TAMPA — Watermelon-smashing comedian and Tampa-raised Leo Gallagher Jr., best known simply as Gallagher, died Friday, his former manager confirmed to Variety and TMZ. He was 76.
“Gallagher had been in hospice care in California after suffering multiple heart attacks in recent years,” Variety reported.
Gallagher rose to fame via prop comedy, specifically by using a giant wooden mallet named the Sledge-O-Matic to smash food and other items, culminating with him splattering a watermelon.
He was born on July 24, 1946, in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and spent his early childhood in Cleveland before his parents relocated to Tampa in hopes that the air would be good for his asthma.
Late Tampa radio personality Tedd Webb’s website says Gallagher “spent a lot of time as a boy riding his bicycle back and forth in his neighborhood along El Prado Boulevard near Manhattan Avenue. Friends remember him shouting insults and odd comments to anybody who would listen as he passed them on his souped-up Schwinn.”
Gallagher’s father built a skating rink on Armenia Avenue. He went to church at Good Shepherd Lutheran on Dale Mabry and graduated from H.B. Plant High School in 1964. He then enrolled at the University of South Florida, but moved to Los Angeles when he was just one credit short of graduating.
He eventually made his way back to Tampa and worked at Lum’s Hot Dog Restaurant on Hillsborough Avenue. That’s when he began to develop his Sledge-O-Matic routine, based on a television infomercial for the Ronco Veg-O-Matic.
Gallagher’s first break came when opening for musician Bobby Rydell in Tampa. He then toured with musicians Jim Stafford and Kenny Rogers into the late 1970s.
In 1975, according to IMDB.com, he performed on “The Mike Douglas Show,” a nationally broadcast television talk show.
Five years later, Gallagher filmed his first television special, “Gallagher: An Uncensored Evening,” during which his largest audience was introduced to his watermelon-smashing antics. IMDB.com describes the special as one “for which the audience was ill prepared.”
In later years, audience members wore raincoats and brought umbrellas to his shows for protection against flying fruit.
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Through the 1980s, he remained a pop culture icon with regular appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour.”
Variety estimates he performed more than 3,500 live shows during his four decades on the road. That includes 16 television specials broadcast on HBO and Showtime.
He was controversial. Racial, sexist and homophobic jokes that were acceptable early in his career later were deemed offensive.
He didn’t care.
“They said, ‘Gallagher, you can’t be on TV, you’re not sensitive to the needs of the handicapped,’” he said at a 2013 show. “I said, ‘I am too. That’s why I use all their parking spaces. I don’t know why they’ve got to be so close. It ain’t like they gotta walk.”
Through it all, Tampa residents considered him one of their own.
“Plant High School and USF alum, Gallagher, has passed away,” Tampa City Councilman Guido Maniscalco wrote on Facebook.
Clark Brooks, a Tampa standup comedian and editor for the Tampa News Force satire website, said Gallagher was “a true game changer, dominating cable TV comedy for years before everybody was filming specials. The fact that he was from Tampa put the bay area comedy scene on the map before there even was a scene.”
Information from a 2013 Tampa Bay Times profile on Gallagher was used for this report.