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Funnyman Buddy Hackett dead at 78

July 5, 2003

Buddy Hackett, the squat, round, rubbery-faced funnyman who appeared for more than 50 years as a top act in nightclubs, Broadway shows, on television and in such movies as The Music Man, The Love Bug and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, has died, his son confirmed Monday night. He was 78.

Hackett died at his Southern California beach house either late Sunday or early Monday, Sandy Hackett told The Associated Press Monday night. His body was found Monday.

"He was one of the greatest ever. He was a terrific father. He was my best friend. He prepared me very well for this day, but no matter how much you prepare it still hurts," Sandy Hackett said as he arrived at his mother's house in Los Angeles.

The younger Hackett, who is also a comedian, said he had driven to Los Angeles from his Las Vegas home as soon as he got word of his father's death.

Hackett was invited to join the Three Stooges when Curly Howard, the bald-headed member of the comedy team, suffered a stroke in 1946. But Hackett declined, believing he could develop his own comedy style. 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.

His career grew with appearances on the variety TV shows of Jack Paar, Arthur Godfrey and others. Soon he was earning top money in Las Vegas, Florida and Las Vegas. 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," he remarked in 1996, "I'm very mild these days."

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 his fellow students laugh. That was a necessity to offset the taunts about his roly-poly shape.

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

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

After graduating from New Utrecht High School, where he played on the football team, Hacker spent three years in the military during the Second World War, then reinvented himself as Buddy Hackett, standup comedian.

Using other writers' jokes, he flopped in New York City. Realizing only he could write for Buddy Hackett, he moved on to Los Angeles and scored at a small showcase club. He began making big money across the country, and audiences called for his most noted routine, the Chinese waiter.

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. 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 animated The Little Mermaid, as the voice of Scuttle.

The comedian appeared on television from the medium's beginnings, starring in two short-lived series: Stanley (1956-1957) and The Jackie Gleason Show (1968).

He also made guest appearances on numerous sitcoms and played Lou Costello in the 1978 movie Bud and Lou.

He turned down numerous other offers from TV series, complaining that he could rarely get along with network executives.

"That ends the meeting," he once said of network executives telling him how to structure a comedy show.

Hackett was married to the former Sherry Dubois, whom he met at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills. They had three children: Ivy, Lisa and Sandy, who did a comedy opening act at his father's appearances.