Born Leonard Hacker on August 31, 1924, in Brooklyn, NY; died June 30, 2003, in Malibu, CA. Comedian. For more than 50 years Buddy Hackett kept audiences roaring with laughter. He worked his way up from a joke–telling waiter in the Catskills of New York to a headliner on the stages of Las Vegas, Nevada. He was a veteran of early television and even had his own show for a while. Like other excellent comedians, Hackett could turn in a formidable dramatic performance and did so in the film God's Little Acre. As his act matured, so did the language and he became one of the first popular comedians to perform R–rated routines.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Hackett was the son of an upholsterer. Growing up he used humor to defend himself against kids who teased him about his height and weight. In high school, he played on the football team. During the summers he would work at vacation resorts in the Catskill Mountains in northern New York. As a waiter he learned how to keep people laughing. Eventually he was good enough that he was hired on as a "tummler." In the role of tummler he was responsible for keeping the guests—even the most jaded patrons—laughing at all times.
Hackett apprenticed in his father's upholstery business for a while and then went to serve in the military in World War II. After three years of service, he returned home where he saw the original Broadway production of the musical Oklahoma!. Inspired by the musical to make show business his life, he changed his name from Leonard Hacker to Buddy Hackett and found an agent.
Hackett made his comedy debut at a club called the Pink Elephant in Brooklyn. Insecure about his own material, Hackett first started performing with routines that were written for him. He could never make the material work and was consistently playing to unsatisfied houses. Realizing that he needed to develop his own material, Hackett ended up writing routines for himself that were much more successful. With his agent's help, he started getting gigs at prominent East Coast clubs like the Riviera, where he was a hit.
Sensing that there were too many stand–up acts on the East Coast, Hackett headed to California. With fewer competitors and some experience under his belt, Hackett became a favorite at the Billy Gray Band Box, an important club in Los Angeles. His success there led to an offer in 1946 to become one of the comedic trio the Three Stooges after one of its members had suffered a stroke. Hackett turned the offer down and focused on developing his own style.
By the 1950s, Hackett was performing regularly in Las Vegas as well as headlining at clubs across the country. Despite a full touring schedule, he found time to appear in movies throughout the '50s and '60s. He made his film debut in 1953 in Walking My Baby Back Home. Some of his other films included All Hands on Deck, Muscle Beach Party, and The Love Bug. For the most part, his roles in films were comedic. However, he surprised audiences and critics alike with his performance as the poor farmer Pluto Swint in the dramatic film God's Little Acre, as well as the character Marcellus Washburn in The Music Man. In later years he appeared in the Bill Murray film Scrooged and contributed his voice to the animated film The Little Mermaid as Scuttle the seagull; he also appeared in 1998's Paulie, a film about a talking parrot.
Hackett appeared regularly on television. He made frequent appearances on CBS's Jackie Gleason Show when he replaced Art Carney as Gleason's partner. He was also a regular guest on The Tonight Show when it was hosted by Jack Paar and later when Johnny Carson was the host. In 1956, NBC premiered a situation comedy starring Hackett called Stanley. The show only lasted for a season but it launched a long–lasting career for comedienne Carol Burnett, who played Hackett's girlfriend. He continued to make guest appearances on television into the 1990s and 2000s. He appeared in episodes of Just Shoot Me, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn. In 1999, he appeared in the satirical television show Action, which was a hit with critics but did not last. His last television appearance was on the 2003 reality television show Last Comic Standing, where he scouted for comedic talent.
Hackett first appeared on Broadway in 1954 in the play Lunatics and Lovers. His role in that play about the New York underground lasted 336 performances. In 1960, he appeared in Viva Madison Avenue. His 1964 role in I Had a Ball as a fortune–teller was often credited as being the only reason that the roundly panned play lasted for six months.
Hackett started spicing up his act with crass language and riffing on more mature themes as a way of protecting his material. He was well known for his ability to improvise, and often went onstage with only a vague idea of what his act was going to be for the evening. Fellow Las Vegas veteran Steve Lawrence explained to Tom Vallance of the Independent, "Buddy was in innovator. In his time, he was the most creative comic that I've ever seen. He was also a groundbreaker with a lot of taboos we grew up with. But he always did it in a way that was hysterical."
Hackett died on June 30, 2003, at his home in Malibu, California; he was 78. He is survived by his wife of 48 years, Sherry Cohen; three children, and two grandchildren. He innovated the use of off–color language and topics in comedy routines while also proving that he was a skilled actor. He told Vallance of the Independent, "I found out that if you made people laugh, they like you. Most people got to like me because I made them laugh. When they didn't, I hit them."
CNN.com , http://www.cnn.com/2003/SHOWBIZ/TV/07/01/obit.hackett.ap/index.html (July 1, 2003); E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,12079,00.html?eol.tkr , (July 2, 2003); Independent (London, England), July 2, 2003, p. 14; Washington Post, July 2, 2003, p. B7.
— Eve M. B. Hermann