Comedian Buddy Hackett Dies at 78

Comedian Buddy Hackett, known for his rubbery face and sometimes raunchy jokes, never strayed far from a punch line, often peppering friends and family with his humor.

"If I was going to a corporate job somewhere, I'd call him up, and he'd rattle off 10 jokes," his son, Sandy Hackett, 47, recalled. "He never called just to say, 'Hello.' He'd call and say: 'A guy walks into a bar....'"

The elder Hackett, who appeared for more than 50 years as a top act in nightclubs, in Broadway shows, on television and in movies, died at his Southern California beach house late Sunday or early Monday, June 30, 2003. He was 78.

The cause of death was not immediately known, but his son said Hackett suffered from diabetes.

Hackett began his career playing for small money on the Borscht Circuit for New York City vacationers in the Catskill Mountains, he learned to get laughs with his complaints about being short, fat and Jewish.

When "Curly" Howard, the one who got slapped in the comedy team The Three Stooges, suffered a stroke in 1946, Hackett was invited to take his place but declined, believing he could develop his own comedy style.

His career grew with appearances on the TV shows of Jack Paar (news), Arthur Godfrey and others. Soon he was making big money across the country, and audiences called for his most noted routine, the Chinese waiter.

In the beginning, his material was suitable for family audiences, but in later years nightclubs advertised his show "For Mature Audiences Only." His performances in those days were noted for their prolific use of four-letters words at a time when that just wasn't done.

"Compared to motion pictures, I'm very mild these days," he remarked in 1996.

In 1954, playwright Sidney Kingsley persuaded Hackett to appear on Broadway in "Lunatics and Lovers." Brooks Atkinson, writing in The New York Times, described Hackett as "a large, soft, messy comic with a glib tongue and a pair of inquiring eyes."

He also appeared on the New York stage in "Viva Madison Avenue" (1960) and "I Had a Ball" (1964).

Hackett made his film debut in 1953 with "Walking My Baby Back Home." His most notable roles came in "The Music Man," "The Love Bug" and "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

Among his other movies: "Fireman Save My Child," "God's Little Acre," "All Hands on Deck," "The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm," "Muscle Beach Party," "Loose Shoes," "Scrooged" and Disney's "The Little Mermaid," as the voice of Scuttle. He played comic Lou Costello in the 1978 film "Bud and Lou."

On television, he starred in the short-lived series "Stanley" from 1956 to 1957 and made numerous guest appearances on other shows, appearing in recent years on "Just Shoot Me" and "Sabrina The Teenage Witch" and, in a recurring bit called "Tuesdays With Buddy," on "The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn."

He was born Leonard Hacker in a Jewish section of New York City's borough of Brooklyn on Aug. 31, 1924. For a time he apprenticed in his father's upholstery shop, but at school he found he had a talent for making fellow students laugh. He used humor to offset the taunts about his roly-poly shape.

When he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame a few years ago, Hackett quipped that he had left Brooklyn "to get away from the subway" only to discover that his star had been placed above the one in Los Angeles.

"It's a damn circle," he joked.

After graduating from high school, he spent three years in the military during World War II, then reinvented himself as Buddy Hackett, standup comedian.

Hackett had flopped using joke writers, and he soon came to realize that only he could write for Buddy Hackett. Doing so, he moved on to Los Angeles, where he scored at a small showcase club.

Besides his son, Hackett is survived by his wife, Sherry, whom he met in the Catskills, and daughters Ivy Miller of Denver and Lisa Hackett of Los Angeles.
2003 By BOB THOMAS, Associated Press Writer