*Parts of this were excerpted and edited from a 2014 article.
by Julian Spivey
Multiple-time Emmy Award winning actor Jay Thomas died today at age 69 from cancer. I honestly don’t know a whole lot about Thomas, but his death legitimately made me sad because while I couldn’t tell you his bio without looking it up I do know he was a part of my favorite pop culture Christmas tradition for a good chunk of my life.
I’ll get to that in a bit.
Thomas was a guy many wouldn’t likely know by name, but you’ve more than likely seen his face pop up in terrific TV shows over the years. His most notable role was that of Jerry Gold on “Murphy Brown” throughout the ‘90s where he would become a love interest for Candice Bergen’s titular role. Thomas would win two Emmy Awards for his performance in the series. He would also have recurring roles in sitcom classics “Mork & Mindy” and “Cheers” and most recently the Showtime drama “Ray Donovan.” His last TV appearances came in 2015 guest starring on Fox’s “Bones” and CBS’ “NCIS: New Orleans.”
Thomas started his career in the radio industry and he seemingly never lost a desire for it becoming possibly more well-known for his SiriusXM radio show “The Jay Thomas Show” he hosted since 2005.
It was his start in radio that lead to my favorite pop culture Christmas tradition, though it partially had nothing to do with Christmas at all.
Every year in David Letterman’s, one of my many pop culture heroes, final episode of ‘Late Show’ before Christmas he invited Thomas onto the show to throw footballs at a giant meatball that sat atop the ‘Late Show’ Christmas tree. This tradition began on an episode in 1998 when then New York Jets NFL quarterback Vinny Testaverde was a guest on Letterman’s show and he and Letterman attempted to knock the meatball off the tree. The pro football player struggled mightily to knock the meatball down, so Thomas, also a guest on the night’s show, ran out from the green room, grabbed a football and threw a perfect bull’s-eye on his first throw. An impressed Letterman invited him back every year since, except for 2013 when Thomas had to cancel due to surgery (John McEnroe stepped in to swat tennis balls at the meatball). The second part of Thomas’ traditional Christmas appearance is the telling of what Letterman has referred to as “the greatest story in late night history.” Thomas would tell the story of the time he was a radio DJ in Charlotte, N.C. and did a promotional gig with Clayton Moore, the actor who portrayed the original Lone Ranger on television. Forgetting to order a car for Moore, in full Lone Ranger costume, Thomas offered to give him a ride and what happened next is what makes the story the “greatest in late night history.” If you’ve never seen it you truly must and hopefully thanks to the power of YouTube it will become an annual tradition for you as it has for me. I can think of no better way to fondly remember Thomas.