Filmmaker and former academy President Arthur Hiller died Wednesday at age 92. For nearly four decades, Hiller was part of a loose confederacy of Hollywood comedy legends who would meet for lunch every other Wednesday afternoon, where they would "kibitz, kvetch, eat pastrami sandwiches, trade gags and grieve when one of their members dies." In 2012, Times staff writer Susan King met with Hiller and friends including Monty Hall, Gary Owens and Sid Caesar at Factor's Famous Deli on Pico Boulevard to discuss their long careers and long-lasting friendships. This article originally ran in The Times on Sept. 9, 2012.
The guys around the table call Sid Caesar "The King."
They're seated in a back room of Factor's Famous Deli on Pico Boulevard, a boisterous group of longtime Hollywood funnymen, enjoying their lunch, which is somewhere between a meal and a ritual. The legendary Caesar still has a place of honor even though he's frail and rarely speaks.
As his friend and lunch pal Monty Hall — of "Let's Make a Deal" fame — notes, the 90-year-old Caesar wouldn't miss these lunches. "You know when he walks in we say, 'The King is here,'" said Hall, 91. "He loves that."
The lunches began about 40 years ago at a French restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, then moved to the Friars Club in Beverly Hills until it closed four years ago. So the group found a new home at Factor's on the Westside.
The locations may have changed, as well as the cuisine, but this gathering of longtime Hollywood funnymen goes on. The group meets every other Wednesday afternoon in a back room of the restaurant, as the guys kibitz, kvetch, eat pastrami sandwiches, trade gags and grieve when one of their members dies. The food is fine but it's the talk that keeps bringing them back.
They know one another's eating habits. When the food arrives on a recent luncheon, Oscar-nominated director Arthur Hiller ("Love Story"), 88, quietly tells the waitress, "Cheeseburger over here."
"Except for three days in the last 52 years, Arthur has only eaten cheeseburgers for lunch," noted his friend, Austin "Rocky" Kalish, 91, who wrote for such shows as "All in the Family," "The Bob Newhart Show" and "My Three Sons."
And during the lunch, Hiller, who was voted the nicest guy of his group by his cronies, sneaks some French fries to Kalish.
"We talk about all subjects," Hall said. "The common theme is we are all in show business and everybody has a story."
Despite the fact that four of the guys are over 90, two are in wheelchairs and several sport hearing aids, they are a chatty bunch around the rectangular wooden table. There are often multiple conversations going on at once — it's as if you have stepped into a scene in a Robert Altman movie with overlapping dialogue.
Among the topic of conversations this afternoon are the Three Stooges. "I sponsored the star for the Three Stooges," proclaimed Gary Owens, 76, the radio announcer and voice-over actor who came to fame as the announcer on NBC's "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" in the late 1960s. He is currently the voice for the nostalgia channel Antenna TV.
Dealing with the television censors years ago also sparks a dialogue.
"CBS said you could have one 'hell' and two 'damns' at 8 p.m.," Kalish said. "You could have two 'hells' and two 'damns' at 8:30 p.m. CBS wouldn't let me put a boy and a girl sitting on a bed."
While the group is rooted in comedy's past, they also have strong feelings about the state of the art today. And they're not shy about expressing them.
"Just about any of the half-hour comedies today, all they do is gather six people in their 20s — three girls and three guys," piped up Ben Starr, 90, who has written for many TV series including "Mr. Ed," "All in the Family," "The Brady Bunch" and movies, among them the 1966 Bond spoof "Our Man Flint" with James Coburn.
"I just saw the new Charlie Sheen show ["Anger Management"] the other day," said Matty Simmons, 85, of National Lampoon fame, who produced the classic 1978 comedy "National Lampoon's Animal House" and recently published the book, "Fat, Drunk, and Stupid: The Inside Story of Behind the Making of 'Animal House.'"
Simmons' assessment: "It is the same show as 'Two and a Half Men' — the same jokes, the same format and the same rhythm. Everything is the same, but it's not nearly as funny."
"Ashton Kutcher is not funny," chimes in the baby of the group, sixtysomething John Rappaport, an award-winning writer-producer who worked on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" and "MASH," talking about Sheen's "Two and Half Men" replacement. "He is doesn't have the comedic chops. He is a nice guy but he's boring."
The group has been meeting outside of Factor's lately to participate in Q&As after screenings of a new documentary about them, aptly titled "Lunch." The film will play for a week in October in Los Angeles and New York for Oscar consideration and has been accepted at several local and national film festivals. In November, it will screen at the USC School of Cinematic Arts' Comedy@SCA festival.
"Lunch" was directed, written and produced by Donna Kanter, who has done TV programs including "John Paul II's Vatican" and "Lucy: Queen of Comedy." Her father, award-winning comedy writer Hal Kanter ("Bachelor in Paradise," the TV series "Julia" and countless Academy Awards shows) was an original member of the group. His career spanned some 70 years until his death last November. Besides interviewing the participants, she captured two of the lunches at Factor's while her dad and another participant, writer Arthur Marx, the son of Groucho who died in April 2011, were still alive.
Kanter said she was inspired to make the film because of her father's stories over the years about the lunches. "For me, it was the story of friendship that was so interesting to me, and the trust they had developed."
It's clear watching the film that 'ageism' is a dirty word to these guys. "I think for most of these men, age has nothing to do with their ability," said Kanter, who points out that her father worked up until 45 minutes before he died.
In fact, Starr recently completed a screenplay. "Don't judge us by the lines on our faces, judge us by the lines on our pages," he declares.