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Buddy Hackett, 1924 – 2003

Comic was true blue

Buddy Hackett, the raunchy nightclub comedian also known for his roles on TV and in films, was found dead Monday at his Malibu home. He was 78.

Hackett was notable for his sharp wit and frequent improvisation, and, with his short stature and baby face, he drew big laughs for his “blue” routines, delivered with a sweet persona.

Improv was such a big part of Hackett’s performance that he often made up an entire routine as he went. “I let it roll when I’m out there. I’m kind of interested myself in what I’m gonna say,” he said in a 2001 interview.

Hackett also had a number of notable supporting roles on stage and screen over the years, from his little-known Broadway debut in 1954 to perhaps his best-known film role in “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” in which he and Mickey Rooney took over for a drunk pilot.

Most recently, he had been a celebrity judge on the NBC reality show “Last Comic Standing.”

Born Leonard Hacker on Aug. 31, 1924 in Brooklyn, Hackett first performed onstage at the age of 15 in the Catskills but didn’t truly begin his career until a few years later, when he returned from service in WWII. It was while in the Army, however, that Hackett met a double-talking Chinese waiter who became a popular part of his early routines.

Comedy work quickly led to roles in the early days of TV, with Hackett making his debut in 1948 on the DuMont Network’s “School House.” In a sign his future was more as the smart-aleck sidekick than leading man, his first role on the bigscreen came as the voice of a talking camel in 1947’s “Slave Girl.”

He first appeared, however, in 1953’s “Walking My Baby Back Home,” after signing a contract with Universal.

Soon thereafter Hackett made the move to Broadway, where he won the 1955 Donaldson Award for best debut performance by a male for his role in the farce “Lunatics and Lovers.”

He went on to play opposite Carol Burnett in the 1956 sitcom “Stanley” and to comic roles in such films as “All Hands on Deck,” “Everything’s Ducky” and “The Love Bug.” He also gave a rare restrained performance in the 1963 bigscreen adaptation of “The Music Man.”

Throughout the 1950s and early ’60s, Hackett was a regular performer on “The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar, also appearing frequently on “Hollywood Squares” and “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”

But it was always for his raunchy comedy routines in Vegas that Hackett was best known, however, and he spent more and more of his time there in the ’60s and ’70s.

Due to the content of his comedy, Hackett was never able to perform his Vegas routine onscreen until HBO gave him two comedy specials in the ’80s.

Hackett often cited Lou Costello, a fellow portly comedian with a quick wit, as one of his idols, and portrayed him with surprising pathos in the 1978 telepic “Bud and Lou.”

After serving as host of the short-lived revival of “You Bet Your Life!” in 1980, Hackett was largely absent from film and TV roles until 1988, when he played a bit role as Scrooge in the Bill Murray starrer “Scrooged” and then served as the voice of Scuttle the seagull in Disney’s animated hit “The Little Mermaid.”

He retired permanently from comedy performing in 1996 after suffering stage fright and dizziness for the first time in his career.

Hackett still appeared on the small screen, however, most notably as Jay Mohr’s uncle and chauffeur in the short-lived but critically acclaimed Fox series “Action.” Mohr is host and exec producer of “Last Comic Standing,” in which Hackett was serving as a judge.

In contrast to his raucous stage persona, Hackett was well known for his numerous contributions to various charitable causes and was a prolific benefit performer.

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.

Services are pending.

(Army Archerd and the Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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