SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. (AP) _ He played the fool as part of Sonny & Cher during the 1960s and '70s, and his very name became something of a punch line when he was first elected to Congress.

But Sonny Bono had gone a long way toward shedding his image as a bell-bottomed buffoon when he died in a skiing accident Monday. He was 62.

``Sonny was becoming a much more important leader than people realize,'' House Speaker Newt Gingrich said.

Bono, an avid skier, slammed into a tree while on the slopes at the Heavenly Ski Resort on the Nevada-California state line, 55 miles south of Reno.

Bono was skiing with his family when his daughter fell and his wife and son stopped to help her, officials said. Bono skied on ahead into the woods off the main trail to try out the fresh powder in an area that is not officially out of bounds but is more hazardous. He struck a tree squarely, ripping off the bark.

He died on impact of serious head and neck injuries, officials said.

A public vigil will be held from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at St. Theresa's Roman Catholic Church in Palm Springs, said Frank Cullen Jr., the Bono family spokesman. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Friday at the same church. The public is invited to attend.

Bono _ who had skied at the resort for more than 20 years _ was alone at the time of the crash. His family mostly likely didn't see him when they went down the same run, said Sgt. Lance Modispacher of the Douglas County Sheriff's Department.

``He was in such an area of trees that you wouldn't see him,'' Modispacher said.

Unaware he had not made it down the hill, his wife, Mary Whitaker, 6-year-old daughter Chianna and 9-year-old son Chesare, waited for him at the bottom. His wife reported him missing when the resort closed about 4:30 p.m. His body was found about two hours after that, but his death was not made public until after midnight.

Investigators said there was no immediate evidence that drugs or alcohol were involved.

His death came less than a week after Michael Kennedy, 39-year-old son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, slammed into a tree and died while playing football on skis in Aspen, Colo.

Bono evolved from playing the fall guy to his sharp-tongued wife on ``The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour,'' to a politician in demand for his GOP fund-raising speeches peppered with Hollywood anecdotes.

He was elected to Congress as a Republican representing the Palm Springs area in 1994.

``The last thing in the world I thought I would be is a U.S. congressman, given all the bobcat vests and Eskimo boots I used to wear,'' Bono said in 1995.

Fellow Republican Rep. Jim Saxton of New Jersey remembered Bono as someone who meant business. ``He had to work hard just to get past the perception that he was just a funny guy,'' Saxton said.

``He earned respect by being a witty and wise participant in policymaking processes that often seem ponderous to the American people,'' President Clinton said. ``He made us laugh even as he brought his own astute perspective to the work of Congress.''

Born in Detroit in 1935, Salvatore Bono moved to California with his family when he was 7. He started writing songs in high school and, when he drove a meat delivery truck, squeezed in trips to record companies to drop off songs.

He eventually worked as a songwriter and singer with Phil Spector and the Righteous Brothers. His first hit as a writer was ``Needles and Pins,'' which he wrote with Jack Nitzsche. It became a Top 20 single for the British group the Searchers in 1964.

It was with Cherilyn Sarkisian that things took off. Sonny and Cher's first hit, ``I Got You, Babe,'' went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1965. Other hits included ``Baby Don't Go,'' ``The Beat Goes On, ``It's the Little Things,'' ``It's a Beautiful Story'' and ``Laugh at Me.''

Sonny and Cher turned to television and their hit variety show, which ran on CBS from 1971 to 1974, was as well known for their comic on-stage bickering as the music. Bono, with his Dutch-boy haircut, droopy mustache and bell-bottoms, was a stark counterpoint to Cher, a thin, towering figure draped in spectacularly sequined outfits.

In the late '70s, Bono all but dropped out of show business, other than a few guest spots on shows such as ``Fantasy Island'' and ``The Love Boat.'' He went into the restaurant business in Palm Springs.

Bono _ who openly admitted that he never voted until age 53 _ ran for mayor of Palm Springs out of frustration over the red tape he faced for a remodeling project at the restaurant. He was elected in 1988, serving until 1992.

In 1994, Bono rode the GOP tide in Congress with a 56 percent to 38 percent win over Democrat Steve Clute. He won re-election in 1996.

Years after their divorce in 1974, he and Cher maintained a friendship.

Cher, who cut short a trip to London to return to the United States after Bono's death, looked tearful at the airport but had no comment.

Chastity Bono, Sonny and Cher's lesbian activist daughter, left for Palm Springs. She lives in New York.

``Although my father and I differed on some issues, he was very supportive of my personal life and career and was a loving father. I will miss him greatly,'' Ms. Bono said in a statement. Her father had said he loved his daughter but was ``not ready'' to accept single-sex marriages.

After his marriage to Cher, Bono was married to Susie Coehlo. They divorced in 1984. He married his fourth wife, Ms. Whitaker, in 1986. Bono had one daughter, Christy, with his first wife, Donna Rankin.