BERNARD PUNSLY (80) January 20, 2004
The first time Bernard Punsly ever got top billing...and it's only because he was the first performer in the comedy world to die in 2004.
Punsly was one of the lesser members of the Dead End Kids, usually with nothing much to do except trail behind Billy Halop, Leo Gorcey or Huntz Hall. After early films "Angels with Dirty Faces" and "Hells Kitchen," he sensed that movie stardom would not be his. He became a doctor, and spent four decades healing the sick and answering dopey questions about Gorcey and Co. He must've been a pretty good physician...he survived long past Halop, Gorcey, Hall, Dell and the others, to become "the last of the Dodos...uh, Dead End Kids."
RONNIE GAYLORD (72) January 25, 2004
In the wonderful world of Las Vegas, there were any number of tuxedo-wearing duos who told jokes or sang crowdpleasers made famous by Sinatra, Bennett or anyone but them. Somwhere between the mostly music Sandler & Young and the mostly comic Allen & Rossi was The Gaylords. Originally a trio (with forgotten hits "Tell Me You're Mine" (#2, 1952), "From The Vine Came The Grape" (#7, 1954) and "The Little Shoemaker" (#2, 1954) leaders Ronnie Gaylord (Ronald Fredianelli) and Burt Holiday eventually became a duo. They recorded an album, "Hi, Simply Hi," based on the burbling catch-phrase of a gay-stereotype character one of them played. Gaylord and Holliday continued to perform until 2003. Gaylord passed away of cancer in Reno.
JACK PAAR (85) January 27, 2004
Idiosyncratic,compelling, maddening and always as difficult to deal with as he was to ignore, Jack Paar made "The Tonight Show" compulsive viewing between 1957 and 1962 with his earnestly confessional monologue style, witty ad-libs and parade of influential guests. He liked to say he "invented" the talk show, which he didn't, and "discovered" stars such as Jonathan Winters and Bill Cosby, which he didn't. The revisionist TV documentaries about him (which couldn't be produced without his ok on the clips) also stated he quit while he was ahead, which he didn't; he came back and embarrassed himself in 1975 with an out-of-date program of musings and home movies that ended both his run and Dick Cavett's, who was sharing alternate weeks with him.
What Paar did was to take over a hit show from Steve Allen and add a lot more conversational segments, while still allowing guests to perform songs or stand-up. He tended to put on more politicians (notably Nixon and JFK) and allow his show to become a dramatic showcase for meltdowns (anyone from Mickey Rooney to Judy Garland) and heartbreak (Robert F. Kennedy coming on Paar's show to talk about his recently assasinated brother)
During his run, Paar feuded with a variety of people, from columnists to competition (notably Ed Sullivan) and even quit the show in mid-broadcast in a typical moment of high-strung tantrum (leaving bewildered Hugh Downs to carry on). His late-night parties often featured regulars from Jack Douglas to Genevieve, and there was always the possibility of a sudden fracas or an erratic moment of brilliance (Liberace accompanying Cassius Clay in a poetry-and-music segment, Godfrey Cambridge shown performing for an all-black audience, etc.)
After the late 70's, Paar became reclusive. Coaxed into an appearance on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," the "historic" meeting of the two was rendered pathetic by Paar's self-effacing stutters and compulsive anecdotes (Johnny barely got in more than one question). This, and a brittle memoir that sourly denounced Groucho Marx and most other performers he knew, gave most people little reason to want him around. He also ignored fan mail and replied to infrequent autograph requests with a simple, "I don't sign autographs." He lived in Greenwich, Connecticut with few outside of his family aware of whatever illnesses were ebbing his strength.
Paar was so obscure that at his death, TV news reports barely mentioned him and Jay Leno didn't bother to show a clip, or even a photo of Paar. He instead gave a very brief acknowledgement of Paar's passing before launching into his "Headlines" routine
About the only voice raised in praise of Paar was Dick Cavett's, via a newspaper piece. He wrote that Paar "was an immense talent. He appeared to be uninfluenced. His delivery of material was like that of no one who came before. He was a genius as a monologuist, and I'm not sure anyone has revealed that he did his monologue without cue cards or prompter. He selected the material he wanted and then wrote it out for himself with a fountain pen, and he had it. This is unheard of.
"He had looks and brains and talent, but so do many people. But you never hear anyone say, "He's a Jack Paar type." Mercurial may come closest to describing that unique makeup that was Jack's personality. He was smart, sentimental,witty, irritable, loyal, insecure, infuriating, hilarious, neurotic and totally entertaining."
RIKKI FULTON (79) January 27, 2004
One of the big comedy names in Scotland, Rikki Fulton starred in "Scotch and Wry" on U.K. television from 1978-1992, and was well known for his comedy characters Josie (in "Francie and Josie"), SuperCop and the sad Reverend I.M. Jolly. He also appeared in such 80's films as "Local Hero", "Comfort and Joy" and a dramatic turn in "Gorky Park."
Born in Dennistoun, Glasgow, he was a Navy volunteer in World War II, seeing more than active duty; his ship was torpedoed in the Mediterranean. He returned home to a career as an actor, but gradually comedy began to dominate. He received a lifetime achievement award from BAFTA Scotland in 1993. One of his last TV appearances was in "The Tales of Para Handy" (1994)). He was semi-retired when he received an honorary doctorate from St. Andrew's University in 2000, and suffered from Alzheimer's disease. His friend Tom Shields noted that at first, Rikki could make this a joke, and use it to his advantage: "The Alzheimer’s provided a perfect alibi in the early days for not talking to people he would rather avoid. “I’m sorry. Do I know you?” he would ask innocently."
“Towards the end," his wife Kate reported, "Rikki could not speak, he could not eat, he could not walk. But he was still a great kisser. On the last day he kissed me goodbye and he went very peacefully.”
For more, there's his autobiography, "Is That The Time Already?"
SIG SAKOWICZ (80) February 7, 2004
Jimmy Durante had "Mrs. Calabash," and Rodney Dangerfield had "Dr. Vinnie Boombots," and whenever he needed a funny name, Jackie Vernon would use "Sig Sakowicz." Sig actually existed (up until February 7, 2004). Sigmund Stanislaus Sakowicz began his career in his home town of Chicago, winning succes on WGN in 1954. He was a fixture on Chicago radio and there's even a local street, Sig Sakowicz Drive named after him. In 1971 he moved to Las Vegas hosting a TV show on KLAS and later KTNV. He wrote a gossip column for a local paper and the big guy (275 pounds) became a crony of many of the show biz stars he interviewed. Back in Chicago in 1985, he was on WVVX radio and later syndicated a TV show, "Sig's Celebrity Cooking," twice nominated for daytime Emmy awards. Sig was known to mount some comedy of his own, from novelty singles ( "Polish Baseball Power," which featured the names of every fair and foul Pole in the sport) to a 1972 presidential run: "Vote for Sig Sakowicz for President. What have you got to lose?" He was buried in Chicago, with a funeral mass supervised by his minister son, Greg Sakowicz.
JANE HAMILTON (88) February 9, 2004
When you've just about exhausted your repertoire of Curly finger-snaps, nyuk noises and high-pitched shouts of "Why Soitanly," and bought every Stooge book, video, can opener, clock, beer mug, t-shirt and talking action figure in existence, what, if you're a total 3 Stooges fan, do you do next? Get a tattoo, dress up as your favorite Stooge, and maybe go to one of the increasingly desperate Stooge conventions.
It's there that you'll ask "How was it to work with THE BOYS?" to a very old, obscure person who appeared in one of their vintage shorts. Alas, "How was it to work with THE BOYS?" will no longer be asked of Jane Hamilton, who played Mirabel Mirabel in "Three Missing Links." She passed on iin Malibu, Malibu.
DRAKE SATHER (44) March 3, 2004
Similar in style to Norm MacDonald, Drake Sather was a sardonic, somewhat handsome stand-up who liked to deliver deliberately wicked one-liners. It was a bit startling to see a few James Dean-type "bad boys" (distantly, Dennis Leary was also in this category) get up and be smirky. It was effective because, unlike a Sam Kinison or Emo Phillips, these were "normal" looking guys who didn't seem to have a reason for their comic misanthropy
Sather, like MacDonald, had limited stand-up success, but more potential as a writer and actor. He wrote for "Saturday Night Live," "The Larry Sanders Show" and Dennis Miller's talk show. He also co-wrote "Zoolander" with Ben Stiller. Separated from his wife and four kids, living in a loft on East First Street in Los Angeles, Sather's end came via a bullet to the head in the middle of the night
GENEVIEVE (83) March 14, 2004
Known for her frequent appearances on the old Jack Paar "Tonight Show," Ginette Marguérite Auger was born in Paris on April 17, 1920 and in her thirties had her own local nightclub. She appeared in American venues and in 1957 turned up on Paar's show. She had the flu: "Someone brought me a cup of hot rum and butter, and even though I could barely speak English we talked and I drank. The audience started laughing. I realized I was getting drunk and saying funny things."
It was the age of the funny foreign girls, from Zsa Zsa to Reiko, and it didn't last long. Genevieve toured in "Can Can" and after Paar went off the year, she settled down with her husband, producer Ted Mills and their children. He died in August, and she suffered a stroke not long before her death.
CONNIE CEZON (78) March 26, 2004
In another tragedy for die-hard 3 Stooges fans, yet another obscure actress who appeared with "the boys" passed on to that great pie in the sky, forever immune to earnest pestering about what Curly was really like. Connie Cezon actually was engaged to not only Curly, but Larry and Moe in the appropriately named short "Corny Casanovas," and unlike so many starlets who had no other credits, she appeared in more than one Stooge vehicle (and was especially noteworthy in "Up in Daisy's Penthouse"). Decades later, she grabbed another slim slice of glory by playing Gertie, the receptionist on Raymond Burr's "Perry Mason" show.
SIR PETER USTINOV (82) March 28, 2004
Revered as a raconteur, writer, and actor in both comedies and dramas, Peter Ustinov wished these words on his tombstone: "Keep Off the Grass."
Born in London in 1921, exactly 30 years later he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor ("Quo Vadis"). He would win twice, for "Spartacus" (1961) and "Topkapi" (1965). He also had three Emmy awards and a Grammy. He authored "Romanoff and Juliet" and "Hot Millions," recorded several comedy albums of anecdotes and unusual mimicry, as well as children's stories. After turning down the Inspector Clouseau role in "The Pink Panther" later emerged as detective Hercule Poirot in a series of semi-comic movies.
The portly star lived large, with multiple homes around the world. Though he spent much time in Switzerland (where he died of diabetes complications) he was given a CBE in 1975 (Commander of the British Empire) and a knighthood in 1990. He was known throughout the world, and for the world, he devoted much of his time to UNICEF. He said: "It is our responsibilities, not ourselves, that we should take seriously."
SYLVIA FROOS (89) March 28, 2004
So who starred in the first talkie? Sylvia Froos might say "Me!" As a child star, billed as "The Little Princess of Song," she made two Vitaphone "all talking" short subjects that were released before Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer." Froos was also in "Stand Up and Cheer" (1934) with Shirley Temple. She sang on radio shows hostedby Jolson, Fred Allen and many others, eventually getting her own NBC series. She recorded lots of 78's including coy novelties such as "Who's Your Little Who-Zis?" Fans of Jewish novelty songs might remember her "Tennessee Frelach," a parody of Patti Page's "Tennessee Waltz," and her duet with Allan Sherman, "A Sachel and a Seck" (parody of Frank Loesser's 'Bushel and a Peck"). Both numbers turned up on the Jubilee album "Allan Sherman and Friends." Sylvia lived in New York City.
ALAN KING (76) May 9, 2004
At a Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth, Her Royal Highness said, "How do you do, Mr. King?" And Alan replied, "How do you do, Mrs. Queen?"
This didn't exactly get a big reaction. He recalled, "She stared at me, and then Prince Philip laughed. Thank God, Prince Philip laughed."
For Alan King, Thank God, Ed Sullivan laughed, too. King made 93 appearances on Ed's show, and for middle class viewers, King was their Lenny Bruce and their Mort Sahl. With his vested suits and sullenly curled lip, he took on...doctors, suburbia, airplanes. Arrogantly waving a cigar, glowering with disgust, enunciating every minor crime against modern middle class man, Alan King was, as Billy Crystal said in his eulogy, "The Terminator on stage. He pushed the audience around like they weighed nothing...offstage I found him exactly the same."
King did live like Long Island royalty, owning a huge mansion with elaborate health facilities and a tennis court. Most of the area tennis players used Alan's place for workouts and exercise and he was a regular at the U.S. Open
Born Irwin Alan Knibert, Alan grew up in Brooklyn and worked the usual Catskill resorts and nightclub dives, learning from more successful contemporaries, like Danny Thomas. "Danny actually talked to his audience, and I realized I never talked to my audience. I talked at 'em, around 'em and over 'em, but not to 'em. I felt the response they had for him. I said to myself, 'This guy is doing something, and I better start doing it."' He was soon an opening act for a variety of top singers, and finally a solo success. In the early 60's, at the height of his Sullivan show success, he authored a few books: "Anyone Who Owns His Own Home Deserves One" (1962) and "Help! I'm a Prisoner in a Chinese Bakery" (1964).
While other Ed Sullivan acts self-destructed or died, King was not Jackie Mason or Myron Cohen, and maintained a steady successful career and branched out into movies, notably "Bye Bye Braverman," "Lovesick," "Bonfire of the Vanities," "Tell Me What You Want," "Cat's Eye" and "Rush Hour 2." He even became a big-time movie and Broadway producer via "Memories of Me" and "Wolfen" on screen, and "The Lion in Winter" and "Something Different" on stage. He starred on Broadway in a revival of "Guys and Dolls" and in "The Impossible Years," and true to his old show biz roots, became the abbot of the New York Friars Club. Though he had a cantankerous stage personality, he was much beloved by other comics, New York writers and politicians, and a family that include three children and his wife Jeannette whom he married in 1947.
TOMMY ROSE (87) May 15, 2004
A British comedian who specialized in drag, Rose was a lead comic in various touring revues of the 40's and 50's such as "Soldiers in Skirts," "Forces in Petticoats" and "Misleading Ladies." These all-male revues entertained British troops all over the globe, and were popular enough to also amuse patrons back home, where previous generations of drag ("Old Mother Reilly") had been accepted and new performers (Danny La Rue) were just beginning to totter in high heels. Rose, born September 27, 1916, had co-starred in many stage shows (notably opposite Sybil Thorndike in "Elizabeth of England") before World War II. After the war, he was best known for playing "leading lady" in such revues as "Tokio Express" (1946) and "This Was the Army" (1949). Rose and another drag star, Sonny Dawkes, formed a duo and continued into the 70's when Rose retired to run a company specializing in theatrical costumes.
TONY RANDALL (84) May 18, 2004
When Tony Randall died in his sleep after a brief illness, most reporters used the word "beloved" to describe him....quite an achievement for an actor who was primarily known for playing pests, fussbudgets and knowi-it-alls. But what Randall brought to those roles was a depiction of human nature that was as vulnerable as it was hilarious. Fans of "The Odd Couple" never once denied that Felix Ungar was a ridiculous and irritating person, but none would have given up the opportunity of being his friend
Likewise, Randall had the audience smiling when he appeared on talk shows, whether to taunt Johnny Carson with obscure dictionary words and erudition, or to parody the wan show-biz has-been willing to do anything for a cameo on David Letterman's show. He scored with ebulliently annoying novelty songs from the 20's (which he not only performed on TV at every opportunity but issued on two Mercury albums), co-starred in a variety of comic films, and even had his own TV show for a while, playing a gay character. In real life, he had a long-time marriage and when his wife died, he re-married and began a family while in his late 70's
True to form, Randall wrote a book of anecdotes debunking the joys of the radio era and making fun of the foibles of actors, but also past his "Odd Couple" days he strove to establish a serious repertory theater on Broadway for the revival of classic American plays. Fans really wanted to just see Randall in a good comedy, and he obliged, teaming with Jack Klugman for a production of "The Sunshine Boys" a few years ago. He and Klugman sold their autographed photos...to raise money for the theatre. He loved New York, and New York -- and fans around the world -- loved him
ROBERT LEES (84) June 13, 2004
With psycho extremists beheading Americans abroad, you'd think the comedy world, and a 91 year-old writer for Abbott & Costello might be spared here. But, no...
Just what was going on in the mind of 27 year-old Kevin Lee Graff, a hostile-looking punk with long hair and a ratty goatee, is not yet known, just that he decided to slice off the head of Mr. Lees, bring it over to the home of Lees' neighbor 67 year-old neighbor Dr. Hal Engelson, and stab the doctor to death. The doctor had been making a phone call -- to a nearby airport to book a flight
Police found Engelson's body when the ticket agent at the airport called to report that there was trouble on the line. They found Engelson's body. Meanwhile, a friend of Lees, made the grisly discovery next door, a corpse with no head: "It was unreal...I couldn't believe it," said Helen Colton, 86. "I was befuddled for a moment. It was like a movie, not real life."
Lees worked on the scripts for Bud and Lou films "Hit the Ice," "Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, "Hold that Ghost" and "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" and was also a writer on "Crazy House" for Olsen and Johnson. During the Communist Scare when he was blacklisted, he continued to write under the name J.E. Selby. Spry and lucid, Lees was often called upon to talk about the movie world, script-writing and the blacklist. He apparently didn't know his murderer, a drifter with a record of petty crimes. Just as Islamic fundamentalists seem to behead people for greed and sadism and then find religious justification, Graff may ultimately cop a religious rationale. When found, arrested after a security guard had caught him lurking and attempting to sneak into the Paramount Studios lost, Graff was carrying a can of Mace and a Bible.
JACKSON BECK (92), July 28, 2004
One of the legends in voice-over and announcing work, Jackson Beck was a busy radio personality and later in constant demand for TV commercials. He was the voice of Bluto in the classic "Popeye" cartoons and both "Good King Leonardo" and nemesis "Biggy Rat" for the Leonardo tv cartoon series. He sometimes used his deadly serious announcing voice for deadpan comedy...notably the narration for Woody Allen's "Take the Money and Run" and on "Deteriorata," for the National Lampoon "Radio Dinner" album. In a parody of Les Crane's "Desiderata," he declared in all soothing solemnity, "You are a fluke of the universe, you have no right to be here. And whether you can hear it or not, the universe is laughing behind your back..."
MOUSIE GARNER (95) August 8, 2004
A tiny 5'4" vaudevillian who was usually squashed by a much bigger and more famous clown, Paul Garner worked on stage, in films, and liked to talk about how often he was considered as "next in line" for a job with The Three Stooges. He finally got his chance when Joe DeRita, now minus Moe and Larry, formed "The New Stooges" with Mousie for a few hapless gigs.
At one time the little comic was the star of his own group, The Rollicking Mousie Garner Trio, which crossed the Stooges brand of humor with Spike Jones...as prop musical instruments ended up being smashed over each other's heads. And yes, Garner did work with Jones at one time as well as many other comics and stooges.
Mousie published a book a few years ago, detailing his many years in show biz, which stretched to a cameo in the1994 film``Radioland Murders.'
WILLIAM PIERSON (78) August 27, 2004
Several generations remember William Pierson's comic support. In the 50's comedy-drama "Stalag 17," he was Marko the Mailman, issuing a loud, nasal and desultory shout of "At ease," every time the soldiers began grousing over his latest news or cautionery announcement from the Nazis. Pierson was one of many Broadway cast members asked to repeat the role for the movie version. His other stage credits included "High Button Shoes," "Make Mine Manhattan" and "Reuben, Reuben." He also starred in a national touring company of "The Odd Couple."
Pierson's films included "Operation Madball" and "Fun With Dick and Jane," and in the 70's he amused a new generation by creating a trademark laugh for his character Dean Travers on "Three's Company." He also turned up on "The Facts of Life," "One Day at a Time," "All in the Family" "Diff'rent Strokes" and "The Cop And The Kid" (as 'Sergeant Zimmerman'). The guy with the tangy New York accent died at the Valley View Care Center in Newton, New Jersey
SUZANNE KAAREN (87) August 27, 2004
She battled Donald Trump and Bela Lugosi. She danced with the Three Stooges and married character actor Sidney Blackmer. She made dozens and dozens of film appearances...most of them as a leggy, un-credited showgirl.
She was Suzanne Kaaren (sometimes, when she got billing, Suzanne Karen). Born in Brooklyn (March 21, 1912) like the Stooges, she achieved her comedy fame by suddenly peeling down and doing a shimmy in "Disorder in the Court." This 1936 effort is not only one of the funniest Stooge shorts, it's also the best known, mostly because it's the only Curly short that lapsed into public domain (and used constantly in film clip compilations). Suzanne, an ex-Rockette who also appeared in Ziegfeld Follies films, once had her legs insured for a million bucks.
She played "Gail Tempest" in "Disorder in the Court", and also turned up as a singing sister in the Stooge short "Yes We Have No Bonanza" (1939) and was Dolores Sanchez is "What's the Matador" (1942). Usually her character had a name but the role wasn't big enough for Suzanne to be mentioned...as she sang, danced or flirted as a chorus girl, nurse or nightclub denizen. After another typical brief role ("Countess Tamara" in 1939's "The Women") she managed to get a decent role in Bela Lugosi's "Devil Bat" (1940) as Mary Heath. But she made only a few films after that, and none between 1944 and her 1984 cameo as Duchess of Park Avenue in "The Cotton Club."
She married Sidney Blackmer, known for nefarious character roles, and had two kids (Jonathan and Brewster). The Blackmers lived in Salisbury, North Carolina and were beloved local celebs who were known for helping out at amateur theatrical productions. After Blackmer's death in 1973, Suzanne moved permanently to the family's New York apartment. She successfully fought to keep her rent-controlled home despite Donald Trump's plans, and in 1998 was given $750,000 in settlement when The Donald finally turned the building condo. In her later years, she stayed at the Lillian Booth Actor's Home of the Actor's Fund of America in Englewood, N.J., still attracting the loving attention of family, North Carolina friends, and pie-eyed Stooge fans.
DONALD GARDNER (91) September 15, 2004
If you wonder what "one-hit" songwriters do for a living, the answer is...live pretty nicely as long as they never quit the day job. Gardner was a music teacher in Smithtown, New York when he penned a novelty tune in 1947. He had asked his class of brats what they wanted for Christmas...and as they took turns answering, he noticed that all of them could've used...two front teeth
"All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" became a favorite in the Spike Jones version (sung by George Rock) but Gardner was touched when Nat "King" Cole recorded it in a less jokey version. Gardner, born in Portland, PA and a graduate of West Chester University, composed a variety of music and later became a music editor at Ginn & Company. He is survived by his sons and by his college sweetheart Doris...they had been married 65 years. At his memorial service at Wellesley Hills Congregational Church, amid the hymns, the entire congregation was asked to sing..."All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth"
MAX GELDRAY (88) October 2, 2004
On "The Goon Show" a punch up the conk was sometimes affectionately pointed in the direction of Max Geldray, the show's Amsterdam-born harmonica player. He was a jazz harmonica player in the late 30's with the Ray Ventura Orchestra in France, served in the Dutch Army during WW II, and after discovering that his family had perished in German death camps, stayed in England where he became a British citizen and, eventually, famous for his musical relief during Goon radio madness. His travels took him permanently to America where he was a counselor at the Betty Ford center and still a musician for anyone who wanted to hear him play. He died at his Palm Springs home, survived by his wife, a son, two step-daughters and grandchildren.
RODNEY DANGERFIELD (82) October 5, 2004
Still active in his last year, Rodney Dangerfield appeared on "The Tonight Show," published an autobiography, and was interviewed in Rolling Stone about his medical use of marijuana. He had prepared himself well for heart surgery, but it was a risky procedure and he died after a lingering coma.
Despite his "I don't get no respect" catch-phrase, Rodney didn't feel sorry for himself, and neither did the obituary writers, TV news reporters, or Jay Leno or David Letterman, who all took the opportunity of Rodney's demise to quote a bunch of his trademark one-liners. Rodney would've wanted it that way. He wasn't a "loser," his comic style was to grouse about his problems, and use exclamation points to emphasize the unfairness of life: "I'm an Earth sign, my wife's a water sign. Together we made MUD!"
Unlike his early contemporary, Jackie Vernon, Rodney didn't dwell in self-pity, deadpan or pathos. With his eyes bugging, his hands reaching for his tie as if it was a noose tightening, Rodney was aggressive, not passive, in complaining about life and fate: "I was an ugly baby! When I was born, the doctor slapped my mother!"
What made Rodney a success for so long was his strict belief in solidly constructed jokes...properly memorized and flawlessly delivered. He gave customers more than their moneysworth with every monologue.
Born Jacob Cohen in Babylon, Long Island (New York), Rodney was a small-time comic like his father, hanging around the Catskills, meeting up with Sally Marr and her young son Lenny Bruce, getting advice from Buddy Hackett (who told Rodney, "make it look like you're ad-libbing everything.") Like his father, he used the last name "Roy" for his show-biz career, but it wasn't a royal success for either. He became a salesman, wrote jokes for other comics, and watched life get worse. At one point he was $20,000 in debt. He decided to try show business again, this time with a new name. And finally, in the mid-60's, "Rodney Dangerfield" became a hit...as a comic version of the middle-aged failure he felt he'd become.
He turned up on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in March of 1967. He opened a local comedy club in 1969 so he could be close to his ailing wife and his two kids (Brian and Melanie). In 1970 he divorced his wife and she died not long after. But through the 70's, Rodney thrived, and in 1980 he had a hit role in the film "Caddyshack." He also was helping out new performers at his club, giving Sam Kinision a break and using Jim Carrey as an opening act in Las Vegas.
He became a star comedian with the hits "Easy Money" and "Back to School," and re-married in 1993. He became one of the first stars to actively involve himself in an Internet website, and and continued to make films and appear on "The Tonight Show," becoming one of the living legends in stand-up. In private, he was pretty much what you saw on stage...he could be gruff and distant...wanting to be left alone to his misery. Typical of his personality was the time he answered a question about whether he was enjoying his new fame as a movie star. He replied, "I'm too old to do cartwheels." But the "No Respect" guy did try to give respect, and not disappoint fans who were respectful to him.
On a personal level, I remember him best as the guy who was a member of my health club...and would do a lap in the pool and just stay at the far end after that, resting, looking like a wary hippo guarding against a possible crocodile. But if a shapely girl came by and recognized him...out came that incredulous "just my luck!" smile
VAUGHN MEADER (68) October 29, 2004
A single bullet went through John F. Kennedy, went into Governor John Connelly, and managed to also kill Vaughn Meader a thousand miles away. The legendary bad luck comedian of all time, Meader made history with his 1962 "First Family" album of black-out sketches. Abbott Vaughn Meader and John F. Kennedy both grew up in Massachusetts, and both attended Brookline High School. And both got a kick out of "The First Family" with its very gentle jests (most notably, JFK fighting with children Caroline and John-John over bath toys: "And thah rubbah swan is mine!")
Never before had any record sold so many copies so quickly. Never before had a "comedy concept album" had any success at all. Before Beatle-mania, there was "First Family" mania, as customers lined up to get copies. The small Cadence record label was overwhelmed with demand, selling four million copies in four weeks. "The First Family Volume 2" was rushed out, and some radio stations received advance copies of a single""T'was the Night Before Christmas," which was going to be released during Christmas of 1963. But before Thanksgiving, Kennedy was shot.
Meader was in Milwaukee, ready to perform for a group of Democrats. The cab driver said, "Did you hear about the president getting shot in Dallas?" Meader's reaction? "" I -- thinking that he recognized me -- thought he was doing one of those John Kennedy jokes. I would get a lot of that everywhere I went.... And I said: 'No, how does it go?"
It had been such a long time since President Garfield's assassination, it wasn't surprising Meader thought he heard a straight line.
Already signed to Verve for a new solo album, ready to make his mark as a comic and not a JFK impersonator when he signed the deal, his new album featured general sketch-comedy. The nation simply didn't want to see him or even hear his name. "I was getting a reaction of pity, which is death for a comedian. Anything -- let 'em hate you, but don't let 'em feel sorry for you." For nearly four decades, the only question the public had was "Whatever Became of Vaughn Meader," and it seemed reassuring to know he had gone away into obscurity and that nobody was bringing him back. In 1967 he got rid of his material possessions (including his Grammy Award) and moved to San Francisco for the hippie liefstyle. A 1971 album "The Second Coming" (Meader as Christ) was as close as he got to a second chance, but by then he, and the "comedy concept album" could not offer anything new or particularly funny. He found a government job in Kentucky and played some bluegrass music on the side. He moved to Los Angeles to use his Kennedy impression in a play...about a man obsessed with Kennedy's death.
Meader's failed journey in the late 60's and 70's included problems with alcohol, cocaine and even heroin. In 1977 he sought refuge in Maine, where he was born. He worked as a gospel singer and pianist...and just as often, as a dish washer. I remember him being booked to play The Improv in New York one night...but he canceled. He may have found that he was expected to imitate JFK, or that the gig was more a publicity stunt for the club than a real opportunity. My contact with him was mostly a few polite letters...and he was very generous in mentioning other performers and people in the comedy world he thought I should get to know...just tell 'em Meader sent me.
He played the tiny club circuit in New England, recorded an obscure CD of religious humor called "The Last Word," and after a brief attempt at establishing a career in Florida in 1999, returned to Maine. He worked at The Wharf, a restaurant in Hallowell, Maine where he both entertained and was a host/manager. He had a successful 16 year marriage to his fourth wife Sheila, and was a great favorite among the locals who knew him as "Abbot" not "Vaughn." Meader had emphysema and had been battling it for some time when he chose death at home to any further hospital treatment. The official cause of death was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.