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There's No Accounting For Gottfried's Success

June 19, 1987|NANCY MILLS

Gilbert Gottfried had already tried all the usual ways to attract attention: a New York comedy act, a year on "Saturday Night Live," regular appearances on MTV and talk shows, a guest role on "The Cosby Show."

He was earning a living. "Sometimes people recognized me," he would brag in his typically black-humor fashion. "They'd throw rocks at me."

But Gottfried never really clicked into the public consciousness until he tried a foolproof method: a cameo appearance in an Eddie Murphy movie. After spending three minutes of "Beverly Hills Cop II's" screen-time as a crooked accountant, trading threats with Murphy, Gottfried is now a hot property.

A wordless exhalation is about all he'll say about suddenly becoming a media darling. Bronson Pinchot parlayed his "heat" from a couple of scenes in the original "Beverly Hills Cop" into a successful TV series ("Perfect Strangers"). What does Gottfried have in mind?

"I may become a yo-yo champion," he speculates. "Or I might play a rabbi or a priest or a drug addict. I'd like to do a funny version of 'Judgment at Nuremberg.' I'm meeting with as many studio people as I can . . . to get free lunches."

Gottfried has already completed another film, "Hot to Trot," playing a horse dentist. The film, starring fellow comedian Bob Goldthwait and a talking horse, is due this fall from Warner Bros. His first comedy album (Quantum Records) is imminent.

The young comic recognizes the wisdom in becoming better known, and so he is willing to meet the press. It's just that he won't talk about himself, his life, his family or anything that borders on the personal.

"I rarely give a serious interview," he says, momentarily lapsing into straightness during an hour's worth of jokes in his publicity agent's office. "I feel very private. In interviews when I give a straight answer, I always feel like I'm coming across as a pretentious jerk. In reality, I'm an unpretentious jerk."

Gottfried deftly deflects questions that might shed some light on his personality. He justifies his privacy this way: "It's like you go into a restaurant, have a meal and then call the chef out and ask him, 'What kind of childhood did you have? Do you fight with your wife?' "

In other words, sit back and enjoy the food.

A New Yorker, Gottfried's concession to spending a few days of hype in Los Angeles is putting on a pair of bright blue running shoes. He sits uneasily in his pink shirt, gray pin-stripe vest, thin black tie, black pants and black dress socks, volunteering nothing.

Asked how he would describe himself, he comes up with, "Short with black hair." Could he elaborate? "Short Jew with black hair."

Gottfried, 31, was born in Brooklyn. "People always ask if I was the class clown," he says. "I think class clowns always end up as shipping clerks. Right now I can't remember how I was in school. I try purposely to turn certain areas into gray areas.

"I don't know if I was a funny kid. I got up on a stage at 15, and I continued doing it. I don't remember ever feeling real terror while performing. I could go on and do a live show for 20 billion people with less fear than I have trying to decide between whole wheat and raisin bread. It's just the day-to-day stuff that scares me."

Gottfried's most distinctive feature is his rubbery face, which he continually contorts into a variety of pained poses. "This is a face that's going to scare babies," he promises a Times photographer.

Although he likes the sound of his alliterative name--Gilbert Gottfried--that's about all he likes about himself.

"My one regret is that I was born," he intones at one point.

Later he says, "I tend to avoid myself as much as possible."

And later still, he notes, "I'm like Sylvia Plath" (the poet who committed suicide).

Is he saying he would like to be somebody else? "I want to be someone taller and Christian. I'd like to be Charlton Heston. He was also Moses."

One critic describes Gottfried's humor as "a compelling concoction of comedy and blasphemy." He often jokes about Nazis and Jews but says, "I don't consider myself someone who does Jewish humor."

He calls his "Beverly Hills Cop" character Sidney Bernstein an "irritating Jew" but objects to a Los Angeles critic's charge that the portrayal was anti-Semitic. "I wouldn't have done it if I thought it was anti-Semitic," he insists.

He says he has no idea where his characters come from: "I can't figure it out. Maybe from something I ate."

He has little to say about his year (1980-81) on "Saturday Night Live," except, "It was a weird time period." Did he enjoy working on the show? " 'Enjoy' is a strong word," he answers. What word would he prefer? " 'Mongoose.' But I never get a call for that."

His advice to young performers: "Examine my life and do the opposite."

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