At 79, a comeback still in progress
Shelley Berman has hit with role in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
Thursday, October 27, 2005; Posted: 4:36 p.m. EDT (20:36 GMT)
Shelley Berman made his name as a comedian in the late '50s and early '60s.
LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- In 1963, long before television became a stage for celebrities eager to expose their every flaw and foible, Shelley Berman threw a reality TV tantrum.
In an era of sanitized television, when outbursts were limited to the chorus on "Sing Along with Mitch," the comedian erupted over a stagehand's flub on a cinema verite segment of "The DuPont Show of the Week."
Today, Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown and Britney Spears can gleefully explore their off-kilter home lives for eager audiences, while others of faded fame actively misbehave on "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!"
But Berman, who had already made his name in comedy clubs, on Broadway, in movies and on TV and rightfully expected more success to come his way, felt his career was stunted when the incident evolved into the unlikely stuff of Hollywood legend.
Even as the 79-year-old Berman has enjoyed a renaissance, playing Larry David's father on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and with roles in other television and film projects ("Grey's Anatomy" on November 6, "Meet the Fockers") this odd chapter remains open.
"It's great conversation. In the industry, it's great talk," said Berman, offering his take on the shelf life of what seems no more than a minor lapse and one that pales next to stories of truly egregious star misbehavior.
He asked a producer on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" if he knew about it. "Sure, we all know," he was told. Then there was the time he introduced himself to Don Imus: "Yes, I know you. You tore a phone off the wall," the radio host replied, repeating an embellished version.
It's unlikely that many viewers remember the incident, and Berman ultimately thrived despite it, in entertainment and elsewhere. At this point he casts himself as a poet rather than a performer and is a longtime writing teacher at the University of Southern California.
Berman, who won the first Grammy for a comedy record for "Inside Shelley Berman" in 1959, still can provoke rapturous praise. When he appeared last year on MSNBC's "Countdown," Keith Olbermann called him "one of the greatest humorists of the last half-century."
One day to the next
But he can't shake the misstep. Ask Berman the year he first got his name above the title for a Broadway play or when he made his first comedy album and he's vague on dates. Query him on when the "DuPont Show" documentary called "Comedian Backstage" aired and he's precise.
"March 3, 1963. On March 4, I was a goner," Berman said in his distinctive, rich-but-nasal voice.
On "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Berman (second from right) plays star Larry David's father.
He had agreed to be filmed onstage and off in an effort to distinguish himself from several other comedians who were hot or gaining popularity at that time.
Berman was among the breakthrough artists of the '50s and '60s who brought comedy out of the era of the one-liner and into more honest, reflective territory. In particular, Berman had perfected routines in which he improvised his end of imaginary phone calls.
Mort Sahl was another groundbreaker and, even though his humor focused on social and political satire, Berman was uneasy that they were being confused. Even more worrisome was the fact that Bob Newhart had gained notice with his phone routines.
"I was concerned about 'who am I?' to the audience. So when they (the filmmakers) said, 'We'll follow you,' I bit. I insisted on the right to approve the rough cut. So there I was, safe, everything fine," Berman said.
Then came a Diplomat Hotel gig in Miami. On the second night, when a backstage phone rang during his routine, Berman told his new road manager to silence all phones at show time. Two nights later a poignant father-son phone bit, a Berman favorite, was interrupted by ringing.
"I finish the routine, walk off stage and I blow my stack," he recalled. It was captured on film and, when it was included in the finished documentary, Berman was appalled: In editing, the blowup appeared as if it took place on opening night and that he was angry without reason.
'I had to try to be likable'
His managers, his wife, Sarah, and others said he was being too sensitive and that the scene painted him only as a deeply committed artist. Instead, Berman quickly realized, it had branded him a jerk.
"If I asked for a (stage) light, it was not an ask but a demand. If I demanded, I was having a fit," Berman said. Returning to Mister Kelly's, the famed Chicago nightclub where he first made his name as a comedian, staff members he considered friends were obviously wary of him.
Did it affect his comedy?
"Yes. I couldn't be right on top of where I wanted to be in my performance," he said. "I had to try to be likable. You couldn't work all the time walking on eggs."
Although myth has it that Berman dropped out of sight and out of work, his credits belie that and he dismisses that as dramatic overkill. He went on to appear on popular programs including the Dean Martin and Andy William shows and on "The Hollywood Palace" variety series.
Trained as an actor, Berman toured in plays and guest-starred in an eclectic mix of TV shows, including "Bewitched," "St. Elsewhere" and "L.A. Law." He savors the memory of working with Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson and Lee Tracy in the 1964 political film "The Best Man."
But Berman believes that the chance of a starring role in a sitcom eluded him because of that brief flash of film.
"Big things didn't really happen, the thing that would have brought great rewards of work and money. The money I sometimes needed wasn't there," he said. At one point he was forced into bankruptcy.
Berman wants to make it clear he isn't angling for pity. He knows what real tragedy is (a son died at age 12 from a brain tumor) and was able to pursue his chosen work, if under imperfect circumstances. His comedy legacy, he acknowledges, stands.
"The truth is, I was not down and out, I wasn't destroyed. I wasn't like Pete Rose, let me tell you. I was not denied the hall of fame. There are people who admire me, and I'm very proud of that."
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