2018-04-28 02:23:20 UTC
Writer Tom DeLisle, whose career spanned Detroit and Hollywood, dies
Tim Kiska, Special to the Detroit Free Press
Published 12:31 p.m. ET April 25, 2018 | Updated 8:41 p.m. ET April 25, 2018
Tom DeLisle, a native east side Detroiter whose career ranged from being part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that covered the 1967 civil disturbance for the Free Press to creating the Count Scary TV character in the 1980s, died Tuesday after a brief illness. He was 71, and lived in Clinton Township.
“Tom was one of the most gifted writers I ever met,” said radio and TV host Tom Ryan, who played Count Scary. “Give him a subject and he could write an article or TV show about it. It could be serious or extremely funny. (And) no one knew more about the Lions, Tigers, Red Wings or University of Michigan football than Tom."
DeLisle, the son of a lawyer, graduated from De La Salle Collegiate High School and was enrolled at the University of Detroit when he fell in love with journalism.
While still in college, DeLisle was hired by the late Neal Shine as a copyboy at the Free Press. The job involved sharpening pencils, changing typewriter ribbons and doing odd jobs around the newsroom. It became immediately clear that DeLisle – brash, curious and full of energy – was ideally suited for the newspaper world.
“Sometime in the '60s, we somehow thought or suspected that the Detroit News was going to do something semi-radical (for them) like dumping (then Governor George) Romney, and we let DeLisle know that his future at the Free Press would be brighter if perchance we found ourselves in early possession of the News' editorial announcing this,” recalled former Free Press Executive Editor Kurt Luedtke. “DeLisle said ‘I'm on it’ and vanished, only to return an hour or so later with an advance proof of the editorial. How he got his hands on it I'm not sure, but I do remember it involved DeLisle penetrating the News' composing room."
His biggest moment in journalism involved the 1967 Detroit riot. He would say it was the most important event in his professional life. “Pretty much everything I’ve ever done has some connection with that week,” he once said.
DeLisle was the copyboy on duty the morning of July 23, 1967. He would work around the clock during the conflagration, fielding calls from concerned readers and taking notes, which he would forward to James C. Dewey, the Free Press rewrite man.
At one point, the Free Press borrowed an armored personnel carrier from the Chrysler Corp. He ended up on the vehicle, known as “the tank,” touring the riot area with reporter Gene Goltz and photographer Ira Rosenberg. The Free Press would win the Pulitzer for Public Service that year. DeLisle, who was 20, received a promotion to reporter only months later.
During his reporting career, which spanned the late 1960s through the early 1970s, he covered some of the biggest stories of the time. Those included the arrest of John Norman Collins, who was a suspect in the serial murders of young women in the Ann Arbor area.
He was dispatched to cover the death of UAW president Walter Reuther in a plane crash near Pellston. On assignment to cover the Detroit Tigers after their 1968 World Series victory, he rode with the team on a bus from Willow Run Airport to downtown Detroit. He covered the clash between anti-war demonstrators and police at the University of Michigan. The bloodshed he witnessed affected him deeply, and gave him doubts about his future as a reporter.
He left the Free Press in 1971 to join the staff of Detroit Mayor Roman Gribbs as an executive assistant and speechwriter.
After Gribbs left office in 1974, DeLisle went on to a career writing comedy in Hollywood. His friends included Garry Shandling and comedian Richard Dawson, for whom DeLisle would write for several years. DeLisle scripted Dawson’s monologue when Dawson served as a guest host for Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show."
When his string ran out in Hollywood, DeLisle returned to Detroit as a producer and writer at WDIV-TV (Channel 4). It was there that DeLisle and longtime friend Tom Ryan created the Count Scary character, which became a hit on channels 4, 7 and 50.
Ryan recalled the he and DeLisle were big fans of "SCTV," a Canadian comedy program that launched the careers of Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis, John Candy and others. Ryan and DeLisle created the “Count Scary” character after seeing Count Floyd played by Joe Flaherty on "SCTV." Ryan adapted some of Soupy Sales’s comedic moves, and created one of the more enduring characters in Detroit TV history.
DeLisle was one of the Count’s “fine boys,” who would heckle Count Scary off-camera. It was DeLisle’s voice that can be heard saying things like “Mr. Scary, we’ve got to go to the movie.” He also wrote the “Dick Purtan Comedy Special,” and a 1990 program with former Tiger coach Sparky Anderson in which former President Richard Nixon appeared. His work earned a slew of Emmy awards. He also co-authored the 2004 "And ... Howe!" autobiography with Gordie and Colleen Howe.
As a close friend of the Kingston Trio’s John Stewart, DeLisle later helped to found the Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp, in which fans could play music with members of the group. The camp is entering its 19th year.
“He was simply more interesting and funnier than anybody else I knew,” said radio legend Dick Purtan, a longtime friend for whom DeLisle often wrote. “And he never ran out of topics. There was nothing I ever threw at him that he would not have a rejoinder. I was lucky to know him.”
He is survived by his wife, Ruthie Amies; sister, Nancy DeLisle-Walker, and brother-in-law, David Walker; stepchildren Michael Smith and Kelly Rae Smith; and six nieces and nephews. Memorial service plans are pending. Memorial contributions can be sent to Beaumont Health, Troy, Hospice/Oncology Unit, Beaumont Health Foundation, P.O. Box 5082, Troy 48007.