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Comedian, actor. Buddy Hackett was born Leonard Hacker on August 31, 1924, in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. He was raised by his mother, Anna Geller, and his father, Philip Hacker, an upholsterer and part-time inventor whose most notable creation was a folding studio couch. As a child, Hackett developed a deep fondness for animals. He underwent a traumatic experience at age 11 when his pet dog, Happy, was poisoned. The vet said that the dog was in great pain and needed to be put down, but Hackett could not afford the four-dollar veterinary fee. He recalled, "I watched him put my dog down, and told him that I didn't have the four dollars but would work for him until he told me we were even. I walked 3-1/2 miles each day to his clinic. Sometimes I hitchhiked, but sometimes I walked the distance until he told me I was even."
Hackett attended Public School 103 in Brooklyn, and then continued on to New Utrecht High School. A short and rotund teenager—five-feet six-inches and 200 pounds—Hackett played lineman on the football team. He was also interested in theater and show business and directed a school production of What a Life. During the summers, Hackett worked at various "Borscht Belt" resorts in the Catskills—training grounds for many great Jewish comedians—and attempted to get noticed. He worked first as a waiter and bellhop, then made his professional debut as a comedian at the age of 15 in 1939. After that, he graduated to the role of "tummler," which the famous Jewish humorist Leo Rosten described as a "noise-maker, fun-generator, hilarity-organizer and organized buffoon" whose job was "to guarantee, to the blasé (but insatiable) patrons of a summer resort that most dubious of vacation boons: 'Never a dull moment!'"
Hackett's budding comedy career had to be put on hold, though, when he enlisted to fight in World War II after graduating high school in 1942. Hackett served overseas for three years with an anti-aircraft unit. On a furlough in 1945, Hackett attended a production of the musical Oklahoma!, which rekindled his love for show business, and after his discharge he immediately returned to New York and enrolled in acting lessons. During one lesson, Hackett's instructor told him to act like an egg and Hackett lay down in the middle of the stage. When asked what he was doing, Hackett replied, "I'm a fried egg."
Hackett made his debut as a nightclub comedian in 1945, performing at the Pink Elephant in Coney Island for $10 per night. In 1948, he teamed with manager Frank Faske and began headlining at Billy Gray's Band Box in Los Angeles.
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