‘He worked hard, he played hard.’ Iconic Charlotte attorney Bill Diehl dies at 78.

Bill Diehl finally did something quietly.

The iconic Charlotte attorney — equal parts courtroom performance artist, high-profile party animal and uninhibitedly passionate legal advocate — died peacefully in his sleep Thursday night at Sharon Towers, according to a family member.

Diehl was 78. The cause of death was complications from his latest stroke, which he suffered last week, said Danny Diehl, who saw his big brother daily in recent years.

Bill Diehl had been in mostly declining health since his retirement from his law practice in 2016.

But those years did little to erase Diehl’s footprint across much of Charlotte and the Carolinas — from the courthouses where Diehl was the most feared divorce attorney in North Carolina, to the front rows of NBA games and rock concerts, where his shoulder-length, reddish-blonde hair and rotund shape made him a modern-day Falstaff in eternal quest for the next great night out.

GO DEEPER: Theoden Janes takes you inside Bill Diehl's life in 2018

Diehl trended toward high-profile clients, from NBA owner George Shinn to NASCAR mogul Bruton Smith. And before there were anonymous online chat rooms, Diehl was willing to say outrageously critical things, whether he was in a courtroom dismantling a witness or confronting a judge or holding forth in front of a TV camera during back-and-forths with the press.

He used some of the “crazy money” he earned to amass equally crazy collections of record albums and red wine. He owned a 43-foot sailboat. He leased a private jet for trips most anyone would have made in a car. Cars were for muggles, not Bill Diehl.

“He really broke the mold. I tell young lawyers all the time, ‘Don’t try to be Bill Diehl. It won’t work for for you. You’re not Bill Diehl,’” said Ed Hinson, a longtime law partner.

Diehl, according to family and friends, was a man of huge appetites and multiple passions.

“He could go from being really nice to incredibly vicious in a few seconds. He was a man of great contrasts, passionate on all ends,” Danny Diehl said of his brother.

“He worked hard. He lived hard. He played harder, and he did not leave any cards on the table. You’ve got to admire that.”

Diehl is survived by two children from a former marriage. A memorial service will be held in the new year.

His courtroom tactics pinballed between the unorthodox and the extreme.

Defending Shinn in a sexual assault trial, Diehl got down on the floor of the courtroom to argue how the Hornets owner had to be an octopus to grope the accuser in all the ways she claimed.

“All this time the jury is looking down at Bill, who’s pretty fat, wondering if he’ll be able to get back up,” Hinson said.

Hinson said Diehl was also fearless, recalling a heated court hearing years ago when the late Mecklenburg County Judge Frank Snepp, a retired Marine, told Diehl to “sit down and shut up” after Smith had ruled against him on an issue.

“Essentially, Bill said, ‘Judge, if you would just shut up and listen to me I’ll explain why you’re wrong,’” Hinson recalled. “I couldn’t believe it, and then the judge ruled with Bill.”

Diehl also was among a cadre of lawyers who donated their time in 1996 to help raise the curtain on a Charlotte production of “Angels in America,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the AIDS epidemic.

He also did charitable work and donated his money on “the down low,” Hinson says, whenever he saw a need.

“I think he worked hard to cover up his personal compassion and generosity behind that persona of ‘Bill Badass,’” Hinson said. “He tried to come across as the toughest and meanest lawyer around. But very privately, he did a lot of good things for everyday people.”

Said his brother: “He took on many cases for free for something he believed in, (feeling) that ‘I’m not going to let this happen if I can help it.’”

Getting what you paid for

William K. Diehl grew up in Norfolk, Va., the oldest of six children in a family that relocated to eastern North Carolina around his sophomore year in high school.

Diehl worked his way through UNC Chapel Hill, then studied law at the University of Virginia. He learned to be fast both on his feet and with his mouth by DJing on his father’s radio stations.

Shortly after taking his first law job in Charlotte in 1969, Diehl refused the request of a partner at the firm that he cut his hair. Instead, Diehl suggested the older attorney wear longer socks so Diehl did not have to look at his legs.

A die was cast.

Diehl’s rise in legal circles in many ways paralleled the emergence of his adopted hometown on the national stage.

When the Hornets arrived in the late 1980s, Diehl became a front-row season-ticket holder for the rest of his life, perhaps his most successful personal relationship outside of work. When his health failed and Diehl was confined to a wheelchair, the team made sure Diehl had a court-side seat.

Diehl’s bluster and courtroom shenanigans often masked the work he put in.

“He was probably one of the best-prepared lawyers that ever appeared in my courtroom,” retired Mecklenburg Judge Richard Boner said for a 2018 Observer profile of Diehl.

“I know that he was expensive. But I will tell you this: He fulfilled, in every case that I witnessed, the mandate that’s in the canon of ethics for attorneys — that you should represent your client zealously within the bounds of the law.

“... Even though you paid him a lot of money, you got what you were paying for.”

Some of the most memorable stories about Diehl are told by his courtroom adversaries. Hinson shares one — courtesy of Tom Bush, a former Mecklenburg commissioner and lawyer who squared off frequently with Diehl in Family Court.

As Hinson tells it, Bush was on hand several years back, when Diehl was baptized at Elevation Church. He said the minister dunked Diehl under the water then routinely pulled him back up.

Here’s where it got weird. The minister stared at Diehl for a moment, then two, before dunking him again.

Bush quipped: “We should have rolled him through a car wash.”

Danny Diehl, a longtime public information officer for the Mecklenburg County government and 16 years younger than Bill, said his last conversation with his brother occurred about six weeks back.

Bill and Danny Diehl were joined by an out-of-town brother, Jim, and the three siblings spent their last Saturday night together at the Rusty Bucket in SouthPark. They drank beer, ate some pizza and wings, and watched the Alabama-Tennessee football game.

Blustery, big-talking Bill Diehl had been reduced to a whisper by that point, yet he still commanded the table.

Observer reporter Théoden Janes contributed to this story.