This Day in Jewish History

1987: Comedian Dies Onstage, Audience Doesn't Get It

Dick 'I didn't even know I was a Jew' Shawn almost became a pro baseball player before finding his métier in Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad stand-up comedy. He had the last laugh.

On April 17, 1987, comic actor Dick Shawn — manic, physically dexterous, unpredictable — fell to the floor during a solo performance in San Diego and never got up. At the age of 63, he had died on the job. But Shawn was sometimes so outrageous on stage that more than five minutes passed before anyone dared to check if he was still breathing.

Richard Schulefand was born on December 1, 1923, in Buffalo, New York and grew up in nearby Lackawanna. His father, Edward, owned a small clothing store but, “If that sounds like we were rich,” he was later quoted in the Los Angeles Times as having told an interviewer in 1981, “forget it. We sold clothes to mine workers and a lot of it was second-hand. Or stolen, I think.”

The family of four lived in a single room at the back of the store and, he said in another interview to the paper, “We had to look at each other all the time.” They dealt with that by not talking: “Silence was a way of easing the tension. There was no intellectual discussion, no TV. You ate and left the table.”

Looking back as an adult, Shawn (he changed the name when he began performing) observed that as a young man, “I was quiet on the outside, and ready to explode inside. If I hadn’t learned to do comedy, or find a way to express myself, my hair would’ve blown off.”

What, me Jewish?

Shawn was a talented athlete, and as a student at Buffalo’s Bennett High School his dream was to play professional baseball. He came close: The Chicago White Sox offered him a contract, but he had to turn it down when he was drafted.

He spent his army service performing for other soldiers with a USO entertainment troupe. So sheltered was his upbringing, Shawn told the Los Angeles Times in 1985, “I didn’t even know I was a Jew until I got in the army.”

After his discharge, Shawn enrolled at the University of Miami (“I heard all the rich, pretty girls were in Miami”), but left school to pursue a career as a stand-up comic.

An audition with Arthur Godfrey’s television show “Talent Scouts” led to appearances on variety shows and, in 1956, his first movie role — a bit part as a singer in the romantic comedy “The Opposite Sex.” He would go on to appear over 30 films and in seven Broadway plays.

Shawn never attained superstar status. He was too much an acquired taste, a comic’s comic, and the aggressiveness of his presence probably put some people off. But anyone who has seen him in his two best-known film roles — as Ethel Merman’s beach-bum son Sylvester in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and in Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” as the ultra-laid-back hippie actor L.S.D. who is hired to play the titular role in “Springtime for Hitler” — will never forget his performances.

But Shawn’s greatest achievement may have been his play-length one-man show, “The Second Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World.” It usually began with the star emerging out of a pile of bricks onstage, in which he hid as the audience entered the hall and to which he returned during intermission.

The show of April 17, 1987, at the University of California, San Diego, opened with a brief scene in which only Shawn’s head was seen, the centerpiece of a red-clothed table, making faces and mimicking the audience. He then began a routine in which he addressed the viewers as if they were the sole survivors of a nuclear war: “We could re-create civilization, right here in this room ... and I will be your leader.”

That is when he fell, first to one knee and then lying on the stage. For the first minute or two, audience members assumed it was part of the act: Dick Shawn was always going where no comic had gone before. Even after his pulse was checked and the audience members was told to leave, some people thought the show would continue. In that sense, Dick Shawn had the last laugh.