If you’re like I was, you’ve seen Richard Libertini (1933-2016) on screens dozens of times, even recognized him, and even laughed at his performances, without really knowing who he was. My schooling came at the knee of Alan Arkin who praises him in a mini-doc about The In-Laws (1979), and talked about Libertini’s early influence upon him. He later repaid the debt by having him cast in his movies. But, you’ll see, he was in everybody’s movies.
Lbertini was a Boston native. He attended Emerson and then joined Second City in Chicago in 1959 becoming part of the main cast with the likes of Jack Burns, Paul Sills, Del Close, and Dick Schaal. With fellow alum McIntyre Dixon and Linda Segal he formed a comedy group called Stewed Prunes and THIS is what had influenced Arkin back in the early ’60s. Arkin reported seeing them in a night club, and audiences not just laughing but “screaming, retching and coughing” at their sketches. (During this period, in 1963, LIbertini married his wife, Melinda Dillon, who was destined for ever greater fame–divorcing him when she achieved it in 1978). Stewed Prunes was together for a few years; they claimed to be influenced by vaudeville and silent comedy, hence the high standard of their work, In 1966 they performed in The Mad Show, the off-Broadway revue produced by Mad Magazine. Later that same year, he was cast in the original Broadway production of Woody Allen’s Dont’t Drink the Water, which ran until 1968. He reprised his role (a priest) in the 1969 film version. By then he’d already made his film debut, in The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968). In 1970 he had small parts in Neil Simon’s The Out of Towners and Mike Nichols Catch-22. The following year he returned to Broadway with Paul Sills’ Story Theatre, which also featured Dixon, Dillon, Schaal, Valerie Harper (who was married to Schaal), Peter Bonerz (of The Bob Newhart Show), Paula Kelly, Paul Sand and Avery Schreiber. In 1972 he was a regular on The Melba Moore-Clifton Davis Show along with Ron Carey, Timmie Rogers, and Liz Torres.
In the mid ’70s, LIbertini’s career gathered steam. He supported Bob Dishy in I Wonder Who’s Killing Her Now? (1975) and had recurring roles on Mary Hartman Mary Hartman (1976) and Soap (1977). For Arkin, he appeared in Fire Sale (1977), The In-Laws (1979– yes, as the crazy dictator with the Senor Wences routine) and Big Trouble (1986). He had roles in Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), and Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980). Burt Reynolds used him in Sharkey’s Machine (1981) and Best Friends (1982). He was in David Steinberg’s Going Berzerk (1983) with John Candy, Eugene Levy and Joe Flaherty. With Chevy Chase he was in Deal of the Century (1983) and the Fletch movies (1985-89). In 1984 he was in Unfaithfully Yours with Dudley Moore and All of Me with Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin (he’s that Eastern Holy Man with the immortality bowl). In 1990 he was in Awakenings and Bonfire of the Vanities. Everything seems to crest around this period: he starred in his own short-lived sitcom Family Man in 1988, and then was a regular on two short-lived series The Fanelli Boys (1990-91) and Pacific Station (1991-92). He had a recurring role on Jenny McCarthy’s show Jenny (1997-98) and continued to guest on shows like Law and Order and Murder She Wrote, and kept working until the time of his death. This was following nearly five decades of guesting on such shows as That Girl, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Barney Miller etc etc etc.
Libertini’s came full circle late in his career by working again with Woody Allen, in the 2011 stage play Honeymoon Hotel, directed by John Torturro with LIbertini, Julie Kavner, Steve Guttenberg, Mark Linn-Baker, Grant Shaud, and Danny Hoch, as part of the show Relatively Speaking, which also had one-acts by Elaine May and the Coen Brothers.
For more on entertainment history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic and silent slapstick comedy read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.