|Jack E. Leonard|
Leonard in 1959
April 24, 1910
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
|Died||May 10, 1973
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Kay Emerald (? -1967) (her death)
Gladys Leonard (?-1973) his death)
Leonard was born Leonard Lebitsky on April 24, 1910, in Chicago ("You know, the city where kids play robbers and robbers"), the son of a tailor. He claimed that one of his childhood friends was Baby Face Nelson. As a young man, he worked as a lifeguard ("I swam against Johnny Weissmuller ... and he was so fast I haven't seen him since"), and first worked professionally as a dancer, competing in Charleston contests. In the 1930s, he joined a vaudeville troupe, then began touring with the big bands, playing nightclubs all over the country. During World War II he toured bases with the United Service Organizations.
The Tonight Show, hosted by Jack Paar, marked his first national exposure. For the next several years he worked steadily in Las Vegas, and made hundreds of television appearances on various panel and variety shows. He made occasional recordings, and appeared in a handful of motion pictures, such as Three Sailors and a Girl.
Leonard's comedic method was sarcastic and aggressive, creating an "insult humor" genre which anticipated Don Rickles. (Rickles's Friars' Club roast was emceed by Leonard, who introduced Rickles as "a man who's been doing my act for about 12 years now.") A trademark line, after taking off his hat to reveal his bald head: "What did you expect, feathers?" He also referenced his weight problem in his act. Leonard's strong and unapologetic onstage personality ("Good evening, opponents!") belied a gentle and giving spirit that would occasionally be revealed in his act when he would sing a sentimental song.
He wore a distinctive outfit: a dark suit, purposely two sizes too small, a white narrow-brimmed hat, and horn-rimmed glasses. On one variety show, Leonard's contemporaneous popularity was demonstrated when a lookalike came on stage and did a Leonard-like schtick. Then Leonard walked on stage and addressed his doppelgänger: "You've got a great future, son, but not in this business!"
In March 1973, he collapsed shortly after finishing a performance at the Rainbow Room in New York City and underwent emergency cardiac bypass surgery, but died several weeks later at the age of 63.