminal soap opera sendup “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

RELATED CONTENT: Martin Mull on Fred Willard: ‘He was Absolutely, Unconditionally Original’

Willard, who died in 2020 at age 86, and Mull reteamed on the 1985 HBO mockumentary “The History of White People in America.” Mull played Roseanne’s gay boss Leon Carp on her same-titled ABC sitcom from 1991-97, and he was reunited with Willard for a 1995 episode of the show in which the two were featured in what was certainly one of television’s first gay weddings.

On the Ellen De Generes sitcom “The Ellen Show” (not to be confused with the earlier “Ellen”), which ran for 18 episodes on CBS in 2001-02, Mull was a series regular as Ed Munn. He recurred on “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” as Principal Willard Kraft from 1997-2000.

From 1998-2004 Mull was a regular on game show “Hollywood Squares” in a run of 425 episodes, many of them as the center square.

Martin Eugene Mull was born in Chicago to a mother who was an actress and director and a father who was a carpenter. The family moved to North Ridgeville, Ohio, when he was 2; when he was 15, they moved to New Canaan, Connecticut. He studied painting and graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Master of Fine Arts in painting.

Mull first broke into show business not as an actor or comedian but as a songwriter, penning Jane Morgan’s 1970 country single “A Girl Named Johnny Cash,” which peaked at No. 61 on Billboard’s country charts. He began his own recording career shortly thereafter.

He composed the theme song for the 1970 series “The 51st State,” and he was the music producer on the 1971 film “Jump.”

Throughout the 1970s, and especially in the decade’s first half, Mull was best known as a musical comedian, performing satirical and humorous songs both live and in studio recordings. He opened for Randy Newman, Frank Zappa and Bruce Springsteen at various live gigs in the early ’70s.

His self-titled debut album, released in 1972, featured noteworthy musicians including Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Levon Helm from the Band, Keith Spring of NRBQ and Libby Titus. Other albums included 1974’s 1973’s “Martin Mull and His Fabulous Furniture in Your Living Room,” 1974’s “Normal,” “Days of Wine and Neuroses” (1975), “No Hits, Four Errors: The Best of Martin Mull” (1977), “Sex and Violins” (1978) and “I’m Everyone I’ve Ever Loved.” According to a profile on the A.V. Club website, Mull earned “a hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with the single ‘Dueling Tubas.’ ” His early albums were recorded for Georgia-based Capricorn Records which was closely associated with the Allman Brothers and other Southern rockers of the era.

In the A.V. Club interview, Mull was asked how a painter found his way into acting, to which he responded: “You know, every painter I know has a day job. They’re either teaching art at some college or driving a cab or whatever. And I just happened to luck into a day job that’s extraordinary and a lot of fun and buys a lot of paint.”

“As far as the acting thing goes, I had a musical career on the road for about 17 years or so, I had bands and so forth, and it boiled down to just my wife and I playing big rooms in Vegas, and you couldn’t ask for more than that. There were limousines and suites and the whole thing. But I got sick of it. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing for television. And I had an ‘in’ to have an interview with Norman Lear, and I was a huge fan of ‘Mary Hartman.’ I went in and talked to him for, oh, I would say a good hour. We had a great chat. And afterward he said, ‘We don’t need any writers. It’s been nice meeting you. I’ll see you.’ And then six months later I got a call to come in and read for a part.”

After the attention he received for playing Barth Gimble on the syndicated series “Fernwood 2 Night,” he played one of the few lead roles of his career in the 1980 feature comedy “Serial,” a satire of life in Marin County in which Mull’s Harvey Holyroyd acts, in the words of the Technicolor Dreams blog, “as the smart-ass audience surrogate, verbally challenging every facet of the Marin laid-back lifestyle.”

Also in 1980, Mull had a supporting role in Tony Bill’s “My Bodyguard” as the hotel-manager father of Chris Makepeace’s protagonist Clifford. In “Mr. Mom” (1983), Michael Keaton was the stay-at-home dad, Teri Garr was the working mother, and Martin Mull “is the snaky president of the advertising agency, with plans for promoting Garr into his own life,” in the words of Roger Ebert.

In 1984 Steve Martin and Martin Mull teamed to create the sitcom “Domestic Life,” in which Mull starred as a Seattle TV commentator whose teenage son operates very successful businesses from his room and makes loans to his parents, but the CBS series lasted only 10 episodes.

The actor was part of the ensemble in Robert Altman’s satirical, little-known take on the lives of high school boys, “O.C. and Stiggs” (1985). That year Mull also played Colonel Mustard in “Clue,” an adaptation of the board game, one of the movie roles for which he is best remembered.

He starred in and wrote the screenplay for another little known film, the Robert Downey Sr.-directed “Rented Lips” (1988).

Mull tried series-regular television again as the star opposite Stephanie Faracy of NBC’s “His & Hers,” which disappeared after 13 episodes in 1990, and on “The Jackie Thomas Show” (1992), starring Tom Arnold  and gone from ABC after 18 episodes.

The actor began his voiceover sideline with 1993’s “Family Dog,” an early series from Brad Bird in which he provided the lead voice.

Mull guested as himself on two episodes of Garry Shandling’s HBO series “The Larry Sanders Show” in 1992-93. He also had a supporting role in Robin Williams’ 1993 hit “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

Trained as a painter, Mull had practiced his art since the 1970s, and his work appeared both in group and solo exhibits. One of his paintings, After Dinner Drinks (2008), which is owned by Steve Martin, was used for the cover of “Love Has Come for You,” an album by Martin and Edie Brickell.

He is survived by his wife, the former Wendy Haas, an actor and composer whom he married in 1982, and his daughter Maggie, a TV writer and producer.

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