Charlie Callas: They Broke the Mold

Prior to the present age it could be truly said, though one seldom had occasion for it, that there was no way to describe Charlie Callas (1924-2011). Well, it can still be said, but you don’t need to — you can just send links to film clips or GIFs and the thing is done. But no one can do what he did, so you can’t really demonstrate it or imitate it. And words fail in his case more than in most others. But I will try.

Callas was a comedian whose stand-up act involved pantomime of an extreme sort that only he could do. Yes, this was because he was enormously talented (though in a way that almost no one would actually be envious of, content to let Callas be king at whatever it was that he did), but also because, as I often say, he was “blessed with good comedy equipment”.  By this, I mean, a funny face. “Ugly” is a value judgment I’m uncomfortable making, but it’s the sort of thing that was said. My mother certainly said it when he came on television: “That damn ugly Charlie Callas!”. He possessed ENORMOUS eyes that he could roll and bug and cross and sometimes half-cover with twitching eyelids as though he were having a seizure. He’d roll them into the back of his head so all you could see were the whites and he looked like a zombie. He had big furry eyebrows that he could make leap and dance up and down his forehead ONE AT A TIME. He had a huge beak of a nose that made him sort of look like a toucan. Craggy cheek bones and sunken cheeks, and a weak chin. And a mouth that was sort of an obscene gash. When I picture him, he’s usually panting like a dog, with his tongue hanging out. But it wouldn’t be just his face, but his whole (skeletal thin)  body would get into whatever he was doing. And I haven’t even gotten to his sounds. He made sounds no one else on earth could make. They were the sorts of sounds that cartoonist Don Martin would spell out in Mad Magazine: “Frrrrrrp!” was a big one, or “hucketa-hucketa-hucketa!”, or “Whoa!” or a very wheezy, asthamatic sounding “HOWK!”

Of course, what I have just described is not an act. In his stand-up, he would use these skills to help him tell stories, in which he would play all the characters, illustrating what they did with sound effects, and constantly interrupting it with inexplicable tics and weird sounds.  Or on variety shows, he’d be inserted into skits where this strange behavior could come into play. He first broke in the mid 1960s, and his primary medium was television. You saw him constantly on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Merv Griffin Show, The Joey Bishop Show, The Andy Williams Show, The Flip Wilson Show, The Dean Martin Show and Dean’s many celebrity roasts, The Mike Douglas Show, Dinah! (Dinah Shore’s Show), etc.

And occasionally this constant exposure and the gut-busting reaction of audiences would lead to guest spots on sit coms, or getting cast in movies. Jerry Lewis cast him in The Big Mouth (1967). Mel Brooks put him in Silent Movie (1976), High Anxiety (1978), The History of the World: Part 1 (1981), and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995). On rare occasions, he would even do something more “real” and “legit”. For example, he played a fairly straight, regular part as an informant on the caper show Switch (1975-78) with Robert Wagner and Eddie Albert. And he’s the voice of the dragon in Disney’s Pete’s Dragon (1977).

How does somebody like Charlie Challas (given that there is no one like Charlie Callas) happen? In his case he was born in Brooklyn, the son of a Greek-American father and a German-American mother. He started out as a drummer in big bands, playing with guys like Tommy Dorsey and Buddy Rich. This led to fooling around, which led to getting up in front of the mic. You often see him wearing a tuxedo in old clips and photos, and this is because he worked live constantly, at resorts like Las Vegas, Miami, etc. Very old school show biz.

I’ve stopped embedding or linking to youtube clips here; they all go dead. But, as a special thank you, I’ll be sending a Charlie Callas to readers who’ve given to my Patreon campaign. I had a hard time thinking what my Patreon rewards could be. This will be one — I’m sending the subscribers the kind of specially curated clips I used to post directly on Travalanche! And, believe me, a performance by Charlie Callas is not to be missed. Today is the birthday of the late Charlie Callas.

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