Born in Manhattan, New York, he was the younger son of The Sun advertising manager Patrick Carlin (1888–1945), an immigrant from County Donegal, Ireland, and secretary Mary Beary-Carlin (born c. 1905), who was an American of Irish ancestry. While he came from a Catholic family, Carlin rejected religion.
His parents separated when he was 2 months old due to his father’s alcoholism.
Mary subsequently raised George and his older brother, Patrick Carlin, Jr. (born October 1, 1931), on her own.
His maternal grandfather, Dennis Bearey, was an Irish immigrant who worked as a New York City policeman.
One immigrant grandmother’s maiden name once was O’Grady, he recalled, but it changed to Grady before she reached America.
He attended Corpus Christi School, a Roman Catholic parish school of the Corpus Christi Church, in Morningside Heights. After three semesters, Carlin involuntarily left Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx at age 15.
He briefly attended Bishop Dubois High School in Harlem and the Salesian High School in Goshen, New York. He spent many summers at Camp Notre Dame on Spofford Lake in Spofford, New Hampshire.
He regularly won the camp’s drama award, and specified that after his death a portion of his ashes be spread at the lake.
Carlin’s acting career was primed with a major supporting role in the 1987 comedy hit Outrageous Fortune, starring Bette Midler and Shelley Long; it was his first notable screen role after a handful of previous guest roles on television series. Playing drifter Frank Madras, the role poked fun at the lingering effect of the 1960s counterculture.
In 1989, he gained popularity with a new generation of teens when he was cast as Rufus, the time-travelling mentor of the titular characters in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and reprised his role in the film sequel Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey as well as the first season of the cartoon series.
He also played the role of “Mr Conductor” on the PBS show Shining Time Station and narrating the show’s sequences of the American version of Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends from 1991 to 1995, replacing Ringo Starr.
Just before Christmas 2005, he experienced significant shortage of breath and other heart-related symptoms. On Christmas Day he entered Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Beverly Hills.
During an eight-day stay he was treated for a lung infection and narrowed arteries. He received antibiotics and an angioplasty that included the placement of a double stent. The procedure was successful, but he was advised to take things slowly in the New Year.
Although his mother almost had an abortion when she was pregnant with him, he has spoken out in favour of abortion rights and even convinced his wife, Brenda, to have one when she became pregnant again in the late ’60s, right in the middle of his financial troubles stemming from his outspokenness and lack of clubs willing to book him for it.
According to his autobiography, since it was in the days before Roe v Wade when abortion was illegal in California, they had to meet the abortion providers in a parking lot in Burbank, and Brenda was blindfolded for the trip to the clinic and back.
Carlin published Brain Droppings in 1997. The book included his comedic take on life, society and politics. It spent 18 weeks on the New York Times’ best-seller list.
Two years later, syndicated columnist Mike Barnicle was suspended from the Boston Globe, after he had plagiarized passages from Carlin’s book. To Carlin’s benefit, the widely publicized controversy led to an increase in book sales.