Shelley Berman, Grammy winning and Emmy-nominated actor and comedian, later known for playing Larry David’s dad on Curb Your Enthusiasm, has died.
Berman died early Friday morning of complications from Alzheimer’s at his home in Bell Canyon, CA with Sarah, his wife of 70 years, by his side, his publicist Glenn Schwartz confirmed. He was 92.
Often seated on a stool, sometimes pretending to have a telephone in his hand, Berman, along with Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, was a key player in the wave of improvisational, angst-ridden comedians who changed stand-up in the 1950s and ’60s. Unlike Sahl and Bruce, though, Berman truly crossed over into mainstream popularity and recognizability, appearing on numerous TV shows – variety, comedy and even drama – over the decades.
“Thank you, Shelley Berman,” tweeted comedian Steve Martin. “You changed modern stand-up.”
“The guy who inspired me to sit,” wrote podcaster and comic Marc Maron in a tweet. “Great comic.”
Berman’s career began when, after his discharge from the U.S. Navy in 1943, he enrolled at Chicago’s famed Goodman Theater acting school and developed what would become one of his most famous routines, in which Berman played his own father answering young Shelly’s call for $100 to attend acting school.
After meeting and, in 1947, marrying actress Sarah Herman, the two moved to New York, where Berman soon sold a sketch to Steve Allen for his Tonight show. In Berman’s telling, he then received a phone call from his friend and actor Martin Landau. “Marty was offered a job in a Chicago company called the Compass Players,” Berman said. “He already had a job, so he suggested his friend, Shelley Berman.”
Joining the improvisational Compass, Berman was soon working alongside Mike Nichols and Elaine May, among others. The group eventually became Chicago’s Second City.
During his time with Compass, Berman, influenced by Mort Sahl’s non-joke comedy, developed what would be his signature routine: one-sided phone calls. 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 record six albums for Verve, and appeared on numerous TV specials and shows, including variety series hosted by Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Andy Williams, and Dean Martin.
According to information provided by Schwartz, Berman was “at the height of his popularity as a comedian” when he participated in an NBC documentary-style television show called Comedian Backstage, with cameras catching 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,” says Schwartz. “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.”
Despite the Diplomat incident, Berman’s career in comedy and drama continued throughout the ’60s and beyond, including appearances in 1964’s The Best Man (starring Henry Fonda), and 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, Chips, 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 (in 2012) and Boston Legal.
From 2002 to 2009, Berman appeared as Larry David’s father Nat on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, receiving an Emmy nomination in 2008.
Berman also was a writer, and in his introduction to a 2013 poetry book, To Laughter With Questions, he said, “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, and included among his students producer/director Jason Reitman. He also volunteered at the Motion Picture and Television Fund, the residential community for show business veterans in Woodland Hills, California, teaching a popular poetry class to the residents. The class was documented in the 2007 short film It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over.
Berman retired from performing in 2014, after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. He 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. A private service and a public memorial are being planned.