Larry Harmon, who turned the character Bozo the Clown into a show business staple and ran a lucrative licensing empire, died July 3 of congestive heart failure in Los Angeles. He was 83.
Working up to the end, Harmon had recently returned from the Licensing Show in New York.
Although not the original Bozo, Harmon portrayed the popular clown in countless appearances and, as an entrepreneur, he licensed the character to others, particularly dozens of television stations around the country. The stations in turn hired actors to be their local Bozos.
Harmon also acquired rights to the Laurel & Hardy names and likenesses in the mid-1960s and worked to preserve licensing rights for deceased celebrities. He produced several other cartoon shows including “Laurel and Hardy” and “Popeye.”
Pinto Colvig, who also provided the voice for Walt Disney’s Goofy, originated Bozo the Clown when Capitol Records introduced a series of children’s records in 1946. Harmon answered a casting call to make personal appearances as a clown to promote the records, got that job and appeared in a TV pilot for an early Bozo show. He began acquiring licensing and TV rights to the character, embellishing Bozo’s look as he went along: the orange-tufted hair, the bulbous nose, the outlandish red, white and blue costume.
The business — combining animation, licensing of the character, and personal appearances — made millions, as Harmon trained more than 200 Bozos over the years to represent him in local markets.
“We didn’t have satellite, syndication and networking like today,” Harmon said, “So, I created my own network of local clowns and productions, a cross-country operation that kept me on the road for 50 weeks a year for decades.”
The Chicago version of Bozo, one of the longest-running childrens’ shows ever, ran on WGN-TV in Chicago for 40 years and was seen in many other cities after cable television transformed WGN into a superstation.
Bozo — portrayed in Chicago for many years by Bob Bell — was so popular that the waiting list for tickets to a TV show eventually stretched to a decade, prompting the station to stop taking reservations for 10 years. On the day in 1990 when WGN started taking reservations again, it took just five hours to book the show for five more years. The phone company reported more than 27 million phone call attempts had been made.
By the time the show bowed out in Chicago, in 2001, it was the last locally produced version.
He became caught up in a minor controversy in 2004 when the International Clown Hall of Fame in Milwaukee took down a plaque honoring him as Bozo and formally endorsed Colvig for creating the role. Harmon denied ever misrepresenting Bozo’s history.
He said he was claiming credit only for what he added to the character — “What I sound like, what I look like, what I walk like” — and what he did to popularize Bozo.
As Bozo’s influence spread through popular culture, his very name became a synonym for clownish behavior.
On New Year’s Day 1996, Harmon dressed up as Bozo for the first time in 10 years, appearing in the Rose Parade in Pasadena.
Born in Toledo, Ohio, Harmon became interested in theater while studying at USC.
He is survived by his wife Susan, an exec at Larry Harmon Pictures, a son and four daughters.