Digby Wolfe died in Albuquerque, his adopted city, on May 2 after a distinguished career as writer and performer spanning seven decades in three continents. After 30 years in Hollywood, including his Emmy-winning stint writing the NBC-TV series Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, Wolfe came to Albuquerque to teach at the University of New Mexico's Department of Theatre and Dance. During his years at UNM, from 1992 until his retirement in 2004, he headed the dramatic writing program and became a familiar figure around campus in his blue jeans, white tennis shoes, sweater and flowing silver ponytail.
Wolfe died at home after a short struggle with cancer. He is survived by his wife, Patricia Mannion, and a sister, Hilary Hammond-Williams.
Born in Felixstowe, England in 1929, James Digby Wolfe grew up during World War II, about which he said, "There was a tremendous amount of comedy about … that kept up the morale of the people." He made his feature film debut in 1948 in "The Weaker Sex." He went on to write and perform in British comedy series, starring in 1957 series "Sheep's Clothing." In 1959, he moved to Australia where he became a major fixture in the entertainment scene, touring the country with comedians, making frequent television appearances, and hosting the popular shows "Review '61" and "Review '62" on Australian television.
In 1964, Wolfe moved to Los Angeles where he acted in television series including "The Monkees," "Bewitched," "I Dream of Jeannie" and "The Munsters." He wrote and produced television specials for John Denver, Shirley MacLaine, Goldie Hawn and Cher. His most recent credit in film was providing the story for "All The Queen's Men" (2001).
Wolfe's closest colleague at UNM was Jim Linnell, professor of dramatic writing and now dean of the College of Fine Arts. Linnell remembers Wolfe as "a provocateur in the best sense as a satirist, a teacher, a performer and a man who held no truck for the follies of our nature."
Wolfe received multiple Emmy nominations and won in 1968 for his work as writer on the first season of "Laugh-In," which he said was "based on impudent and irreverent takes on authority." The show became famous for discovering such comedic talents as Lily Tomlin, Goldie Hawn and Arte Johnson and for its sketch-comedy satire rooted in the traditions of vaudeville and burlesque but attacked contemporary political and sexual targets with a brash "Sixties" style.
Wolfe was also the author of the poem "Here's To the Kids Who Are Different," which has become famous in education circles. "Here's to the kids who are different," reads its last stanza, "For when they are grown,/As history has shown,/It's their difference that makes them unique."
Throughout his life, Wolfe was also a teacher. He taught writing for more than 25 years at the University of Southern California and for 12 years at the University of New Mexico. In 1968, he helped create the Black Writers Workshop in Watts. After his retirement from UNM, Wolfe frequently returned to teach writing in Australia.
In 1992, Wolfe came to New Mexico first as a visiting professor and then as chair of the Robert Hartung Dramatic Writing Program. Every year after he joined the faculty, the writing program presented a public festival or series of performances of original writing. For several years, a wildly popular festival of original short pieces called "Dionysus in the Round" engaged more than 100 students as writers, performers, directors or technical crew. Later his students performed all over Albuquerque on the back of a flat bed truck, "Pandora's Truck," and created pilot radio and television shows for KUNM and KNME ("Route 66: The Mother of All Roads s Fences").
"He was a creative burr under the saddle of the department who produced an astonishing amount of work in the short time he was there," Linnell said. "He presented an uncompromising model that writing, speaking your voice through a work risked before the public eye is the only thing that matters."
Linnell describes Wolfe's impact on a generation of writers at UNM:
"Digby was as at home talking about writing to an elementary school classroom as he was with professional artists. He was a man of extraordinary depths and a bottomless curiosity for what the next person will say or write, no matter their age. A common sight would be Digby's office full of writers working on a project he had set them. The place was alive with the sound of creative brainstorming, infectious, fearless, and unstoppable, and a great deal of laughter. It was the sound of Digby Wolfe at work."
A memorial service is set for Sunday, June 10 in the UNM Experimental Theatre, 2-4 p.m. Call (505) 277-2112.
- Inside UNM