Herb Edelman is God

Okay, maybe not God, but if George Burns had been unavailable, Herb Edelman (1933-1996) would have been very amusing in the role.(Even Christians ought to know that God is Jewish; if they don’t they really haven’t been reading their Bible).

Edelman seldom got to star in anything, but he was often a prominent figure in an ensemble. I grew up during his key years, so I was enormously aware of him, although I didn’t know his name for a long time. And I loved him. Are you kiddin’? A bald Jewish guy from Brooklyn, Edelman was often cast as…a bald Jewish guy from Brooklyn! But he wasn’t just some non-actor, strictly there for his authenticity. He was an extremely skilled comic actor who’d studied theatre at Brooklyn College and had been an announcer for Armed Forced Radio.

The fact that Edelman had an extended association with Neil Simon’s work tells you everything you need to know. He was the archetypical Neil Simon actor, and brought that quality to nearly everything he did. He appeared in the original Broadway production (1963) and film (1967) of Barefoot in the Park, as the put-upon phone repairman; he’s also memorable as Murray the Cop in the original film version of The Odd Couple (1968), and he plays Walter Matthau’s brother in California Suite (1978). He co-starred in his own sit-com with Bob Denver and Joyce Van Patten called The Good Guys from 1968 to 1970 in which he played a nice guy was always scheming to get rich in a succession of schemes that didn’t pan out. It may have been his one straight-up starring gig. In 1968, both he and Van Patten had great roles in one of my favorite movies I Love You, Alice B. Toklas — Edelman played Peter Sellers’ swinging sex-obsessed best friend and business partner.

There’s a lot of stuff I saw at the time that made a huge impression on me as a kid. He guest starred on practically every major tv show of the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. He plays a burglar in a 1975 episode of Happy Days that has always stuck with me. The show is set in Milwaukee; Edelman, because he’s a burglar, I guess, is always only a Brooklyn guy. Richie (Ron Howard) traps him a closet at one point. Afraid he’ll starve, Richie shoves a slice of pizza to him under the door, and you hear Edelman’s voice from behind the door: “What, no anchovies?” THAT is Herb Edelman. In 1976, he starred in the kids show Big John,Little John, which I wrote about here. In Smash Up on Interstate 5 (1976) he plays a middle-aged disco swinger not unlike his role in I Love You Alice B. Toklas. He guested on many of the shows I’ve written about: Love American Style, Banacek, Maude, Barney Miller, Chico and the Man, The San Pedro Beach Bums, Cannon, Ellery Queen, Welcome Back Kotter, The Love Boat. A tv movie about aspiring stand-up comedians called The Comedy Company (1978) also made a huge impression on me. He played a funny grocer, beloved by all his customers. A line that also stuck with me ever after: a lady asks him, “Where can I find Brussels sprouts?” and he says, “Have you tried Brussels?”. Corny — but also very Edelman. And he’s in Jerry Lewis’s notorious late career movie Cracking Up a.k.a Smorgasbord (1983).

I have only recently caught up with what may be one of Edelman’s better known roles today, his recurring character as Bea Arthur’s ex-husband Stan on The Golden Girls (1985-1992). He was also a regular on St. Elsewhere (1984-88), and had recurring parts on Knot’s Landing (1990), and Murder She Wrote (1984-1995).

Edelman died in 1996 of emphysema. Don’t smoke! Edelman might have kept us laughing for another 20 years if he hadn’t. BTW, Edelman is buried, appropriately, in Queens. I may have to go look him up sometime!

 

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