Phil Foster: Brooklyn’s Ambassador to the World

A tribute today to actor and nightclub comic Phil Foster (Fivel Feldman, 1913-1985).

Foster was all about Brooklyn. Born and bred there, he took his professional name from Foster Avenue, which runs through Canarsie and Flatbush. He started out performing in amateur contests in local theatres and vaudeville houses, along with fellow neighborhood aspirant Jackie Gleason. He went professional in the late ’30s at Chicago nightclubs. A hitch in World War Two briefly interupted his career, but by the mid ’40s he was back performing at venues in New York and around the country. By 1949 Foster was on TV, doing his stand-up on The Ed Sullivan Show, Cavalcade of Stars, and Kraft Music Hall with Perry Como. Then came the Colgate Comedy Hour, The Kate Smith Hour, The Garry Moore Show, and The All Star Revue. His material was based on his old memories of his early years in Brooklyn.

This led to a series of 14 comedy shorts he made for Universal Pictures between 1951 and 1957, in which he portrayed “Brooklyn’s Ambassador to the World”. He released many comedy records with the same theme.

And then still more TV spots during these years and afterwards, on the shows of Sid Caesar, Jack Carter, Jack Paar, Arthur Murray, Jackie Gleason, Jerry Lester, Jerry Lewis, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Pat Boone, Skitch Henderson, Joan Rivers, Mike Douglas, Johnny Carson, and Dinah Shore.

Though Foster had a background as an actor, producers were slow to cast him in narrative projects. His first such film was George Pal’s Conquest of Space (1955). It was nearly a decade until his next, Jerry Lewis’s The Patsy (1964). About a half dozen other films followed over the next decade, the best known of which is Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) with Michael Moriarity, Robert de Niro and Vincent Gardenia.

Then, unexpectedly, at the age of 60, Foster’s career went into high gear. Garry Marshall, whom Foster had known from The Joey Bishop Show, cast him an episode of The Odd Couple, and this led to his high profile role as Laverne’s father (and proprietor of The Pizza Bowl) Frank DeFazio on Laverne and Shirley (1976-83), and suddenly, after four decades in show business, everyone knew who he was. THis led to roles in the all-star The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington (1977), as well as The Love Boat and Fantasy Island and Steve Martin’s 1980 Comedy is Not Pretty TV special. Sadly, neither his life nor career were to long outlast Laverne and Shirley. His last role was a 1985 film called Texas Godfather. It was released posthumously; Foster had died earlier that year at age 72.

To learn more about the history of variety entertainment, including TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.