Buddy Hackett was born Leonard Hacker on August 31, 1924, in Brooklyn, New York. He played football in high school and started performing as a comedian in 1939. After fighting in World War II, he returned to standup and began to appear in films and television. In 1956, he landed the title role on the sitcom Stanley. He appeared on TV, in films and had a live show in Las Vegas. He died in 2003.
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. There Hackett developed his most famous sketch, a hilarious but racially offensive routine as a Chinese waiter in which he used a rubber band to slant his eyes and spoke in a thick accent. His self-deprecating and off-color brand of humor was such a hit with audiences that by the end of the 1940s, Hackett was headlining at nightclubs all over the country, from Las Vegas to the Catskills.
Spurred on by his success as a standup comedian, in the 1950s Hackett expanded into theater, film and television. He acted in the 1946 traveling production of Call Me Mister and then made his Broadway debut in the 1955 revival of Lunatics and Lovers, for which he won the Donaldson Award for Best Male Debut Performance. In addition to live performances as a comedian and actor, in 1948 Hackett appeared in the early television show School House. He returned to television in 1956 as the title character and star of the NBC sitcom Stanley, which launched the career of co-star Carol Burnett. Hackett also made frequent appearances on The Tonight Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, What's My Line and The Ed Sullivan Show. His first feature film was the 1953 picture Walking My Baby Back Home, and Hackett followed that with acclaimed performances in The Music Man (1962) and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).
For the rest of his career, Hackett devoted nearly all of his time to his wildly popular comedy show in Las Vegas. However, he did resurface periodically in television and film roles. His most notable television credits include Get Smart (1967), Murder She Wrote (1987) and Boy Meets World (1996), and his most prominent film roles probably in Disney's The Love Bug (1968) and The Little Mermaid (1989).
Buddy Hackett married Sherry Cohen on June 12, 1955. They had a son, the comedian Sandy Hackett, and two daughters, Lisa Jean Hackett and Ivy Julie Hackett. Buddy Hackett retired from performing due to failing health in 1996 and passed away seven years later, on June 30, 2003, at the age of 78. Interviewed near the end of his life, Hackett attributed his remarkable five-decade career as a comedian and actor to his natural-born ability to make people laugh. "I have the gift of laughter," he said. "I can make people laugh at will. In good times and in bad. And that I don't question. It was a gift from God."
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