Emmy-winning actor, comedian, Broadway performer, and rabbi Jackie Mason died on July 24 at the age of 93. His career really unspooled over several decades. He had a lot of talent and it wasn’t always recognized until later in life.
Ah, where to begin? Let’s just say, in 1982, this “artiste” was more comic aspirant than the writer-musician he soon was to become. And if you were filing headshots for would-be actors behind a billboard-hidden office on Times Square — as I was for an ancient talent agent — well, all roads lead to Joe Franklin and his pony circus of a talk show at 42nd and Broadway.
Well, “doing research” for Mr. Franklin’s Niagara of old showbiz trivia led me to a guest slot on his local broadcast. I found myself plopped into a studio seat next to New York’s most famous and underrated stand-up comedian, Jackie Mason! And while we were on air, I made some wisecrack about orcas on roller skates and Mr. Mason promptly immortalized me forever by jabbing his right thumb my way and saying, “Hey, this kid is funny!”
Flash forward one month and I was running contracts for Jackie up and down Park, Madison, and Fifth Avenues in Manhattan, not far from my tiny walk-up. He was running his shop out of his kitchen and I was his errand boy. Jackie was strongly suggesting to producers that they give him a big Broadway show.
“I realize you’re broke, kid — so am I. Ed Sullivan did me no favors,” he told me. This last refers to Jackie allegedly displaying a middle digit at the less-than-good-humored CBS variety host. The upshot was Jackie had to pay me in units of not gold ducats but cans of StarKist tuna. Which I needed! I could pay my rent, but my cupboards were bare.
Shortly afterwards, my mom died and I had to take extended leave back to D.C. I had to leave New York and a lot of what I had been enjoying.
Right before I grabbed my grip* to board the train, with a tear in my eye, Jackie gruffly intoned, “We know you’re leaving town. And we want you over at the Four Seasons Pool Room.” He and his manager Jyll wanted to see me off at the most famous corporate dining room in NYC — and the entrée was not StarKist!
Jackie got his first one-man show on Broadway right after that. I was thrilled.
The man had a lot of depth, in no small part due to studying the rabbinical texts. He struggled but he was worth the recognition. I admire him because he kept trying and he kept at it and he had humanity. Yes, he wanted someone to laugh at his jokes, but he also wanted to reach out and open some hearts.
*A grip, short for gripsack, refers to a traveling bag or suitcase. The old blues guys used to say “grab my grip” when on the move.