Calvert DeForest, 85; cult hit on Letterman’s show as Larry ‘Bud’ Melman

Times Staff Writer

Calvert DeForest, the roly-poly character actor with the black-framed glasses and seemingly clueless delivery who developed a cult following as Larry “Bud” Melman on “Late Night With David Letterman” in the 1980s, has died. He was 85.

DeForest, who continued appearing with Letterman under his own name after the late-night comedian moved from NBC to CBS in the 1990s, died after a long illness Monday at a hospital in Babylon, N.Y., a spokesman for Letterman’s production company said.

“Everyone always wondered if Calvert was an actor playing a character, but in reality he was just himself: a genuine, modest and nice man,” Letterman said in a statement Wednesday. “To our staff and to our viewers, he was a beloved and valued part of our show, and we will miss him.”

A struggling sometime actor from Brooklyn, N.Y., DeForest was working part time as a receptionist in a drug rehabilitation center when his role as a deranged studio mogul in a student film caught the attention of Letterman and his head writer, Merrill Markoe.


The first thing viewers saw when they tuned in to the debut broadcast of “Late Night With David Letterman” in 1982 was DeForest, in a suit and tie, offering a disclaimer before the show’s opening credits: a parody of the prologue to the classic horror film “Frankenstein” in which he warned viewers that what they were about to see “may shock you. It might even horrify you.”

So began one of the more unusual success stories in show business.

“What we liked about Calvert was he had this very odd, naive quality, almost like a kid,” Markoe told The Times on Wednesday. “We always had him reading cue cards because of the way he read. It’s like what kids do at a grade-school play -- that kind of drone. There was just something intrinsically hilarious about it. He didn’t have a satiric edge at all; it was a kind of sweet, naive quality that made it very funny.”

Letterman and his writers soon had DeForest, as Larry “Bud” Melman -- a name Markoe said she and Letterman came up with -- doing fake commercials for Melman Buses and “Toast-on-a-Stick.”

He also appeared in countless sketches and was sent on oddball missions, such as handing out hot towels to arriving passengers at the Port Authority Bus Terminal or manning a booth across from the Russian Consulate and encouraging passersby to “C’mon and defect!”

DeForest, who was known for what has been called his “braying laugh” -- “Ha, ha, ha, ha!” -- also offered advice in an “Ask Mr. Melman” bit and did unlikely impersonations of Ronald Reagan, Andy Rooney, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley and other celebrities.

He also once sang a duet of “I Got You Babe” with Sonny Bono and was even sent to Norway to report on the 1994 Winter Olympics.

As Letterman’s “resident oddball,” as People magazine once called him, the unassuming DeForest became an unlikely TV celebrity.


He went on to appear in a string of commercials for various products, including MCI, Frosted Cheerios and Pizza Hut. He also appeared in numerous films, television movies and TV shows and even starred in his own home video, “Couch Potato Workout.”

When Letterman switched networks in 1993, NBC claimed the character of Larry “Bud” Melman as its intellectual property and the character had to be dropped from the CBS show.

DeForest, who was born in Brooklyn on July 23, 1921, and never married, made his last appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman” in 2002.

“It was the greatest thing that had happened in my life,” he said of his first appearance on Letterman’s show.


At DeForest’s request, there will be no funeral service, but donations may be made in his name to the Actors’ Fund of America, 729 7th Ave., 10th floor, New York, NY, 10019.