Sheldon Leonard "Shelley" Berman (February 3, 1925 – September 1, 2017) was an American comedian, actor, writer, teacher, lecturer and poet.
In his comedic career, Berman won three gold records and he won the first Grammy Award for a spoken comedy recording in 1959. He was perhaps most notable for his role as Larry David's father on Curb Your Enthusiasm, a role for which he received a 2008 Emmy Award nomination.
In the last twenty years of his life, Berman taught humor writing in the Masters of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California, where he was a Lecturer Emeritus.
Early life and education
Berman was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Irene (née Marks) and Nathan Berman. He was Jewish.
His acting career began with an acting company in Woodstock, Illinois. Leaving Woodstock in 1949, Shelley and his wife Sarah made their way to New York City. To make ends meet, Berman found employment as a social director, cab driver, speech teacher, assistant manager of a drug store, and a dance instructor at Arthur Murray Dance Studios.
Eventually, Berman found work as a sketch writer for The Steve Allen Plymouth Show.
Berman began as a straight actor, receiving his training at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, honing his acting skills in stock companies in and around Chicago and New York City.
In the mid-1950s, he became a member of Chicago's Compass Players, which later evolved into The Second City. While performing improvised sketches with Compass, Berman began to develop solo pieces, often employing an imaginary telephone to take the place of an onstage partner.
Nightclubs and live performances
In 1957, Berman was hired as a comedian at Mister Kelly's in Chicago, which led to other nightclub bookings, and a recording contract with Verve Records. His comedy albums earned him three gold records and he won the first Grammy Award for a spoken comedy recording. The first standup comedian to perform at Carnegie Hall, Berman appeared on numerous television specials and all of the major variety shows of the day.
He starred on Broadway in A Family Affair and continued with stage work in The Odd Couple, Damn Yankees, Where's Charley?, Fiddler on the Roof, Two by Two, I'm Not Rappaport, La Cage aux Folles, The Prisoner of Second Avenue and Guys & Dolls.
Berman's voice was used as the inspiration for the voice of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character Fibber Fox, as performed by Daws Butler.
Berman portrayed the role of Mendel Sorkin in an episode of CBS's Rawhide ("The Peddler", 1962).
Berman performed both comedic and dramatic roles on television, including appearances on episodes of The Twilight Zone (both radio and TV versions), Bewitched, Peter Gunn, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Adam-12, Emergency!, Brothers, Night Court, MacGyver, L.A. Law, Friends, Walker, Texas Ranger, The King of Queens, Grey's Anatomy, Boston Legal, Hannah Montana, CSI: NY and the revived Hawaii Five-0. He also had a recurring role on the short-lived sitcom Walter & Emily.
From 2002 to 2009, Berman appeared as Larry David's aged father on Curb Your Enthusiasm, a role for which he received a 2008 Emmy Award nomination.
Among Berman's film credits are Dementia (1955, with Shorty Rogers), The Best Man (1964, with Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson), Divorce American Style (1967, with Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds), Every Home Should Have One (1970, with Marty Feldman), Beware! The Blob (1972, with Robert Walker Jr.), Rented Lips (1988, with Martin Mull and Robert Downey Jr.), Teen Witch (1989, with Robyn Lively and Zelda Rubinstein), The Last Producer (2000, with Burt Reynolds), Meet the Fockers (2004, with Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller), The Holiday (2006, with Cameron Diaz), and You Don't Mess with the Zohan (2008, with Adam Sandler).
Berman was a veteran of the United States Navy and served during World War II. Berman was married to Sarah Herman from April 19, 1947, until his death 70 years later on September 1, 2017. The two met while they were studying acting at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.
In the mid-1960s, Berman and wife Sarah adopted two children, son Joshua and daughter Rachel. The Bermans were planning Joshua's bar mitzvah when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Joshua died on October 29, 1977, at age 12.
Berman authored three books, two plays, several television pilot scripts, and numerous poems. For over twenty years, Berman taught humor writing in the Master of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California, where he was a Lecturer Emeritus.
Berman and his wife were both enthusiastic supporters of the Motion Picture and Television Fund (located in Woodland Hills, California), a charitable organization that offers assistance and care to those in the motion picture and television industries with limited or no resources, and contribute their time and resources to the benefit of the facilities and the residents.
In the 1980s, Berman was one of the celebrities selected by the Canoga Park, California Chamber of Commerce to serve a term as Honorary Mayor of Canoga Park.
Accusation of plagiarism
In a 2012 podcast interview with Marc Maron, 87-year-old Berman accused comedian Bob Newhart of plagiarizing his improvisational telephone routine style, describing its genesis and saying it was a "very special technique that couldn't really be imitated. It could be stolen. And it was." He continued, "I was coming to work at night and a guy stopped his car, passed me by, and said 'Hey, Shelley! There's a guy [who] stole your act!'" When asked by Maron if it was done maliciously, Berman replied, "Maliciously? He wouldn't do it maliciously. Nobody does that. But he did it to make a living. And he became a star."
Berman later added, "I thought it was a rotten thing to do. I thought the agents who sold him — I thought they were just as guilty as everybody else. But, my God, to go into a town and do my show, and the critics saying that I borrowed some stuff from Newhart..."
When asked in interviews about the telephone issue, Bob Newhart noted that:
"Shelley Berman did it before I did it. Mike (Nichols) and Elaine (May) did a version of it. There was a thing called 'Cohen on the Telephone,' which was a very, very early recording by Edison [Records] of a guy on the phone.....George Jessel had a radio show...At the end, he would call up his mother and tell her how the show had gone. As a kid growing up, I remember listening to him and he would call his mother up and say, 'Mama, this is Georgie'" – he paused, skillfully – "'from the money.'"
On his website, comedy writer Mark Rothman discussed the history of comic "telephone" monologists:
As far back as the 1920s George Jessel was doing phone conversations with his mother in vaudeville, with the opening line "Hello Mama? This is Georgie." In the 30's and 40's there was this radio comedienne named Arlene Harris, often referred to as Arlene "Chatterbox" Harris, who did telephone monologues to one of her "friends." The only reason I know about this is that she was featured doing one of them on an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show that featured many old radio entertainers. And she performed one of them. Brilliantly. Then, in the 50's, a great comedienne, Betty Walker, made about a zillion appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, doing essentially the same kind of act as Arlene Harris, talking to her friend Ceil. Only it was intensively Yiddishified. They talked about marriage and children, and how impossible it was to maintain both. Whereas Arlene Harris was white bread, Betty Walker was challah. Betty Walker's catchphrase was "Ceil....Ceil....Ceeeee—ullll!!!! Really, really funny. Also brilliant. All of this pre-dated Shelley Berman. Even Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who were contemporaries of Berman's at Second City, engaged in telephone dialogues, with very similar styled material. And who's more brilliant than them?
Berman died from Alzheimer's disease-related complications at his home in Bell Canyon, California, in the early morning of September 1, 2017. He was 92 years old.
Comedian Steve Martin praised Berman on Twitter, thanking him for "changing modern stand-up [comedy]."
- Inside Shelley Berman (1959) (Grammy Award winner for "Best Comedy Performance, Spoken Word")
- Outside Shelley Berman (1959)
- The Edge of Shelley Berman (1960)
- A Personal Appearance (1961)
- New Sides (1963)
- The Sex Life of The Primate (And Other Bits of Gossip) (1964) (with Stiller and Meara and Lovelady Powell)
- Let Me Tell You a Funny Story (1968)
- Live Again! Recorded at the Improv (1995)
- To Laughter with Questions (2013)
- When Jews Were Funny (2013)
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