Hey, Shelley Berman's phone is ringing again

Times Staff Writer

"I'M still not a peaceful man," Shelley Berman said a few weeks ago. "I'm still not able to behave.... When somebody says 'Relax,' that really makes me nervous."

The 80-year-old Berman, who is experiencing some bittersweet career redemption playing Larry David's alter-kocher father on the HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm," was sitting in the den of a friend's house at the top of Country Club Estates, a development just up the 101 from the Berman place. It was the morning after he and his wife, Sarah, evacuated their Bell Canyon house during the Topanga fires, a hot, dry day; you could still smell smoke in the air. Fire trucks were parked in the local strip malls and there was ash on the ground. It was Shelley Berman weather -- clear but worrisome.

"It's a good thing for me to have this interview," he said, "it's a good thing for me."

Season 5 of "Curb," which began late last month to continued fanfare tempered by its first sour critical notes, kicked off with Nat David suffering a stroke in a deli while eating the Larry David sandwich, white fish with sable, capers, onion and cream cheese. Later, in the hospital, he motions for Larry to come in close and whispers what the son hears as, "You're adopted."

The show isn't so much an attention-getting experience for Berman as an attention-resurrecting one. It means something to him -- a great deal, in fact -- that a car brings him to the set, that there's a chair with his name on the back. His was a career that played out in the public eye and then, suddenly and by degrees, came the vanishing. And Berman has never stopped worrying the question of why.

This, then, is how he sums up knocking over the room during the audition for the role of Larry David's father, after all these years: "Is that redemption? Well, it's part of redemption. Redemption is that finally people began to look at me and say, 'You know, he's not a prick.' "

A too-candid camera

THE story of Shelley Berman is that he was a great comic, an important comic, done in by a TV moment at a time when TV moments could still do you in, before television inured us to the inappropriate and the uncomfortable, before the raw feed of cable news and the hyperbolic reality of reality TV.

It sounds, in fact, like the leanest of footnotes: On a 1963 NBC documentary special called "Comedian Backstage," Berman was seen losing his temper after a show because a telephone rang backstage during one of his trademark telephone routines.

The documentary, seen today, is a fascinating piece of arcana, a kind of lost treasure -- an hour with a comic at the height of his fame in Room 809 of the Diplomat Hotel in Miami as he prepares for opening night. At the time, Berman was a cultural force, on the leading edge of an epoch in stand-up that included Mort Sahl and Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce and Bob Newhart and Nichols and May, people who moved stand-up away from tuxedo-clad one-liners delivered in nightclubs and into coffeehouses, stoking conversation about the culture.

Berman was considered radical for the simple fact that rather than standing, he sat on a stool, and he didn't do jokes but contemporary situations, unburdening himself, a man slowly unraveling; he was the "devout coward."

He acted out phone calls before Newhart became equally and then more famous for them; if in Newhart's hands the absurdity grew from understatement, Berman could make the phone call a more perilous and emotionally charged journey into the unknown. He was the office worker calling the department store across the street to report a woman dangling from a ledge, who gets bounced from the complaint department to lingerie ("Describe her? What for? I'm looking at the building right now, she's the only one hanging out of a window.").

He was afraid or annoyed or anxious about lots of things, and he brought to the stage an intense, actorly focus, his elocution marvelous -- "the first of the Method comics," Gerald Nachman called him in "Seriously Funny," his overview of the "rebel comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. Berman -- the accidental comic, an actor first, who had worked with Mike Nichols and Elaine May at Chicago's Compass Players -- was the first with a gold record for spoken word.

On "Comedian Backstage," Berman chain-smokes and frets and eats room service and barks instructions about how he should be introduced, for instance ("Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Shelley Berman," that was all he wanted). He paces and goes back downstairs, finally, to do his act, which seemed to go very well, except for this one moment when a phone rang, briefly, near the end of his show, which caused Berman to erupt: He went backstage and yelled at his road manager, he jerked the phone off the hook and paced, appearing inconsolable. Seen today, it is not so much remarkable for the behavior it exposes as the pain of the man, on naked display, a perfectly good show ruined, in his mind, by one or two seconds of ringing telephone. Wound tight the entire hour, Berman gives the special its climax -- he comes undone.

Today, Berman will still emphasize an important point: He was angry because this was the second time that the phone backstage had rung during one of his shows, and this time during a long, semiautobiographical tone piece, a phone call between a Yiddish-accented father and son, the son asking for $100 toward acting school. "Sheldon, don't change your name. Goodbye, Sheldon," the father tells him finally.

But the documentary reversed the sequence, showing this second intrusion first.

His career didn't end, but he could feel a gradual exiling of him, a chilling toward his name. "A lot happened and a lot didn't happen," he said. "So that this thing that aired in 1963 would result a few years later in personal bankruptcy, would result in having people be on edge with me, wondering when I'm going to blow up. This would result in my trying to over, over-compensate by [saying] please and thank you, no matter what happened."

On the road, Berman had performance requirements; he was not the comedian who could hop up onstage, grab the mike and go. But now he found that these requests fed into his image.

"It became, very simply, that I was difficult. Very simply. Peel it all away, take off all the fat, it's that Shelley Berman, you're buying trouble. It became not merely an albatross, but an albatross that was hanging on my back, choking me."

Keeping up appearances

KNIVES are prominent in Berman's house, in display cases. There are also illustrations of knives on his living room wall. At the end of the month he and Sarah go to San Diego, to emcee a dinner at the annual Art Knife Invitational. Berman says he began collecting when he needed a bowie knife for a fishing trip in the 1950s.

"At that time in New York there was an extraordinarily wonderful sporting goods store, it was called Abercrombie & Fitch," he said. He was back in his living room the week after the fires, the house having made it through unscathed. "Lately, there is an Abercrombie & Fitch that sells contemporary grunge for kids," he went on. "It's horrible, you can't go into the store without going deaf from the music. You can't pass the store without the music reaching out and killing you. It's an alien. It's a dark black alien that's going to go out and clap both of your ears and you'll never hear again."

Berman's voice is deeper but uncannily little changed from the old records. On paper, it is easy to turn him into one of those old Jewish comics still howling over the hurts and injustices, from "Comedian Backstage" to Abercrombie & Fitch, sitting in a hillside ranch house in the San Fernando Valley. Except Berman is not just that; he's still engaged, teaching humor writing at USC, writing poetry, looking at mail on his website, shelleyberman.com.

After that special, Berman kept working--theater, dinner theater, TV. His life kept happening, happy but also tragic. In 1977, his son Josh died of a brain tumor at 12 1/2 .

"We made sure that his corneas would go to the eye bank," he had said a week earlier, after elaborating on this chapter. "We had nothing else we could give. And my wife woke me one morning, and I said, 'What's up?' She says, 'He's gone.' I said, 'Well, we'd better call the eye bank.' She says, 'I did.'

"She did before she woke me. She knew, business first."

His own worst critic

THERE is something, to be sure, still raw about Berman, still restive -- the man from "Comedian Backstage," unable to relax.

"Shelley beats himself up worse than anyone else could," said Robert Weide, an executive producer on "Curb" and a filmmaker who has made documentaries about Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and the Marx Brothers. "The nature of 'Curb,' it takes us a while to find the scene," Weide said. "It's not scripted and actors are making it up, and sometimes it's magic out of the gate and sometimes it has to be honed.

"Shelley will do a take and say, 'I'm sorry, I really screwed that up.' ... And very often after he's done not just a satisfactory job, but a great job. You have to remember to take a moment to reassure Shelley that he's fine."

David added the character of his father in the third season, in an episode in which Larry goes to New York to appear in a Martin Scorsese movie and returns to L.A. to discover not only that his mother has died but that there's already been a funeral. Berman then has to explain that he and Larry's mother didn't want to worry him. For the audition, "that was the scene, which is not an easy scene," David said. "I mean for him, not for me. You have to play exactly the right thing."

The tendency for actors in that situation, David said, is to try to be funny. "And when you try and be funny you sometimes lose the reality of what is going on, so the scene is no longer believable.... He didn't think about being funny at all and just played the reality of the scene."

"I go there and they hand me a piece of paper," Berman said of the audition. "I see Shecky Greene is there, and he goes in ahead of me, and Shecky Greene walks out, we're old buddies, we're from the west side of Chicago, a couple of Jew boys who made good."

On "Curb," Berman is in disguise; he wears big bifocals and mutters in a baritone. For only the second time in his professional life, he is not wearing his hairpiece.

"When the audition was over he had left the room and then I realized the toupee might be a problem," David said. "I ran outside in the hall and said, 'Are you willing to lose the piece?' He didn't even think about it. It was a very definite 'Of course.' "

Paul Brownfield is a Times TV critic. Contact him at calendar.letters@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°