This may seem an odd thing to say, but I think a proper appreciation of Buddy Hackett (Leonard Hacker, 1924-2003) depends on getting beyond his looks.
Now, clearly I don’t mean ignore his looks; he obviously became a comedian because of them. Hackett was a short, dumpy little dude with a kind of baby face, and a mush-mouthed way of talking out of one side of his face in his native, rough-hewn Brooklynese. These features clearly made him a “character” when he was growing up; no doubt he got as many laughs offstage as he did when he was on. But I do think there was an unfortunate element of laughing AT the guy. There’s a tradition of this as old as mankind. It’s symptomatic of human cruelty and it naturally found its way into show business, from deformed Medieval jesters to more modern figures like cross-eyed Ben Turpin and wall-eyed Marty Feldman. So…people weren’t just laughing at Buddy Hackett. They were LAUGHING AT Buddy Hackett. “Haha, look at the goddamn mug on that guy!” Hackett would say, “What do I care? I’m rich!” And he’d have a point. But the thing is, there was more to him than that. Like all performing artists, he played the hand he was dealt. He used his natural attributes to make art. He became a nightclub comic. He was a gifted storyteller, often embellishing his anecdotes with mime and comical accents. When he did the voices of his Jewish relatives and neighbors in Borough Park, great! When he portrayed Asian people or the mentally retarded — less amusing. But the fact remains that he employed his physiognomy. His appearance was less a crutch than a springboard.
The other aspect of his act was that he worked blue. He was one of the first stand-up comedians to mainstream dick jokes, for better or worse (I tend to think worse, not because I’m a prude, but because it’s unimaginative). Hackett was too young for either burlesque or vaudeville, and too raunchy for the latter. He started out in Brooklyn and then made a name for himself in the Borscht Belt following his World War Two service. In the early 1950s he conquered Las Vegas, where he became one of the biggest acts in town and remained so for four decades. In 1967, he and Eddie Fisher had a high profile run at the Palace Theatre. Above all, Hackett was a night club comic — that’s where you got full access to his art.
Television was also very good to him. Naturally he had to clean up his act to appear on that medium in those days, but he managed to do so and he was very popular on all the talk shows and variety shows in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Johnny Carson loved him; some claim Hackett was his most frequent guest, although I’ve heard that applied to so many performers I’d be hesitant to sign off on that.
Lastly, he dabbled in acting. There was a certain amount of demand for the character he’d created. It wasn’t the focus of his career, or what he was best at, but he gave it a shot, and of course a working comedian goes where the jobs are. He was in three Broadway shows: Lunatics and Lovers (1954-55), Viva Madison Avenue! (1960), and I Had a Ball (1964-65).
In films, he was twice considered for comedy teams. In 1953 Universal speculated about teaming him with singer Alan Dale as their answer to Paramount’s Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Instead he was third billed that year in Walking My Baby Back Home with Donald O’Connor and Janet Leigh. The next year, health problems (Lou’s) forced Abbott and Costello to drop out of Fireman, Save My Child, so Hackett and Hugh O’Brian were hired as Abbott and Costello substitutes. There was talk of keeping them as a team. The talk was dropped when the film tanked. (Hackett would famously later play Costello in the 1978 made-for-TV bio-pic Bud and Lou). Hackett also claimed to have been considered at one point for the third slot in The Three Stooges, although he appears to be the only source for that tale.
Hackett’s other films include God’s Little Acre (1958), All Hands on Deck (1961), Everything’s Ducky (1961), The Music Man (1962), The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), Muscle Beach Party (1964), The Golden Head (1964), The Love Bug (1968) and Hey, Babe! (1980).
Odd that he so often appeared in children’s entertainment, given the raunchy nature of his live act. Much like the similarly blue Jackie Vernon, who was the voice of Frosty the Snowman, Hackett even did an animated holiday special for Rankin-Bass, 1979’s Jack Frost. A decade later he did voice-over work in Disney’s The Little Mermaid.
In 1956, Hackett had his own sitcom, Stanley, produced by Max Liebman, in which he played a newspaper vendor. The show also featured early career Carol Burnett, Dick Gautier, and Paul Lynde. The writers included Neil Simon and his brother Danny, and Woody Allen. He was also a regular on the short-lived series Action (1999-2000), with Jay Mohr and Ileanna Douglas. His last public appearance was on the kid’s show All That in 2002.