Sam Kinison died 30 years ago — April 10, 1992.
A comedy legend with Tulsa ties, Kinison was laid to rest alongside family members at Memorial Park Cemetery, 5111 S. Memorial Drive, where his gravestone reads “In another time and place he would have been called a prophet.”
In remembrance of Kinison, here are 10 stories about his life.
1. Kinison was born in Yakima, Washington, and was raised in Peoria, Illinois, but he considered Tulsa home because that’s where his mother settled when she married her second husband, Tulsa-based pastor AD Marney.
“If there was any place that was home, Tulsa was it,” brother and former manager Bill Kinison told the Tulsa World in a 2016 interview. “It wasn’t Hollywood. It wasn’t Malibu. It wasn’t Illinois. If you asked Sam where home was, it was Tulsa.”
2. It was no coincidence that Sam delivered comedic material with the power and fury of a church sermon. He came from a family of preachers and was inspired by his father’s death to enter the family business.
Freshly divorced and struggling to make ends meet as a preacher, Sam opted for a life change in 1978. His mother loaned him money so he could drive from Tulsa to a comedy school in Houston, which is where he first made his mark.
3. For a deep dive into Sam and his shooting star career, seek out “Brother Sam: The Short, Spectacular Life of Sam Kinison,” a 1994 book by Bill Kinison and Steve Delsohn.
The book said Sam was a mild little boy until he was 3, when he chased a ball into the street and a semi truck “struck him flush on the side of the head.”
Sam, who sustained brain damage, underwent a transformation from quiet kid to ornery rascal who was prone to temper tantrums.
Later, he was a serial school-skipper who was dispatched to a Pentecostal boarding school. It wasn’t so bad. He was among peers instead of being the preacher’s kid at a regular school.
4. Sam, and this is an understatement, was not a cookie cutter comedian. He erupted above the pack with primal screams and by taking the approach that no subject, religion included, was too dangerous. He was banned (temporarily) by NBC after defying censors on “Saturday Night Live.” Got a bridge? He’ll burn it, though he regretted a gone-too-far appearance on David Letterman’s show.
“He was like a comedy combination of Chuck Yeager and Evel Knievel,” Robin Williams said after Kinison’s death. “Most people go to the edge and then stop. Not Sam. He’d see the edge and then just keep going. And I think that scream he was famous for was just the sound he made on the way down.”
5. Mitzi Shore, owner of the famed Comedy Store in West Hollywood, initially was not impressed with Sam’s act. Kinison was hired as a doorman at the club and had to earn his stripes from him. His stock of him climbed when he charged to Shore’s aid during a confrontation with Oklahoma-born comedian Argus Hamilton, according to “Brother Sam.”
Sam’s big break came when he and other young comedians were recruited by Rodney Dangerfield to be on a 1985 HBO special. Sam was reluctant to be on the special because he mistakenly thought it was a contest, but it catapulted him to national prominence.
Sam got another Rodney boost when he was cast as a scene-stealing college professor in the 1986 comedy “Back to School” starring Dangerfield.
6. Martin Short, Steve Martin and Chevy Chase starred in the 1986 comedy “Three Amigos!” Could’ve been funnier? Sam was cast as a hard-to-kill, cannibalistic mountain man, but his scenes from him — purportedly hilarious — wound up on the editing room floor.
“They shoot him and he wouldn’t die,” Bill told bullz-eye.com in 2009. “They stab him and he won’t die. They drown him in a river, from which Sam caught pneumonia, and he won’t die.”
Why was Sam cut from the film? Said Bill in his book about him: “In the short time he was on the set, Sam found Chase arrogant, cold and pompous. So Sam pinned the blame on him. He thought Chase had convinced (director John) Landis to cut Sam out of the movie. After all the attention he got for ‘Back to School,’ Sam thought Chase feared he’d steal the spotlight on ‘Three Amigos!’ It didn’t really make sense, a director as strong as John Landis bowing like that to an actor. Sam, being Sam, went with it anyway.”
Landis said this in a 2011 Maxim interview: “The film was too long, and I was looking for stuff I could lift without damaging the plot. I wish we could find that footage because it was outstanding.”
Moviegoers also never saw “Atuk,” which would have netted Sam his first starring film role as an Eskimo in Manhattan. The idea was crafted with John Belushi in mind. Belushi died in 1982, and “Atuk” was pitched to Kinison, a Belushi admirer. Kinison enlisted for duty, but hated the script and things went downhill from there. Filming never began, but litigation did.
Another one that got away: “Beetlejuice” was written with Sam in mind, but he and Bill didn’t learn about it after Michael Keaton got the gig.
7. Sam found Tulsa to be relaxing and made repeat visits to the city after achieving fame. He typically joined his family from him during church services. I have played the piano, sang and mingled with churchgoers.
Many in the congregation who knew Sam only from the family church had never seen him on television. “How are you doing, Brother Sam? Is everything going all right? Is your comedy going good?”
Said Bill in the 2016 interview: “The vast majority of the church I don’t think ever realized that Sam was a major star.”
Sam didn’t perform in Tulsa until near the end of his career because he was wary of negatively impacting the family church.
8. Sam died from injuries sustained in a head-on car collision while on the way to a performance in Laughlin, Nevada.
Sam had a weakness for women, drugs and alcohol, but he was married days before the accident and was not at fault in the collision. His Trans-Am from him was hit by a pickup truck driven by a teen who was attempting to pass a vehicle on a two-lane highway.
Bill wrote that Sam did not die of excess: “At the end Sam had a real desire to clean up his act. Sometimes he couldn’t help himself, but he was trying.” Sam (known as the rock star comedian because of his “Wild Thing” cover and his collaborations with rockers) attended AA meetings with Ozzy Osbourne.
9. There were two memorial services for Sam — one for the comedy star and one for “Tulsa Sam.”
Celebrity friends attended a service at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills. Williams, comedians Carl LaBove, Billy Gibbons, Richard Belzer and Pauly Shore joined Bill in eulogizing Sam. Jim Carrey, Garry Shandling, Dangerfield, Charlie Sheen, Tommy Chong, Dan Aykroyd, Vince Neil, Osbourne, Axl Rose and Billy Idol were among attendees. A subsequent service in Tulsa was a family affair.
10. What else would Sam have accomplished if he hadn’t died at age 38? Would he still be generating laughs?
Bill indicated during the 2016 Tulsa World interview that Sam felt a calling to go back into the family business. Sam was a month away from a planned return to the ministry when he died. His mother and stepfather staged an annual convention. A May 1992 convention in Tulsa was going to launch Sam’s comeback from him.
“I told him many times that I think he affected more people… in comedy — and I’m not talking about in the shows; I’m talking about one-on-one — than he ever did in the ministry. I mean, to a lot of comedians and celebrities and rock stars and stuff, he was kind of like their spiritual leader.”
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