Phil Austin, a co-founder of the influential Firesign Theatre comedy troupe, died Thursday of complications from cancer at his home on Fox Island in Washington state. He was 74.
Austin was dubbed the “official lead guitarist” for the outfit known for its out-there radio broadcasts and albums from the late 1960s and early ’70s. The group’s most popular albums include “How Can You Be Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All” (with its famous cover image of Groucho Marx and John Lennon), “I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus” and “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers.”
Austin was known for playing the group’s enduring character Nick Danger, a spoof of hard-boiled fictional detectives a la Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Nick Danger often stated his name backwards — “Regnad Kcin” — as if he were reading it off the glass pane of his office door from behind his desk.
Austin’s death was confirmed on the Firesign Theatre’s website:
“Nick Danger has left the office.
Our dear friend and Firesign Theatre partner for over 50 years succumbed to various forms of cancer early this morning at his home on Fox Island, Washington, with his wife Oona and their six beloved dogs at his side. It is a tremendous and unexpected loss, and we will miss him greatly; but in keeping with his wishes, there will be no public memorial.
Rest in Peace, Regnad Kcin.”
Born in Denver in 1941, Austin grew up in Fresno, Calif. He attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine (reportedly to get as far away from Fresno as possible), and also at Cal State Fresno and UCLA but never graduated. By the mid-1960s he was working as an apprentice at Los Angeles’ Center Theater Group and also as a director of drama and literature for public radio station KPFK.
At KPFK Austin met like-minded writers and performers Peter Bergman, David Ossman and Phil Proctor and soon the Firesign Theatre was born. Bergman died in 2012.
In 1974 Austin released a solo comedy album, “Roller Maidens From Outer Space.”
In later years, Austin did voice-over work for TV commercials and worked as a development exec for Lorimar Telepictures. He also wrote screenplays and published a book of short stories, “Tales of the Old Detective and Other Big Fat Lies,” in 1995.
Survivors include his wife, Oona.