Comedy Giants Gather To Mourn One of Hollywood’s Great Clowns

By Hank Rosenfeld

Published July 11, 2003, issue of July 11, 2003.

The Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor includes 14 pages of jokes on death, so when Buddy Hackett passed away in Malibu at age 79 last week, the chapel at Hillside Memorial in Culver City was packed with every comedy icon that hadn’t booked a Fourth of July gig out of town.

Sid Caesar sat up front with Jan Murray. Don Rickles was there. Norm Crosby, Tom Poston. Dick Martin of “Laugh-In” fame. With Shecky Greene scheduled to deliver the eulogy, a quote from Groucho Marx came to mind: “Reverence and irreverence are the same thing.”

“This is a very holy moment in time,” said Rabbi Solomon Rothstein, a Hackett family friend from Fort Lee, N.J., by way of Boynton Beach, Fla. “It is dedicated to memory.” Curtains parted, revealing a dozen different photos and portraits of Buddy, including a huge black-and-white, creased and crinkled head shot dating from the movie “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” which Hackett starred in (with 10 other back-in-the-day Borscht Belters) in 1963.

“We are here to celebrate Buddy’s life,” the rabbi continued. “We shouldn’t be asking ‘how did he die?’ But ‘how did he live?’ And it was his wish that when I say the name ‘Buddy Hackett,’ you smile… that you laugh.”

“Buddy would have wanted me to tell a joke,” Rothstein said. “But I wouldn’t dare. There are so many here who…”

And then people got up to make the mourners laugh. Everyone who made them laugh got applause. Anybody too serious got bubkes.

Buddy’s son Sandy Hackett is in the family business. He had just driven in from Las Vegas where he was performing stand-up. He poured himself a drink from the old man’s favorite liquor and delivered a eulogy that exemplified his father’s credo: “If it’s dirty, it’s not funny. If it’s funny, it’s not dirty.” Among the cleaner stories he told was an old one about a mezuza that was mistaken for “a Jewish dog whistle.”

Another told of the guy asking the librarian if they have any books on suicide. She tells him they keep a few copies under “S,” but he can’t find any on the shelves. So he goes back to complain, and she tells him, “Oh, people check them out. But nobody brings them back.”

One of the great clowns of Hollywood, Hackett was hilarious both standing up on stage or slapping around in movies like “The Music Man” — singing “Shipoopi!” — and “The Love Bug.”

If Jewish humor is “laughter with sadness in the eye,” the septuagenarian jester Shecky Greene had that look. “Everybody who tells a Buddy Hackett story does Buddy Hackett’s voice,” Greene said in Buddy’s slurry, side-of-the-mouth slapshtick. “I worked with a man called Sinatra, and Buddy was like that. You hear his voice, you know it’s him.”

Jeffrey Ross, a young shtickler known for hanging out with the alter kockers at the Friars Club, was touching and funny. “Buddy was like orange juice,” Ross said. “He’d give you the ‘Hiya pal!’ and how could you not feel great?” Buddy, explained Ross, taught him “how to peel the onion” in his act. “Comics by nature being competitive,” he said, “I guess when the best one dies, the rest of us all get to move up a notch.”

Buddy was mourned as a grandfather, a poet, an anti-depressant and “a great humanitarian.” (Hackett created an animal rescue assistance center with his wife, Sherri.)

Back outside in the July afternoon heat, the writer Larry Gelbart and the witty entertainer Steve Lawrence circled close with Marx Brothers’ screenwriter Irving Brecher.

“Let’s get together again,” Brecher told his old friends.

“Not here!” Lawrence fired back.

Then someone muttered that Hackett was one of America’s few remaining true clowns.

“We still have Bush and Rumsfeld,” said Brecher.

The prophet Isaiah’s words extend from a wall at Hillside: “The Lord God maketh death to vanish in life eternal. And he wipeth away tears from off all faces.” So do the comedians.



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