There was only one Dick Shawn (Richard Schulefand, 1923-1987). The thing to do in show business is to carve out a niche for yourself, and for many years Shawn cornered the market on being comedy’s hep cat beatnik.
Born in Buffalo, he appeared on Broadway as early as 1948 (billed as “Richy Shawn”) in a show called For Heaven’s Sake, Mother! with Molly Picon. In due course, he developed a solo night club act that combined singing, stand-up and strange pranks on the audience. His career got a big boost when legendary producer Max Liebman put him on several of his tv variety specials in the mid 1950s.
Shawn’s career took off big in the ’60s. In the service comedy Wake Me When It’s Over (1960), he was second billed to kindred spirit Ernie Kovacs, in a cast that also featured Jack Warden, Don Knotts, and Marvin Kaplan. That same year he starred in the comedy The Wizard of Baghdad opposite Diane Baker. The ’60s would see him juggling films, Broadway, tv spots, and his nightclub act.
In 1963, he garnered one of his more legendary performances as the mama’s boy hep cat Sylvester in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. In 1964, he replaced Zero Mostel as Pseudolus in the original Broadway production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. In 1965 he co-starred in the shortlived Broadway two-hander PeterPat with Joan Hackett. In 1966 he was second billed to James Coburn in the Blake Edwards–William Peter Blatty comedy film What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? with Aldo Ray, Harry Morgan, Carroll O’Connor, and Vito Scotti. He played a Russian in the all-star 1966 sci-fi comedy Way…Way Out with Jerry Lewis, Connie Stevens, Robert Morley, Dennis Weaver, Howard Morris, Brian Keith, Anita Ekberg, James Brolin, and Sig Ruman.
Then, in 1967, perhaps hist best known, most indelible performance, the character of L.S.D. the “Hippie Hitler” in the original version of Mel Brooks’ The Producers. Ironically he was already 34 years old at the time he played this intrinsically youth oriented performance. But I’m sure that when Brooks was casting, Shawn was a no brainer to cast as a hippie. He was THE guy for this kind of thing. It seems to have been especially crafted for him.
We think of The Producers as his peak, but Shawn did tons of memorable stuff after this. He’s in the 1972 Garry Marshall comedy western Evil Roy Slade as a lawman named Bing Bell (in many ways a precursor to Blazing Saddles). He’s the voice of Snow Miser in the 1974 Rankin-Bass special The Year Without a Santa Claus. From 1975 to 1976, the last of his seven Broadway shows A Musical Jubilee, with Lillian Gish and Tammy Grimes. He’s in the 1979 Dracula comedy Love at First Bite with George Hamilton, Susan St. James, Arte Johnson, Richard Benjamin, and The Jeffersons stars Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford (Love at First Bite is a much better comedy, it must be added, than Mel Brooks’ later Dracula: Dead and Loving It).
Shawn had the starring role in the bizarre 1983 dark comedy Goodbye, Cruel World, about a tv anchorman who decides to film his goodbyes to his loved ones before he commits suicide. He was a regular on the 1985 sit com Hail to the Chief, in which Patty Duke played the first woman President (Shawn of course played the Soviet premiere). He’s in the legendary 1986 Disney short Captain Eo with Michael Jackson and Anjelica Huston, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. He’s in the 1987 Ally Sheedy comedy Maid to Order. His last film role was in keeping with the quirkiness of his entire career: Rented Lips (1988), directed by Robert Downey, Sr., written by and starring Martin Mull, and featuring also Jennifer Tilly, Robert Downey Jr, Kenneth Mars, June Lockhart, Edy Williams and Shelley Berman! And lots of guest spots on television over the decades.
All this while, Shawn was also doing his unique live solo shows, featuring pranks of the sort we associate with Andy Kaufman. According to his son Adam Shawn, who wrote to me to describe the act, he would often startle the audience by making a surprise entrance from under a pile of pre-set newspaper garbage that was onstage. He’d lie there for about 45 minutes as the audience filtered in, and then startled everyone by popping out at the start of the show. “Then at intermission, says Shawn, “he’d lie on the stage for about another half hour, in plain view of the audience, while the stage crew cleaned up around him preparing for the second act. That put him on stage for nearly 3 hours straight without going backstage.”
Finally, in 1987, a legendary death to match Dick Shawn’s legendary life and career. While performing at the University of California, San Diego he suffered a fatal heart attack during his act. The attack oddly seemed to match some of the material he had been performing, and he’d always warned stagehands and staff not to interfere when he did unpredictable things on stage. The result was that for a very long time, neither the audience nor the house staff did anything about the man lying face down, motionless, on the stage. Finally a stage hand checked him out, cried for a doctor, one came up, verified his condition, and the audience was asked to leave. Many in the audience, still believing it to be a prank, stayed in their seats. And what a great metaphor for vintage show business, eh? Some of us, refusing to acknowledge the “deaths” of our great performers, hanging on, still watching them, as everyone else moves on.
At any rate, I’ve often joked that if you’re gonna go, this is the best way for a performer to go, right where you love to be, with the sound of audience laughter ringing in your ears. If it happened to you, though, it would be a nightmare, of course, but we won’t think about that.