An unusual comic performer, Dick Shawn appeared on film, TV and the stage in such hits as The Producers and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. One of his most memorable roles came in 1963 as part of the madcap cast of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. On the small screen, Shawn made appearances on The Andy Williams Show, The Pat Boone Show and That Girl.
Comedian, actor, singer. Born Richard Schulefand on December 1, 1923, in Buffalo, New York. An unusual comic performer, Dick Shawn appeared on film, television, and the stage in such hits as The Producers and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Growing up in Lakawanna, New York, he was a shy child who had a difficult time talking to people. He came from a quiet, reserved family. He once said "Nobody spoke at home... There was no intellectual discussion, no TV. You ate and left the table,"according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.
After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Shawn briefly attended the University of Miami. He started to explore a career in comedy, competing on the Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts television show. While he did not win, Shawn decided to stay in New York City and look for work. Shawn soon got his first big break, appearing on Broadway in the short-lived comedy, For Heaven's Sake, Mother! in 1948. He went on develop a stage act that incorporated comedy, acting, singing, and dancing. In Las Vegas, Shawn worked with such actresses as Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Betty Grable. Television audiences were able to see Shawn in action in his numerous performances on such programs as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Dinah Shore Chevy Show.
On the Big Screen
In the 1960s, Shawn made it to the big screen, starting out in such comedies as Wake Me When It's Over (1960) with Ernie Kovacs. One of his most memorable roles came three years later as part of the madcap cast of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). The cast list is a veritable who’s who of comedy, including Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, and Buddy Hackett. The plot was a straightforward car chase, with several groups racing reach some money buried under a "W. " With his good looks and strong physique, Shawn was a natural as the kooky lifeguard Sylvester Marcus. While the film found success at the box office, Shawn returned to Broadway, taking over for Zero Mostel in the hit comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1964. He later joined the cast of the comedic musical Fade In, Fade Out and the original play Peterpat.
After his theatrical runs, Shawn appeared in the World War II comedy What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966) directed by Blake Edwards and co-starring James Coburn and the science fiction laugher Way, Way Out (1966) with Jerry Lewis. On the small screen, Shawn made appearances on The Andy Williams Show, The Pat Boone Show, and That Girl.
Already known for his offbeat performances, Shawn took on his strangest character in Mel Brooks' The Producers (1968), which starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as the title characters. He played an hippie actor named Lorenzo St. DuBois, or LSD as he was called. His character gets the role of Adolf Hitler in a musical called "Springtime for Hitler" within the film. According to the Los Angeles Times, Shawn once described the role as "an unactable part has to be played by a maniac."
By the late 1970s, Shawn had developed and was performing his best-known one-man show, The Second Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World, which earned him a nomination for the 1978 Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience. The show was filled with a near endless array of material, from his musings on cosmology to tap-dancing to scenes from William Shakespeare's tragedic play Othello. After bringing the show to Los Angeles, he won the 1986 L.A. Drama Critics Award for the show. Shawn did not tell jokes, per say. He entertained audiences with his unusual observations, humorous delivery, and pure physicality.
In the later part of his career, Shawn continued do his own special brand of stand-up comedy and work in television and films. He appeared on such shows as Amazing Stories, St. Elsewhere, and Three's Company as John Ritter's father. His last two films were Maid to Order (1987) with Ally Sheedy and Beverly D’Angelo and Rented Lips (1988) with Martin Mull, Jennifer Tilly, and Robert Downey, Jr.
Shawn gave his final performance at the University of California at San Diego on April 17, 1987. Known for his physical antics on stage, the audience was not surprised when Shawn fell to the floor after a joke about a nuclear war. Imagining that they were the only ones to survive, he told them "and I would be your leader" before collapsing. The audience laughed and waited and laughed and waited, but Shawn never got up. His son Adam was in the audience and called for a doctor. A doctor went on stage and started CPR on the comedian. He was taken to Scripps Memorial Hospital where he died less than an hour after he arrived.
Shawn was survived by his four children: Adam, Amy, Jennifer, and Wendy.
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