Berman in the 1960s
|Born||Sheldon Leonard Berman
February 3, 1925
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
|Died||September 1, 2017
Bell Canyon, California, U.S.
|Cause of death||Complications from Alzheimer's disease|
|Resting place||Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery|
|Alma mater||Goodman Theatre|
|Occupation||Comedian, actor, writer, teacher, lecturer, poet|
|Medium||Stand-up, film, television|
Sheldon Leonard Berman (February 3, 1925 - September 1, 2017) was an American comedian, actor, writer, teacher, lecturer and poet.
In his comedic career, Berman was awarded three gold records and he won the first Grammy Award for a spoken comedy recording in 1959. He played Larry David's father on Curb Your Enthusiasm, a role for which he received a 2008 Emmy Award nomination.
Berman was born in Chicago, the son of Irene (née Marks) and Nathan Berman. He was Jewish.
He served in the Navy during World War II. He then enrolled in Chicago's Goodman Theatre as a drama student. There he met fellow student Sarah Herman; they married in 1947. His acting career began with an acting company in Woodstock, Illinois. Leaving Woodstock in 1949, Shelley and his wife Sarah made their way to New York City. To make ends meet, Berman found employment as a social director, cab driver, speech teacher, assistant manager of a drug store, and a dance instructor at Arthur Murray Dance Studios.
Berman began as a straight actor, receiving his training at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, honing his acting skills in stock companies in and around Chicago and New York City.
In the mid-1950s, he became a member of Chicago's Compass Players, which later evolved into The Second City. While performing improvised sketches with Compass, Berman began to develop solo pieces, often employing an imaginary telephone to take the place of an onstage partner.
In 1957, Berman was hired as a comedian at Mister Kelly's in Chicago, which led to other nightclub bookings, and a recording contract with Verve Records. His comedy albums earned him three gold records and he won the first Grammy Award for a spoken comedy recording. Berman appeared on numerous television specials and all of the major variety shows of the day.
He starred on Broadway in A Family Affair and continued with stage work in The Odd Couple, Damn Yankees, Where's Charley?, Fiddler on the Roof, Two by Two, I'm Not Rappaport, La Cage aux Folles, The Prisoner of Second Avenue and Guys & Dolls.
Berman performed both comedic and dramatic roles on television, including appearances on episodes of The Twilight Zone (both radio and TV versions), Bewitched, Peter Gunn, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Adam-12, Emergency!, Brothers, Night Court, MacGyver, L.A. Law, Friends, Walker, Texas Ranger, The King of Queens, Grey's Anatomy, Boston Legal, Hannah Montana, CSI: NY and the revived Hawaii Five-0. He also had a recurring role on the short-lived sitcom Walter & Emily.
Among Berman's film credits are Dementia (1955, with Shorty Rogers), The Best Man (1964, with Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson), Divorce American Style (1967, with Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds), Every Home Should Have One (1970, with Marty Feldman), Beware! The Blob (1972, with Robert Walker Jr.), Rented Lips (1988, with Martin Mull and Robert Downey Jr.), Teen Witch (1989, with Robyn Lively and Zelda Rubinstein), The Last Producer (2000, with Burt Reynolds), Meet the Fockers (2004, with Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller), The Holiday (2006, with Cameron Diaz), and You Don't Mess with the Zohan (2008, with Adam Sandler).
Berman wrote three books, Cleans and Dirtys (1966), A Hotel Is a Place ... (1972) and Up in the Air With Shelley Berman (1986), two plays, several television pilot scripts, and numerous poems. In 2013, he released his collection of poetry, To Laughter With Questions. For over 20 years, Berman was a lecturer (later lecturer emeritus) in humor writing in the Master of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California. He was also a teacher for the Improv Olympics program.
Berman married Sarah Herman on April 19, 1947. The two met while they were studying acting at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.
In the mid-1960s, Berman and wife Sarah adopted two children, son Joshua and daughter Rachel. The Bermans were planning Joshua's bar mitzvah when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Joshua died on October 29, 1977 at age 12.
Berman and his wife were both enthusiastic supporters of the Motion Picture and Television Fund (located in Woodland Hills, California), a charitable organization that offers assistance and care to those in the motion picture and television industries with limited or no resources, and contributed their time and resources to the benefit of the facilities and the residents.
In the 1980s, the Chamber of Commerce in Canoga Park, California selected Berman to be one of the celebrities to serve a term as honorary mayor of Canoga Park.
In a 2012 podcast interview with Marc Maron, 87-year-old Berman accused comedian Bob Newhart of plagiarizing his improvisational telephone routine style, describing its genesis and saying it was a "very special technique that couldn't really be imitated. It could be stolen. And it was." He continued, "I was coming to work at night and a guy stopped his car, passed me by, and said 'Hey, Shelley! There's a guy [who] stole your act!'" When asked by Maron if it was done maliciously, Berman replied, "Maliciously? He wouldn't do it maliciously. Nobody does that. But he did it to make a living. And he became a star."
Berman later added, "I thought it was a rotten thing to do. I thought the agents who sold him -- I thought they were just as guilty as everybody else. But, my God, to go into a town and do my show, and the critics saying that I borrowed some stuff from Newhart..."
When asked in interviews about the telephone issue, Bob Newhart noted that:
On his website, comedy writer Mark Rothman discussed the history of comic "telephone" monologists:
Berman died from Alzheimer's disease-related complications at his home in Bell Canyon, California, in the early morning of September 1, 2017. He was 92 years old. His archive was donated to the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York.