Comedian and actor Norm Macdonald dead at 61

Norm Macdonald performs at the Orleans Hotel & Casino on July 9, 2011, in Las Vegas.  (Ethan Miller/Getty Images - image credit)
Norm Macdonald performs at the Orleans Hotel & Casino on July 9, 2011, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images - image credit)

Norm Macdonald, the Canadian-born comedian who became an influential cast member of Saturday Night Live after he joined in 1993, has died. He was 61.

His brother Neil said Macdonald died Tuesday in Los Angeles from leukemia, which he was diagnosed with "a long time ago."

"He kept it quiet because he didn't want it to affect his comedy," said Neil, a former parliamentary and foreign correspondent for CBC News, by phone from Los Angeles.

"He didn't want it to affect the way he was perceived … He wanted to carry on. He took great pains to conceal it from everybody but family. Cancer's a roller-coaster. We hoped that he would live longer than he did, but it took a turn for the worst last month, and he went into hospital and never came out."

Macdonald was born in Quebec City on Oct. 17, 1959, the son of two schoolteachers, and spent his early years as a stand-up comedian touring across Canada.

He went on to write for television shows such as Roseanne and The Dennis Miller Show in the early '90s before hosting SNL's iconic "Weekend Update" segment from 1994 to 1997 on NBC.

Macdonald was fired from the show early the following year by NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer, a friend of — at the time — O.J. Simpson, whose trial for murder dominated headlines in the mid '90s.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Ohlmeyer reportedly didn't like Macdonald perpetually making Simpson the butt of his jokes — such as when, following Simpson's acquittal in 1995, he quipped: "Well, it's finally official. Murder is legal in the state of California."

"I was never bitter," Macdonald said of his firing in the book Live From New York, a history of Saturday Night Live, released in 2002.

"I always understood that Ohlmeyer could fire me, because he was the guy who owned the cameras, so that didn't bother me. I was always happy that SNL gave me a chance."

That kind of dark, sometimes difficult comedy was Macdonald's style, according to stand-up comic and actor Ron Josol, who performed with Macdonald many times.

WATCH | Josol remembers Macdonald as mentor:

"Norm will talk about subject matter that could be dark … but he also talked about stuff that you didn't find funny at all until he gave you his opinion on it," Josol told CBC News.

"Most comedians generally do jokes … they know the audience would like. Norm did things that [were the] opposite."

After leaving SNL, he created and starred in the comedy The Norm Show for ABC, playing a former NHL player kicked out of the league for gambling and tax evasion and forced into community service as a social worker.

"Norm was top rank, top rank of our generation," said Mark Breslin, co-founder of the Yuk Yuk's chain of comedy clubs.

"He was always trying to find the joke that was not the easy way of telling the joke, but the more difficult way of telling the joke."

WATCH | Macdonald had 'gravitas and dignity,' says Breslin:

Macdonald was known for his laconic, deadpan voice and for his impressions — including his take on Burt Reynolds, who famously gave Will Ferrell's Alex Trebek character grief on SNL's recurring "Celebrity Jeopardy" sketch. He also impersonated Bob Dole, Larry King and David Letterman.

He was the last stand-up comedian to appear on The Late Show with David Letterman, where he had been a frequent guest. At the end of that performance, Macdonald became overwhelmed with emotion, and teared up as he reminisced with Letterman.

"I know that Mr. Letterman is not for the mawkish, and he has no truck for the sentimental," Macdonald said on the show. "But if something is true it is not sentimental. And I say in truth, I love you."

The two embraced as the show finished.

Fellow performers and fans took to Twitter on Tuesday to share messages of condolence and grief.

"Norm had the most unique comedic voice I have ever encountered and he was so relentlessly and uncompromisingly funny. I will never laugh that hard again. I'm so sad for all of us today," said Conan O'Brien.

"Of all the comedic minds I've encountered in real life, Norm Macdonald was easily the most unique," wrote Brent Butt.

"Today the world lost a very, very funny man. We miss him already," added Eugene Levy.

Seth Rogen said he "essentially ripped off [Macdonald's] delivery" when he first began acting.

"We lost a comedy giant today," Rogen wrote.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau called him a "comedic genius," and said "the world was a much funnier place because Norm Macdonald was in it."

Despite having cancer, Macdonald continued to work as a comedian and was scheduled to appear at the New York Comedy festival this November.

He hosted his own podcast, Norm Macdonald Live, from 2013 to 2018, and his own Netflix series — Norm Macdonald Has a Show — in 2018. He also lent his voice to the animated series Mike Tyson Mysteries until its finale last year.

WATCH | A look back at Macdonald's comedy:

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