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Inside Shelley Berman: The Grammy Award Winning Comedian and Actor Talks about His Career and the Sport of Boxing Part I

Exclusive Interview by “Bad” Brad Berkwitt (Reposted for Archive Purposes)

“I am proud that he is getting the respect he has always deserved. Being in the business, I always knew how great of a comedian he already was, but he now has this series ‘Boston Legal’ where an entirely new generation is getting to witness this very funny man all over again.”–Comedian Dom Irrera

Shelley Berman is known as many things. One, he is an award winning brilliant comedian that has gained accolades and acknowledgment for his comedy albums and his live standup routine.  Secondly, he is an actor who has appeared more times on Television Variety Shows, Game Shows, Sitcoms and Movies, then I think any 10 people in the entertainment industry you can name collectively.  With all of that said, Berman has a new title that he can add to an already chock full resume.  That title is: “Boxing Aficionado.” Wait just a minute… Hold that phone that Shelley used in his act for many years… OK so are you holding RSR readers?  Well, pick up the phone for this tidbit. Mrs. Berman, (Sarah) is a huge boxing fan as well.  How huge of a fan you ask?  Well, you have to keep reading to find that out.

As I get to this point of my lead-in, which I know is so important to any interview, I came to the conclusion that it would be near impossible to write about Shelley Berman’s career things that have not been written or re-written hundreds of times over.  We may have just scratched the surface in our interview, but I think that the type of questions and Berman’s interpretation of a story, we were actually able to dig deep and find a way to do the impossible. 

Interpretation – now there is a word.  Berman’s interpretation of a story, is what Frank Sinatra’s interpretation of a lyric was when he sang just about any song.  Just listen to Sinatra on Capitol Records singing “April In Paris” or on Reprise Records singing “Lady Day.”  You will discover just how much he had an infinite wisdom to interpret a lyric that may only be matched by the late French Diva Edith Piaf.  I think this is the ultimate compliment I can bestow on Shelley because though I may only be 39 years old, I had a Father, who was 40 years my senior whom introduced both Berman and Sinatra along with countless others through a record collection that he had and of course, now I do.  For that, and a list of so many other things, I am forever grateful to my late Father Alvin Frank Berkwitt.

In our interview, Shelley’s love for his craft, his wife Sarah and the sport of boxing to include its participants, well, moved me.  A championship level fighter goes into a fight with a game plan and in his head at least, and he can play the fight out.  I did this with my interview with Shelley, but never did I expect that once the tape started to roll that I would be so moved by a guest, as I was with Shelley and Sarah Berman’s passion for the sport of boxing and for humanity in general.  When you get done reading this interview, I think you will feel the same way.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I truly extend an RSR heartfelt welcome to Mr. Shelley Berman…

BB:  First of all, congratulations on the great reviews you are getting on your role as “Judge Robert Sanders” on the hit television show “Boston Legal.” Describe your character and what the set is like for you?

Thank you.  It’s very hard for me to describe my character, but the way it’s described by others is that he is a senile old guy who, at times, makes a lot of sense now and again.  It really is a very funny character when they decide to let him go.  I think that is what the writers and the Director (David E. Kelly) are after from Judge Sanders. I really enjoy that viewers find him funny and that is enough for me.

BB:  In your preparation for your character Judge Sanders, did you mold it based on anyone in particular that you either had seen before or maybe personally knew?

I really didn’t, but incidentally, I have a cousin who is a Superior Court Judge out here in Los Angeles.  He is a marvelous man and his name is Victor Chavez who is really a great Judge.  I always tease him that whenever I’m asked, where I got the idea for my character on Boston Legal, I say I am doing my cousin Victor.  (Laughs)

BB:  Boston Legal is not the only time you have played a judge recently. In the 2004 hit movie “Meet the Fockers,” the sequel to “Meet the Parents,” you played Judge Ira.  You were in an amazing ensemble cast for this shoot.  Did you have as much fun as the viewers, such as myself, did watching you play this funny character?

I had an absolute ball playing Judge Ira and my big scene with Barbara Streisand.  Barbara and I have known each other for many years and in fact, we were both beginners in the business and working together at the Blue Angel in New York City.  To see her after all those years was just a pleasure for me. 

This may sound political, but really it isn’t.  The entire cast of this movie from Robert Deniro, Dustin Hoffman, Barbara Streisand, Ben Stiller, Blythe Danner and the rest, were just so much fun to work with and that is why I think the viewers such as yourself, enjoyed Judge Ira.

Funny story….  I wanted to take a picture with Dustin Hoffman and he insisted that I couldn’t have a picture with him unless we stood nose to nose.  We did it and his assistant took the picture with us both coming out looking like the Tower Bridge in London, England.

BB:  I would like to go back in time with you to talk about your life shortly before you got into your entertainment career. We both share a common thread with having served in the US Navy.  What years did you serve?

I joined the Navy in 1943, but received a Medical Discharge right away because they were anxious to win the war.  Seriously though, I did my Boot Camp Training in Great Lakes, Illinois. (Both Shelley and I went there.) 
BB:  Where did you serve for your Tour of Duty?

From Great Lakes, I went to Norfolk, Virginia, and worked Sick Officer Quarters (SOQ) while I was waiting to be assigned to my ship.  While I was waiting for my orders to come in for the ship, I caught pneumonia and it led to the doctors also finding out, I had bad asthma as well.  That was the end of my Navy career. 

BB:  Had you not gotten sick and received your orders to a ship, what was your job going to be?

I actually already had a rating (Hospital Corpsman – HM) and was working in my field at the SOQ. 

BB:  Did you use the GI Bill as so many from your generation did to pay for your enrollment for Drama School at Chicago’s Goodman Theater?

That’s right, the GI Bill paid for me to go to school.

BB:  Do you have a message for the men and women in uniform serving in harms way and will be reading this interview?

I offer all of the men and women serving in harms way, my profound and meaningful prayers.

BB:  Talk about your life once you got out of the Navy, and pursued a career in entertainment.

My life at the Goodman Theater in Chicago essentially went from there to Summer Stock and Winter Stock.  I developed whatever talents I had and honed them in theaters, such as the time I spent in Woodstock, Illinois. During my time there, I was doing a play a week.  We did a variety of plays and each one helped the actors and actresses, such as myself, hone our skills.
We actually did our own wardrobe, directing, props and so forth. I was there around 1947-48, which at that time, we were doing Winter Stock.  Shortly after I left, Paul Newman would come in.  Some of the folks that were there during my time were Geraldine Page (Won an Oscar in 1985 for her role as Best Actress in the movie The Trip to the Bountiful), and Tom Bosley (Went on to do tons of work, but is best known as the lovable character of Mr. Cunningham on Happy Days).

I met my loving wife Sarah during this time and we got married.  Thank God she worked because we were not making that much.  However, back then, the town did house us and also subsidized the working actors.  We managed even though it was very tight, but this was the foundation that set forth into motion, the rest of my career.

BB:  In 1958, you found enormous success from your comedy album titled “Inside Shelley Berman.”  It went on to huge sales and was the first comedy album to ever go Gold (at that time, it was 250,000 albums sold that made a record Gold) and also win a Grammy for the first non-musical album ever.  Could you feel once the album was on wax, that it was going to be such a hit?

I had no idea that it would become such a big hit as it did.  To that point, who had really done a comedy album prior to this?  It was a 33 LP and not a single, which were easier to sell.  It was an honor to have this album win a Grammy and in all, I was blessed with three comedy albums that went Gold.

BB:  I have no doubt that it opened doors for you professionally. Talk a little about that experience.

Certainly it allowed me to play at establishments that I never dreamed I would.  It created an audience that was now coming in for me, and that also raised my salary level, which in turn, allowed me to have Sarah (Shelley’s wife) to give up her job.

BB:  Being so successful in an era where others such as Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Woody Allen and in the following decade Richard Pryor was, why do you feel that today, comedy albums appear not to be as popular in the 60’s and early to late 70’s?

The comedy album fun has sort of left it and it really started going away for several years.  The album was no longer important because now the CD was available…then the DVD became available.  You just don’t see people today sitting around listening to even a CD because you just have too much visual like you do on a DVD.  The only exception to this is music of course.  You still can record it and people can poke the earpiece in their ears while they work out or put in a CD while driving to work. (Both Shelley and I agreed that to sit and listen to an album or as we know today, a CD, creates a visual which is even funnier at times.)

BB:  In 1961, you become forever linked to what I personally feel was the most well written television show that was years ahead of its time and tackled so many social issues.  That show was Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.”  In an episode titled “The Mind And The Matter” you played Archibald Beechcroft, a man who is tired of the hustle and bustle of every day life and especially people.  Beechcroft makes them all disappear, but is left to his own inner voice that talks to him throughout.  What was it like working with Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone?

First of all, it started out with Rod Serling calling me up and saying I would like to write a show for you to do.  I was already a big fan of his and The Twilight Zone so when I heard that, I almost fainted. I couldn’t get the word “YES” out fast enough!

So of course he wrote a show for me, as you know, called “The Mind And The Matter.”  I came into rehearse it with the Director who was Buzz Kulik (who directed a total of nine episodes of TZ) who gave me all the needed direction for my role.  At the end of the rehearsal, Rod came to me and asked how I liked doing it?  I said “fine, but that it was just missing one thing.  The episode has me as all kinds of characters but not as a woman.”  He said to me, “I will fix that.” 

The next day, I had a scene on the elevator where I was a woman. 

BB: Looking back on that episode, do you still think it stands the test of time as so many fans of The Twilight Zone do?

No, not in the least bit am I surprised it has stood the test of time.  Those shows as you said, made statements that last forever. It was a stupendously intelligent television show and always made people think about it.  Rod chose his actors and plots very carefully, but because they were so well written, I feel that is made all of us that much better in our performances.

BB:  The entertainment world lost Rod Serling at such a young age (Died in 1975 at the age of 49, from complications arising from Coronary Bypass Surgery).  Do you have any other recollections of him?

Just that whenever I would see him after that, it was always friendly and warm.

BB:  Over the last 48 years, you have done countless guest appearances on television that would we have to do 50 interviews just to cover every one of them.  Since we cannot possibly do that, pick one show if you can, that in your mind, you said: “Shelley, you nailed your performance you were playing tonight.”

There is one that I may have nailed completely, but I had some help from the host.  It was an appearance I had on the Ed Sullivan Show.  I can say until this very moment, that there never was or will never be a greater showman than the late Ed Sullivan.  He brought us The Beatles and Elvis.  In fact, he would have an Opera Star perform and then follow that act up with an elephant act.  He always felt you give the people what they want, have some fun doing it, and the rest will all work out. 

Well, I finally got to do the Ed Sullivan Show (I think in all, I did 21 appearances on his show over the years) and on Sunday afternoon, you would do the “Dress Rehearsal.”  Sullivan would tape that for review.  Back then, if you were a star, you got about seven minutes to do your act.  If you were not a star, you got about five minutes.  I came in with a routine about me asking my father for money to go to Acting School.  It’s called “The Father – Son Routine.”  I did my routine and it ran twelve minutes.  When I got done, I was waiting because Sullivan could be pretty tough about going over your time.  I knew I had taken too much time, and I waited to hear the response.  I finally got called to come to Ed’s office.  He was in their muttering to me, “Pretty Good, Pretty Good.”

I was thinking to myself that pretty soon, the axe was going to fall.  Well, Ed went on to say, “you know where you tell your son to write a letter? I want you to tell him to write a letter to his mother.”  My response was that you know because of the construction of the piece, that it may add a minute to the piece to do that.  He then said it again: “You just make sure you tell him to write a letter to his mother!”

Again, I interrupted him to say, “are you aware…” and he then interrupted me and said, “just tell him to write the letter to his mother”! He was mad at this point.

In this piece that I did towards the end, it becomes rather touching because you see the love for the boy and the tenderness of the man.  Up until this point, you only see how rough the man can be. Ed instructed the lighting folks to dim the lighting at a certain point of my piece.  I didn’t know he was going to do that, but I see the lights dim and the spotlight putting me in kind of an infinity lighting, which I know is effective.  

Of course I went on with the routine, but I was wondering what the hell was going on? Then I hear really beautiful violin music playing towards the end of this piece. When I finished the piece, I received a standing ovation in the studio, which you never see by the viewers.  When I got off stage, Ed’s wife was waiting on the telephone with a sobbing voice telling me how beautiful it was.

So it was, perhaps, the most astonishing moment I have had in working these television spots over the years.

BB:  You also appeared on many variety shows over the years. Having enjoyed them as a young man growing up, I have often wondered why are they no longer around today.  What is your take on this?

The variety format is something I wish we still had today.  It was a great way to entertain the public.  I really have no idea why it stopped and really do, wish I could name it.  It would be that a variety artist would own the show and it would be about him or her such as Dinah Shore or Dean Martin.  Somehow that wonderful format just vanished and I guess the only thing you can come up was that it no longer worked.  It wasn’t selling enough soup.

BB:  The same thing applies to all the creative game shows you appeared on and even with Mrs. Berman. Why do you not see them around today as well?

The entire business over the years has just changed so, in response to this question, those creative game shows also like the variety shows went away.

BB:  If your career is not busy enough, you also find time to teach writing humor (Literary and Dramatic) at USC as part of the Master of Writing Program. Talk briefly about this.

Well, it’s a Graduate Course where my students have their Bachelors Degree and are going for their Masters Degree.  They come to program, which will teach them fiction writing, novel and screen writing to name just a few. I find myself teaching the basics of humor writing.  This year starts my 23rd year of doing this.

BB: Before we move on to the boxing, I want to ask you what your words of wisdom would be to the young man or woman wanting to get into standup comedy today?

I would suggest that you learn everything you possibly can and know everything you can know.  Read your newspaper…forget the television concept.  Read your books and listen to what everyone is saying. Pick up everything you can because all of it is food for the comedian.  Look at your own self, which is food for the comedian.  Then when you get up in front of an audience, respect them enough to put on a tie and look like a person!

In Part II, Shelley will talk about his true love for the sport of boxing, and he brings on a special guest with him as well….

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