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COMEDY : It's Not Easy Being Greene : Did you hear the one about the comic whose life became a nightmare of gambling, alcohol, panic attacks and prescription drugs? Shecky Greene can tell it.

October 16, 1994|Lawrence Christon | Lawrence Christon is a Times staff writer

Because he spent most of his professional life playing clubs, and because the name Shecky fits right in with all those generic Jackies and Joeys who started out in the Borscht Belt before they went on to careers in movies and television, Shecky Greene tends to get lumped in with the band of postwar vacation resort tummlers that history and a new generation have shunted aside. His Vegas association tends to date him too, now that the city is metamorphosing into a theme park. But to comedy aficionados, Shecky Greene is unquestionably one of the greats, the comedian's comedian.

What nearly no one knows, however, is that his chunky frame has housed a lifelong rage and sorrow so consuming that, emotionally speaking, he could be a character out of Aeschylus. Or that a six-year period beginning in the '80s saw not a celebrated turn into the gentle autumn of a career but a man so seized by terror that he would take to his bed, crying and shaking uncontrollably.

"You feel you're in a pit, a hellhole," he says, describing an emotional free fall, accelerated by prescription drugs, that began in high school and has only recently come to an end. "There's nowhere to go. You can't get out. You feel alone."

"It was a big effort just to get him to walk," says his wife, Marie. "Socially, we couldn't go out. He couldn't drive. If a restaurant was too dark, he'd leave. If a restaurant was too light, he'd leave too. I had to warn our friends to expect anything. You never knew when a panic attack was going to hit."

While Greene anguished in self-imposed exile, everyone who knows him filled his absence with wild and crazy Shecky Greene memories--almost as many as Greene has himself. There was the time, during his heavy drinking period, when he plowed his car into the fountain in front of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, and while security guards surrounded him under towering plumes of water, he rolled down his window and said, "Hold the spray wax, please."

There was the night when Johnny Carson, in his drinking period, chased Greene around and out of his best friend Buddy Hackett's house during a party. Greene crashed through a lot of furniture, then plunged into Hackett's swimming pool fully clothed, whereupon he clambered out and squished his way home. The next day Greene, remembering nothing but feeling remorseful--he knew from experience that he was a mean, obstreperous drunk--called Hackett to apologize.

"I hope you don't hate me," Greene said.

"Hate is an emotion," Hackett replied. "For you, I feel nothing. But you're off the nut. Carson was so loaded he walked into a wall and wrecked my stereo."

Friends and associates remember Greene's days as a compulsive gambler who shrugged off the loss of pot loads of money. He could afford it, he reasoned. After all, he made more than God (he was quite specific on this: He earned more than $100,000 a week during the mid-'70s, while God, in Greene's estimation, made only $35,000).

Grateful audiences remember him as an all-purpose entertainer of the old school who told jokes and stories, sang, owned an endless fund of the kind of observations that made the dreariness and confusion of life not only bearable but funny and would do anything short of killing himself onstage for their delectation. Once, during a Florida gig early in his career, he did a body flip that landed him flush on his knee, which blew up to the size of a cantaloupe.

"Why do you do this to yourself?" an examining physician asked him the next day.

"It got a laugh," Greene replied.

"Is a single laugh worth your knee?" the doctor asked, incredulously. Greene, in recounting the story now, doesn't give his response. He's had knee surgery and a hip replacement to relieve a career full of self-inflicted damage. Decades later, a decisive answer is still too close to call.

There are clinical words to describe what Greene has been privately suffering through, depression being chief among them. But there's another term that describes what has made a miserable condition even worse, especially because it was avoidable: iatrogenic addiction.

"That is a condition that is physician-induced," says psychiatrist Ronald Gershman, who has been treating Greene since November, 1989 (the comic has given the doctor permission to talk about his case). "The drugs Shecky was on are among the most addictive in medicine."

Gershman is, as far as Greene is concerned, a radical departure from a long list of attending physicians whose eccentricities and ruinous prescriptions could be the gleeful subjects of a Moliere farce.

For example, there was the Freudian disciple who told Greene to feel free to call him at his Viennese clinic whenever he felt an anxiety attack coming on. Greene did and made his way through the labyrinth of international dialing signals and a phalanx of uncooperative medical assistants only to hear the doctor call him a string of obscenities and yell, "You crazy s.o.b. Don't call me anymore!"

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