Everybody Loved Murray

By Hank Rosenfeld

Published July 21, 2006, issue of July 21, 2006.
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So many friends wanted to speak at Jan Murray’s July 6 funeral, held in Culver City, Calif., that the rabbi warned mourners, “Just to remind you, Shabbos begins tomorrow night.”

The comedian and television host, who died July 2 at the age of 89, was remembered as a giant, “20 feet tall,” and as the “most un-showbiz show business guy in the industry.” An immortal. And a mensch.

“Everybody loved Jan Murray,” said Jerry Cutler, the rabbi and founder of the Creative Arts Temple in Los Angeles, before an overflowing crowd at Hillside Memorial Park.

Cutler recalled approaching Murray to ask if he would emcee a telethon for Chabad.

“What kind of a disease is that?” Murray asked. He ultimately accepted the offer and turned the event into an L.A. tradition.

A Bronx native, the comedian changed his name from Murray Janowsky to Jan Murray after performing as a teenager at the Bronx Opera House. He played the Catskills in 1934, becoming a “top banana” in the Borscht Belt at 19. He headlined at the Flamingo in Las Vegas the year it opened, and he hosted nine different game shows. He subbed for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” and appeared in 20 movies, including “Which Way to the Front?” with Jerry Lewis, and Mel Brooks’s “History of the World: Part I” (as the Nothing Vendor).

When I interviewed Murray in 2002, he told me how it was asthma that ended his 66-year run in the business. “What is the audience gonna do,” he said, “watch an old Jew gasping up there?”

“I was in love with what I did,” he said. “I was always hoping I would do it until they took me away in a box.”

Among those in attendance at the funeral were Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, Norm Crosby, Larry Gelbart, Steve Lawrence, Carl Reiner and other Jewish luminaries. Eulogies evoked laughter and applause.

Jack Carter spoke sadly of now being “the last standing comic standing.” He then followed with a burst of reminiscences — like the time Murray hurt his back and Carter had to tie him to the hood of his Alfa Romeo and rush him to a chiropractor. Murray shouted at pedestrians, “I got shot by a deer!”

And once, on an airplane, Murray helped a doctor revive a passenger suffering a heart attack. The man looked up and saw his face. “Jan Murray!” he cried. “I almost died!”

“Died?” Murray said. “You shoulda seen me last week in Pittsburgh.”

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