Shelley Berman, famed stand-up comedian of the Fifties and Sixties who acted well into his eighties, died Friday at his home in Bell Canyon, California. He was 92.
The comedian’s website cited complications from Alzheimer’s disease as the cause of death. In a separate post on Berman’s Facebook fan page, a friend of the comedian said: “He slipped away peacefully, in his sleep, with no pain, as far as his hospice care workers could tell.”
A Chicago native, Berman began his career in show business as an actor before moving into comedy, joining the city’s Compass Players revue; members of that group, including Berman, would soon form the legendary Second City improv group.
In an era of stand-up comics, Berman was known for sitting down when delivering his routine, which often featured the notable “telephone conversation” style he and his fellow Chicago comedians, like Bob Newhart, perfected. Over his career, Berman also worked with comedy duo-turned-filmmakers Mike Nichols and Elaine May as well as Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.
Berman was the first comedian to win a Grammy Award, winning the inaugural Best Comedy Performance, Spoken Word in 1959 for his debut comedy album Inside Shelley Berman; the LP was also the first comedy album to go gold with 500,000 copies sold, with Inside Shelley Berman peaking at Number Two on the Billboard 200, the Hollywood Reporter writes.
“I was nervous about that record, because I thought no one would want to see me anymore if they could just play it,” Berman told the New York Times in 2003. “Then, after it came out, I went to play a show on Sunset Boulevard, and there was a line around the block! I told my wife, ‘I can buy two suits now.'”
“If you remember, there was a whole rush of comedians in the Sixties,” Woody Allen told Rolling Stone in 1971. “[There was] Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Shelley Berman, Mort Sahl. Bill Cosby and I were on the tail end of it. Just like a lot of folk musicians, we got our start in small clubs that just don’t exist anymore.”
In addition to his work in comedy, Berman had memorable roles in both television and film: He starred as Archibald Beechcroft in “The Mind and the Matter” episode of The Twilight Zone and portrayed Larry David’s father Nat on Curb Your Enthusiasm, a part that landed Berman an Emmy nomination.
Berman also had reoccurring roles on shows like Friends, L.A. Law and Boston Legal and appeared in films like 1964’s The Best Man, Meet the Fockers and The Holiday.