He returned to his Bel Air, California, home after shooting scenes in Griffith Park in Los Angeles for the summer replacement series for CBS that he hoped would go a long ways to helping him pay off his debt to the Internal Revenue Service. The innovative Kovacs had teamed up with former silent movie comic Buster Keaton for the proposed series, Medicine Man.
But it was time for a break. Kovacs' wife, Edie Adams, had already left for a baby shower being thrown by Hollywood director Billy Wilder for Milton Berle and his wife, who had just adopted a 3-year-old son. Kovacs slid behind the wheel of his Chevrolet Corvair station wagon and headed to Wilder's party.
Kovacs was the perfect party guest - amiable and chatty with a quirky sense of humor - as he worked the room, an ever-present cigar dangling from his hand. He and his wife were among the last of the 20 guests to leave, Adams in her car followed by Kovacs in the Corvair a bit before 2 a.m.
Within minutes, Kovacs - caught in a light Southern California rainstorm - lost control of the Corvair, sliding into a utility pole at the intersection of Beverly Glen and Santa Monica Boulevards with such force that the impact on the driver's side threw Kovacs halfway out the passenger side where he died from chest and head injuries.
Adams, who became concerned after arriving home with no word from her husband, learned about the accident when she called police. Inconsolable, she was unable to identify her husband's body at the morgue. Instead, that grim task fell to a family friend, actor Jack Lemmon.
A photographer who happened on the scene moments after the crash snapped a photo carried by dozens of U.S. newspapers the next day - a photo that showed an unlit cigar lying on the pavement, inches from Kovac's outstretched arm. The photo raised speculation that it was Kovac's attempt to light up one of his beloved cigars that led to the fatal accident.
Kovacs was 10 days from his 43rd birthday.
Born in Trenton, New Jersey, on January 23, 1919 to Hungarian immigrant parents, Kovacs struggled through school but received a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1937. Two years later he was struck down with pneumonia and pleurisy, which nearly took his life.
In the 19 months he was hospitalized while recovering, Kovacs entertained medical staff and fellow patients with his quirky sense of humor and zany antics. Once cured, Kovacs began his professional career in 1941 as a disc jockey on Trenton radio station WTTM. In 1945, he added a newspaper column to his resume.
He got his big break in 1950 at Philadelphia television station WPTZ where he was assigned various shows, including the ground-breaking Three to Get Ready morning show, where he introduced his trademark brand of original and often ad-libbed skit humor.
He moved to New York City in 1952 and had a variety of television roles on all the major networks of the time. He had a particular passion for music, which he often used in his blackout routines, including his signature skit - apes wearing derbies while performing as "The Nairobi Trio" to Robert Maxwell's Solfeggio.
Kovacs, who moved from New York to California in 1957, had an ongoing dispute with the IRS after he refused to pay taxes for several years. He began to repay his debt around the same time that he was doing what is generally regarded as his best work, a series of specials for ABC-TV in 1961-62. His final special for the network aired 10 days after his death on Jan. 23, 1962.
Kovacs' innovative comedic style was a strong influence for shows that followed, including Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and Saturday Night Live, whose Chevy Chase publicly thanked Kovacs in his Emmy acceptance speech.
Kovacs often appeared with Adams, his second wife, who was an accomplished actress and comedienne herself. Both were well-known in the cigar-smoking community. Kovacs was rarely seen in public without one, having exchanged a cigarette chain-smoking habit for a cigar chain-smoking habit years earlier. Adams was a spokeswoman for Muriel cigars for years.
Even in death, Kovacs continued to be an enigma. His pallbearers included Lemmon, Frank Sinatra, Wilder and Dean Martin and the eulogy consisted of two sentences: "I was born in Trenton, N.J. in 1919 to a Hungarian couple. I've been smoking cigars ever since."
He was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles and his simple tombstone reads: "Nothing in moderation. We all loved him."
Kovacs' only child with Adams - daughter Mia Susan - was also killed in an automobile accident, on May 8, 1982, at the age of 22. Adams died on October 15, 2008, at the age of 81.
Ernest Edward Kovacs
Born: January 23, 1919
Died: January 13, 1962
Here's a video of Kovacs' famous Nairobi Trio:
Another famous Kovacs skit, the tilted table:
Here's a complete Ernie Kovacs Show: