Voice of Nick Dan­ger on comic ra­dio

Los Angeles Times - - OBITUARIES - By David Colker david.colker@latimes.com Twit­ter: @david­colker

In dorm rooms across the coun­try in the late 1960s and early 1970s, some­times through a haze of pot smoke, a record­ing could be heard that sounded like an old-time ra­dio de­tec­tive show mixed with Eastern mys­ti­cism.

He’s ready for ex­cite­ment, He’s ready for any­thing, He’s Nick Dan­ger, Third Eye!

As many boomers know, Nick Dan­ger was a char­ac­ter cre­ated by the highly satir­i­cal Fire­sign Theatre, a com­edy group whose al­bums be­came a touch­stone of the coun­ter­cul­tural era.

Phil Austin, 74, the found­ing mem­ber of the group who cre­ated and voiced the wacky de­tec­tive with the mys­ti­cal “third eye” power, died Fri­day in Fox Is­land, Wash.

Fire­sign co-founder David Os­s­man said Austin had bat­tled can­cer and died of car­diac ar­rest.

“He was a great comic writer, a great voice tal­ent, a dear friend and col­league,” said Os­s­man of the man be­hind Fire­sign’s best-known char­ac­ter.

“That’s how I think of Phil and how our fans will think of Phil — in the role of Nick Dan­ger, who solved the crime by us­ing his third eye, which of course he kept hid­den un­der his hat.”

The group largely faded from the scene in the late 1970s, but re­tained a cult fol­low­ing and oc­ca­sion­ally came back to­gether to do live shows.

Fire­sign’s last ap­pear­ance was at the 2012 me­mo­rial for found­ing mem­ber Peter Bergman.

Even with Bergman gone, Austin was of­ten asked whether Fire­sign would per­form again.

“Very un­likely,” he told the Fire­sign fanzine Chromium Switch last year. “Our last show was in Seat­tle for Pete’s me­mo­rial and that seems fit­ting. Live per­for­mance was never the big­gest part of our lives to­gether.”

It was through al­bums — Fire­sign recorded more than a dozen of them — that the group pri­mar­ily earned its pop­u­lar­ity. Nick Dan­ger ap­peared on the B side of Fire­sign’s 1969 break­through al­bum, “How Can You Be in Two Places At Once When You’re Not Any­where At All.”

Though it marked the de­but of the char­ac­ter, the track was called “The Fur­ther Ad­ven­tures of Nick Dan­ger.”

“Ini­tially, he’s based on the [Dashiell] Ham­mett Sam Spade char­ac­ter,” Aus- tin told Chromium Switch. “But as I got more into writ­ing him over the years, he’s be­come much more like Mar­lowe. I love [Ray­mond] Chan­dler’s writ­ing.”

The satire was affectionate and the jokes — a mix­ture of high- and low-brow — of­ten born of word­play.

The open­ing of the “Fur­ther Ad­ven­tures,” com­plete with sound ef­fects, in­cluded the heavy-handed nar­ra­tion:

Out of the fog, into the smog,

Re­lent­lessly, ruth­lessly

And then came Austin with the aside: I won­der where Ruth is? “It was those com­ments, the off-mic things, that made Phil so funny,” Os­s­man said. “He was the most sur­real writer of all of us.”

Ac­tor John Good­man was in col­lege in the early 1970s when he first heard a Fire­sign bit played by an al­ter­na­tive ra­dio sta­tion.

“Nick Dan­ger was on all of a sud­den,” Good­man re­called in a 2012 in­ter­view with The Times. “I used to lis­ten to ra­dio drama when I was a kid, but this was twisted be­yond any­thing I had heard. It took the ob­vi­ous and bent it into fan­tas­tic shapes, like a bal­loon an­i­mal. “I was an in­stant fan.” Austin was born April 6, 1941, in Den­ver, and grew up mostly in Fresno.

“His mother was a drama teacher,” said Philip Proc­tor, the other sur­viv­ing mem­ber of Fire­sign. “That’s where he got his strong back­ground as an ac­tor.”

Austin, in a bi­og­ra­phy writ­ten for the Fire­sign web­site, said he stud­ied at sev­eral col­leges, in­clud­ing Fresno State and UCLA, but didn’t get a de­gree.

He ap­peared in plays in L.A. in the 1960s, in­clud­ing John Guare’s “Muzeeka” at the Mark Ta­per Fo­rum that also fea­tured Proc­tor in the cast.

The four mem­bers of Fire­sign first per­formed to­gether, in a largely im­pro­vi­sa­tional man­ner, on a latenight talk show in 1966 hosted by Bergman on Pacifica ra­dio sta­tion KPFKFM. A record deal fol­lowed, lead­ing to the na­tional fol­low­ing and die-hard fans who could re­cite whole al­bums from mem­ory.

Apart from Fire­sign, Austin be­came the voice of tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials for Ap­ple, Pizza Hut, Nissan, Nike and oth­ers.

His au­dio book, “Tales of the Old De­tec­tive and Other Big Fat Lies,” was re­leased in 1995.

He is sur­vived by his wife, Oona.

Mary Framp­ton Los An­ge­les Times

FIRE­SIGN THEATRE Phil Austin, left, with fel­low Fire­sign mem­bers David Os­s­man, Philip Proc­tor and Peter Bergman in

Fe­bru­ary 1980. “He was the most sur­real writer of all of us,” Os­s­man said of Austin.

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