Jay Thomas, 1970s Charlotte 'Shock Jock' Turned Actor, Dies At 69
Jay Thomas, who turned Charlotte on its ear with his provocative and outlandish morning show on the old Big WAYS radio in the 1970s before going on to a successful career in TV and movies, died Thursday at 69 of cancer.
Thomas was one of the pioneers of the "morning zoo" concept in radio, punctuating the Charlotte airwaves with a high-energy, anything-goes show that shot the quirky top-40 station to the top of the ratings.
"He was wide open, high energy," said WCNC (Channel 36) forecaster Larry Sprinkle, who was Thomas' sidekick in those days. "He offered something this town had never seen or heard, and hasn't seen or heard since."
Sprinkle, long known for his vocal impersonations, remembered being repeatedly challenged by Thomas, who would routinely introduce him as a random guest in some guise -- a dirt farmer from Monroe one day, President Carter the next.
"Today we have Mr. Negativity on the line," Thomas once said, and tossed the conversation to Sprinkle, who had to improvise on the spot. "How are you today, Mr. Negativity?"
"Well, Mr. Thomas," Sprinkle shot back, "not so good."
Thomas was hired by Big WAYS owner Stan Kaplan for a station he owned in Jacksonville, Fla., then brought to Charlotte. Thomas left for a radio job in New York in 1975, where he went to the top of the ratings and impressed a young rival named Howard Stern, who would record Thomas' show to learn techniques.
Thomas beat out comic Jay Leno for the role of deli owner Remo DaVinci on “Mork and Mindy” that starred Robin Williams. He went on the a recurring role on "Cheers" as Eddie LeBec (until his character was run over in the 1989 season by a zamboni), Jack Stein on "Love & War" and as Jerry Gold on "Murphy Brown," which earned him two Emmys.
In 1997, Thomas starred in the television film "Killing Mr. Griffin," co-starred in "Mr Holland's Opus," and played the Easter Bunny in "Santa Clause 2" and "Santa Clause 3."
He did an afternoon show on Sirius XM radio until a week ago when his heath began declining rapidly.
Larry Farber, CEO of Charlotte-based East Coast Entertainment, has counted Thomas among his closest friends for five decades.
Farber was running the old Boardwalk Club on Monroe Road in 1974 when they met. It was closing time and when the lights went up, Farber saw a man crawling around on his hands and knees.
He went over and recognized the man as Thomas, the famous host from Big WAYS. Thomas explained that he'd lost a $50 bill and famous or not, it was still a lot of money to him.
They searched fruitlessly for the bill, then Thomas said he'd have to go through Farber's cash drawer -- he said he was sure he could recognize the bill.
Farber said that wasn't going to happen, but took Thomas out to breakfast instead.
Farber flew out to Santa Barbara, Calif., a few weeks ago to visit the ailing Thomas and they recalled that story. After he returned to Charlotte, he sent Thomas a birthday card.
"I put a note in it that said, 'Hey, I've had your 50 dollar bill all this time and I'm returning it, without interest," and enclosed a crisp new bill. "Jay called me a few days later and said it was the greatest gift he'd ever gotten."
Every year, Thomas would go on the David Letterman's CBS "Late Night" show to tell what Letterman called "the greatest talk show story of all time."
As a disc jockey at WAYS, Thomas would recall, Clayton Moore - television's Lone Ranger - joined him at a remote broadcast for a car dealership.
Afterward, Thomas said he and a friend stepped out back to get "herbed up, medicinally enhanced," then returned to pack up the broadcast equipment.
When he realized that Moore had no ride back to his hotel, Thomas offered him one in his old Volvo.
A man cut in front of the Volvo, damaging the front fender, then drove off. Thomas chased him down, pulled him over and threatened to call the police.
Go ahead, the motorist said. Who are the cops going to believe? Me or you two hippies?
At that moment, out of the Volvo stepped Clayton Moore, still in costume.
"They'll believe me, citizen," said the Lone Ranger.