Strange but true — Shecky Greene (Fred Sheldon Greenfield, b. 1926), a comic whose name has been a byword for “old school” for over half a century, is still alive and kicking. Over the years, Greene’s name somehow became more famous than the man or his material. His handle became legendary as the proverbial brand for “hack comedian”. Certainly more people can tell you this than can describe what Greene looks like, or can quote you any of his material. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that Greene has primarily been a creature of live performance. He did a handful of films, and a good amount of television. But he never really make a mark there. More of a scuff. But in night clubs, he tore it up, eventually earning six figures an engagement. In the mid ’50s, Elvis opened for HIM.
This is astounding to learn for anyone who just knows Shecky Greene from his spots on TV variety shows, in which he did waxwork impressions of figures like Ed Sullivan, Al Jolson, and Jimmy Cagney, and told dialect jokes of the sort you’d hear at the Elk’s Club. His most oft quoted quip (told with variations) goes something like “Frank Sinatra once saved my life — he told his boys to stop punching me!” Originally from Chicago, Greene started out as a teenager working at a resort near Milwaukee. Within a few years, he was playing New Orleans, Miami, Reno, Lake Tahoe, the Catskills, and Vegas. Greene started out in the days of Joe E. Lewis, Sophie Tucker, Ted Lewis, Martha Raye, and Ann Sothern. Thus he is one of the last links to the old days. For a time he was Sammy Shore’s comedy partner, and later would be one of the financial backers of The Comedy Store.
Greene broke into TV in the mid ’50s, on the variety and talk shows of Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Dinah Shore, Bob Hope, Joey Bishop, Steve Allen, Pat Boone, Dean Martin, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas etc, as well as shows like Kraft Music Hall and The Hollywood Palace. A recurring role on Combat! (1962-63) gave him his first acting experience. You can also see him in the films Tony Rome (1967), The Love Machine (1971), Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part One (1981), and Splash (1984), and on tv shows like Love American Style, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Laverne and Shirley, Rosanne and Mad About You.
But Greene’s meat and potatoes for over 70 years has been night clubs, where he was known for the unpredictability of his act. You can see a little of that in his TV work. Unlike many comedians, who stick to a tightly rehearsed “ten”, Greene would riff a bit, kid about the host, and so forth. In live performance, it was that times a thousand fold, interacting with the audience and engaging in crazy anarchistic stunts, in addition to his prepared material. In live performance, he was known for being much raunchier than was ever possible on TV. And he was also known for his offstage shenanigans, boozing, gambling, whoring, and fighting. You know, like ya do. At age 95, he’s probably a little tamer now, though.
To learn more about variety, including tv variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.