Shelley Berman, famed comedian and actor whose career spanned several decades, died early this morning at the age of 92 at his home in Bell Canyon, Calif., his publicist Glenn Schwartz told The Comic’s Comic.
Berman, born Feb. 3, 1925, in Chicago, died from complications of Alzheimer’s Disease, which was the only reason he stopped performing in 2014.
In 1943, after his discharge from the U.S. Navy, he enrolled at Chicago’s famed Goodman Theater acting school. One of his most famous and poignant routines involved Berman portraying his own father when 18 year old Shelley calls home to ask for $100 for acting school.
While at Goodman, he met a young actress named Sarah Herman; they were married in 1947. Together, they traveled to New York, where Berman worked a series of summer stock and odd jobs. Eventually, he sold a sketch to Steve Allen for his Tonight! show, beginning his career as a writer.
While he was in New York, he received a phone call from his good friend and fellow actor, Martin Landau. According to Berman’s own account, “Marty was offered a job in a Chicago company called the Compass Players. He already had a job, so he suggested his friend, Shelley Berman.” Berman took the job, where he found himself working alongside Mike Nichols and Elaine May, among others who went on to have successful careers. Compass Players was an improvisational theater group that eventually evolved into today’s famous Second City.
It was while he was with Compass Players that Berman began to develop his famous phone call routines. It was after seeing comedian Mort Sahl at Chicago nightclub Mister Kelly’s that Berman realized that he might be able to work as a comedian doing his phone calls. Unlike most comedians at the time, Sahl did not tell jokes, but discussed the news of the day with his audiences. That led Berman to see that he could make people laugh in a different way from other comedians of the day. Berman successfully auditioned at Mister Kelly’s, which led to other nightclub engagements around the country, appearances on national television, and a recording contract with Verve Records. Inside Shelley Berman, released in early 1959, became the first comedy album to be awarded a gold record, and the first non-musical recording to win a Grammy Award. Berman would eventually record six albums for Verve, including Outside Shelley Berman and The Edge of Shelley Berman, both of which also went gold. He would go on to appear on numerous TV specials, and all of the major variety shows, including those hosted by Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Andy Williams, and Dean Martin.
At the height of his popularity as a comedian, Berman was asked to participate in a documentary-style television show for NBC called Comedian Backstage, where cameras followed him as he prepared for and performed his nightclub act during a December 1962 engagement at the Diplomat Hotel in Miami. Unfortunately, the cameras caught Berman becoming angry when a telephone backstage started ringing during his act. Because of the way the event was edited, it appeared that Berman was simply being temperamental, rather than understandably upset when the incident happened a second time, after he had asked that the phones be disabled during his act. The subsequent outrage curtailed his career for a time.
Nevertheless, comedic and dramatic acting roles on television and in films came his way, including a featured role in the 1964 film, The Best Man (starring Henry Fonda), and memorable appearances on episodes of Peter Gunn; The Twilight Zone; Rawhide; Bewitched; The Man From U.N.C.L.E.; The Mary Tyler Moore Show; Adam-12; Emergency; C.H.I.P.S.; Night Court; MacGyver; L.A. Law; Friends; Walker, Texas Ranger; The King Of Queens; The Bernie Mac Show; Grey’s Anatomy; Entourage; Hannah Montana; CSI: NY, Hawaii Five-0 and Boston Legal, where Berman made numerous recurring guest star appearances as the hilariously semi-senile Judge Robert Sanders. From 2002 to 2009, Berman appeared as Nat David (Larry David’s father) on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, a role for which he received a 2008 Emmy Award nomination. With dialogue entirely improvised by its cast, Curb Your Enthusiasm gave Berman the opportunity to return to his improv roots, introduced him to a new generation of TV viewers, and brought him acclaim from critics and fans alike.
In addition to acting and comedy, Berman’s other passion was writing. He wrote throughout his life. Berman said in his introduction to his 2013 poetry book, To Laughter With Questions, “I have always written. As a kid growing up in Chicago, I wrote stories for my own amusement. Along the way, I read and appreciated poetry, but never really tried my hand at writing it until late in my ‘other’ career, teaching writing in USC’s Master of Professional Writing program.” Berman taught at USC for over twenty years. Among his successful students was producer/director Jason Reitman.
Berman also volunteered at the Motion Picture and Television Fund, a residential community for show business veterans in Woodland Hills, California, teaching a popular poetry class to the residents there. The class was documented in the award-winning 2007 short film It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over.
Here’s Berman at the 50th anniversary of The Second City in Chicago:
Berman is survived by his wife of 70 years, Sarah, his daughter Rachel Berman, and two grandsons. He was pre-deceased by his son Joshua Berman.