It was far more than Charlie Hill’s ability to get an entire room laughing that made the stand-up comedian so influential, says longtime friend Jennifer Kreisberg.
“Nobody was doing what he did,” Kreisberg said from her home in Connecticut. “He took it way past fry bread and ‘booze’ jokes. He was so cutting-edge and always had a message in his humor.”
Those messages, along with his legacy, will be remembered and honored, say family and friends. Charlie Hill passed away December 30, 2013, at the age of 62 after a courageous battle with cancer.
“The Creator called Charlie back to the spirit world early this morning,” his family wrote on Facebook. “This is a sad and hard time for all of us.”
Hill, a member of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, was a stand-up comedian, writer and actor who found success in mainstream media through shows including “Roseanne” and “The Jay Leno Show.” He made his national television debut on the “Richard Pryor Show” in 1977, and was the first Native American on the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”
Two weeks before his death, Leno and Roseanne Barr helped host a fundraiser for Hill and his family to help cover medical expenses.
In 2012, First Peoples Fund honored Hill with a Community Spirit Award.
“Charlie’s story is one of hard work, persistence and following your passion in life,” said First Peoples Fund President Lori Pourier. “He was truly a pioneer for Native artists and his legacy will not be forgotten. It was an honor for me to have known him.”
Hill raised four kids with his wife Leonora. It was through his family life, as much as his work, that Hill demonstrated integrity and commitment, said Kreisberg, a singer who met Hill while performing more than 15 years ago.
“He was really, really smart, very supportive and always respectful,” she said. “He was always respectful of women, really professional… and really ‘rez’ at the same time.”
Hill traveled from his home in Wisconsin to Los Angeles to work. Kreisberg said she has applied much of what he taught her, particularly his lessons about putting family first.
“He was good about mentoring,” she said. “When I was younger, he gave me advice on being a good parent.”
Though he was able to cross over into mainstream media, Hill was careful not to “sell out,” Kreisberg added.
“He had a really high bar that he set for himself,” she said. “He would not compromise his art for a buck. He opened doors for all of us.”
Mostly, Kreisberg added, she will miss him for the man he was.
“He was funny and kind,” she said. “Because of him, I will continue to carry myself in a certain way. I will put family first. And I will continue to remind people about him—especially all the smiles and laughs he gave.”