Kenneth Kahn dies at 66; L.A. defense attorney moonlighted as a comedian

Kenneth Kahn
Kenneth Kahn, a Los Angeles defense attorney, performs his stand-up comedy routine at the Ha Ha Cafe in North Hollywood. He liked to poke fun at the legal system.

Kenneth Kahn, a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney who had a side career as a briefcase-toting comic in a double-breasted suit who irreverently poked fun at the legal system, has died. He was 66.

Kahn, a Santa Monica resident, died Wednesday in a hospital in Cuzco, Peru, after suffering massive internal injuries in a fall while climbing the mountain above the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu alone, according to information provided to Bob Mazza, Kahn’s public relations consultant.

Kahn had retired from his full-time law practice earlier this year and decided to fulfill a dream of traveling to South America, Mazza said.

As a lawyer, Kahn may be best known for representing convicted spy Andrew Daulton Lee, whom Sean Penn portrayed in the 1985 movie “The Falcon and the Snowman.”

He also represented musician Ike Turner for a probation violation and Larry Flynt when the Hustler magazine publisher was charged with desecrating an American flag after showing up in a courthouse wearing a flag as a diaper.

But there was that other side of Kahn, who began moonlighting as a stand-up comic in the mid-'90s and carried a business card that boasted: Kenny Kahn. World’s Funniest Attorney.

“Kenny was a unique blend as a lawyer and comedian,” attorney Robert Shapiro said in a statement. “He grew up in a horrific childhood and achieved tremendous success in the legal profession. He will be missed by all of us.”

Kahn chronicled his childhood in his 2005 book “The Carny Kid: Survival of a Young Thief.”

Born in Los Angeles on June 17, 1942, he spent his early years on the midway at Ocean Park Pier, a Santa Monica amusement area. His father was a carnival hustler who rigged pinball machines and games of chance, he wrote in his book, and both of his parents were heroin addicts.

When he was 8, Kahn wrote, his mother was jailed for having sex with a minor. His father left the family, and Kahn and his younger brother, Ricki, were sent to a foster home.

The boys’ parents reentered their lives a year later, taking them along for a summer of rigging carnival games at county fairs.

By 1952, Kahn was earning up to $40 a day shortchanging customers at the dime-toss booth.

In 1954, the family moved to Ramona Gardens, an Eastside public housing project, where their apartment quickly became a shooting gallery for junkies.

Two years later, while attending Lincoln High School, the 15-year-old Kahn was stricken with non-paralytic polio. After time as a patient at White Memorial Hospital in Boyle Heights, he returned to school on crutches.

At Lincoln High, social studies teacher Raymond Lopez provided a positive role model.

“I didn’t see any people living in the projects with college degrees,” Kahn told The Times in 2005. “Lopez set off a spark in me that ignited a thirst for knowledge.”

While in high school, Kahn won speech contests and was elected student body president in 1958.

When he graduated, his mother -- now drug-free -- was there to see him accept the American Legion “Boy of the Year” award.

While continuing to spend summers with his father on the carnival circuit, Kahn worked his way through Los Angeles City College and UCLA, where he studied political science and graduated in 1962.

He went on to graduate from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law in 1965.

In 1987, Kahn was stabbed in the chest with an ice pick in a Torrance courtroom by the man he had defended for assault on a police officer.

“My life turned around after that incident because it brought the issue of mortality into my consciousness,” he told The Times in 2005. “I decided I’d rather go out and create laughter instead of dealing with cranky judges.”

After attending a comedy workshop, he began moonlighting as a stand-up comic, working his way up to clubs such as the Comedy Store and the Laugh Factory.

Kahn would walk onstage in a double-breasted suit and carrying a briefcase and talk about his life as a lawyer.

Even Kahn’s brush with death by ice pick was fodder for his comedy.

“The guy was trying to stab me in the heart,” he’d say. “But in a lawyer, it’s hard to find.”

Performing comedy at night, Kahn said on his website, “gave me a fresh perspective on my profession, and as bizarre as it sounds, incorporating humor into my legal work made me a better attorney.”

After the 1985 release of “The Falcon and the Snowman,” Kahn filed an $11-million libel lawsuit against Orion Pictures over his portrayal in the movie.

He objected to what he said were “fabricated” scenes depicting him urging his client to inform on drug suppliers in exchange for reduced charges and later helping Lee escape to Mexico.

In 1986, Kahn reached what he described as a “substantial” settlement.

In 2005, Kahn founded Word Power, a series of motivational speaking engagements he made at Southern California high schools to encourage students to improve their communication skills. He also sponsored essay contests in which students wrote about how they overcame obstacles and personal struggles.

Kahn is survived by his sister, Cookie Kahn-Wright; his brother, Ricki Kahn; and two stepchildren, Chris Buford and Kim Buford.

A celebration of Kahn’s life will be held in Los Angeles on June 17. Details: (310) 994-4847.

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