Jack Carter, stand-up comic and actor, dies at 93

Jack Carter, the brash stand-up comic who was considered one of America's "rising young comedians" during television's pioneer days in the late 1940s and became a familiar face on TV variety shows in the '50s and '60s, has died. He was 93.

Carter, whose stand-up comedy career continued well into his 80s, died Sunday at his Beverly Hills home of respiratory failure, said Jeff Sanderson, a family spokesman.

In show business circles, the gruff-voiced Carter was known as a comedian's comedian. He had an aggressive, keep-them-laughing stage persona that seemed not to diminish with age.

While touring in the comedy showcase "Legends of the Catskills" with fellow comics Freddie Roman and Gabe Kaplan in 2000, Carter warmed up the crowd by belting out "Just in Time." Then he launched into a series of celebrity impersonations and riffs on such topics as competitive Jewish mothers and dealing with old age ("I told her to act her age, so she died.")

In the 1986 book "The Stars of Stand-up Comedy: A Biographical Encyclopedia," author Ronald Lande Smith described the versatile Carter's style as "slick, fast and furious."

"A simple gag is boosted by mimicry and emphasized with one of a dozen facial or physical takes.... The style came from burlesque and marched to Vegas to a rim shot drum beat," Smith wrote.

Carter's routine was snappy, irreverent and often veered into sexism.

"Eighty percent of the money is spent by women," Carter observed on stage in the 1950s. "The other 20% is spent by men — on women!"

"If you like to spend your vacation in out-of-the-way places where few people go, let your wife read the map," he said in the 1970s.

"Canada ran out of silicone and the girls up there are using Hamburger Helper," he said in the 1980s.

No matter what the joke, Smith wrote, "Carter can sell it with all the skill and savvy of a pro boxer making the most of every jab."

During his long career, however, Carter was more than just a stand-up comic.

As an actor, he had small parts in several dozen (mostly forgettable) movies. But he fared better with guest spots on television series including "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "Caroline in the City."

Carter, who made his Broadway debut in 1947 as the replacement for Jules Munshin in the musical revue "Call Me Mister," continued to perform on stage.

That included a stint replacing Phil Silvers during the 1951-52 Broadway run of the musical comedy "Top Banana" and appearing in the 1956-57 Broadway musical comedy "Mr. Wonderful," starring Sammy Davis Jr.

Over the years, he also appeared in regional productions of "Guys and Dolls," "Sugar" and "Mr. Wonderful," as well as playing Fagin in a touring company production of "Oliver."

But it was as a stand-up comedian that Carter was best known.

In his 1981 book "Funny People," comedian Steve Allen wrote that Carter "possesses a wildly inventive creativity, whether on- or off-stage."

Whether it was a shouted insult, a woman with an unusual dress or a slow response by a lighting technician, Allen wrote, "Jack Carter can take it, add a whiff of magic dust to it, and make audiences laugh."

The vast majority of comedians are thrown by the unexpected, Allen added, but "Carter makes capital of the unexpected, particularly if it seems to put him at a disadvantage. He is a magnificent grouser, a brilliant complainer, a wizard of 'Why me?' "

The grousing extended offstage as well.

"Had I done a one-man show I'd have maintained my greatness," Carter complained in a 1992 interview with The Times. "I can sing and dance — everything. But they only see you as brash."

No one, he said, "is more bitter than I am. I get it before I even show up. 'He's not an actor' or 'He's vicious.' 'Cheap' is the big one. When they wanna get you they say, 'He's got the first dollar he ever made.' "

Later in the interview, Carter groused: "In the past 10 years I've neglected my life. I should have gotten out of [show business] long ago. I appreciate success, but I'm not built to play the game. My wife tells me, 'You're so angry! You're like an animal.' "\"

Born Jack Chakrin in New York City on June 24, 1922, Carter grew up in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach, where he developed a flair for impressions and twice appeared on the radio show "Major Bowes' Amateur Hour," which he won both times.

He attended Brooklyn College and Feagin School of Dramatic Art. He served in the Army Air Forces entertainment division during World War II and later worked briefly as a commercial artist for advertising agencies.

He was acting at the Mill Pond Playhouse on New York's Long Island when he began doing stand-up to support himself.

Carter's budding career as a comedian coincided with the rise of the fledgling new medium of television, then centered in New York City.

He was one of the original rotating hosts of the "Texaco Star Theater" on NBC in the summer of 1948 before Milton Berle took over as permanent host that September.

The following year, Carter turned up on ABC as the host of specials, including "Jack Carter and Company" and "American Minstrels of 1949."

He next hosted the "Cavalcade of Stars" comedy-variety show on the DuMont network and "The Jack Carter Show," a variety hour on NBC, from 1950 to '51.

Although Carter appeared frequently on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and other popular variety programs over the next two decades, the top echelon of stardom eluded him.

"I'm one of the last entertainers who really works when he's on. I work to win the audience, but maybe I'm wrong," he told The Times in 1963. "I see these other guys and they just recite [their acts]. The less you do, the less you offend, of course, and that's what they want on TV. You can phone in your routine."

Carter continued performing his comedy act in clubs until 2009 when he and Toni Murray, widow of comic Jan Murray, were hit by a car in Hollywood. Murray died of her injuries two months later.

Despite having to rely on a cane and a walker, Carter continued to act occasionally.

His survivors include his wife, Roxanne; sons Michael Carter and Chase Carter; daughter Wendy Carter; and two grandchildren.

McLellan is a former Times staff writer.

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