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Obituaries

Avery Schreiber, 66; Jack Burns' Comedy Partner

January 09, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Avery Schreiber, the portly, mustachioed comedian who struck gold when he teamed with Jack Burns in the 1960s and was a master of both broad and perceptive comedy, has died. He was 66.

Schreiber, who had been in declining health, died Monday of a heart attack at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

The comedy team of Burns and Schreiber was best known for its taxicab routine, with Burns as the talkative passenger, a conventioneer who punctuates his marathon sentences with a rapid-fire "Huh? huh? huh?" Schreiber played the long-suffering cabby.

"Avery was my dearest friend and comedy partner for 40 years," Burns told The Times on Tuesday. "He was an extraordinary talent. More than that, he was probably the most gentle, kind and compassionate person I have known."

With his curly black hair, bushy mustache and squinty eyes, the teddy bear-like Schreiber had a face and body made for comedy--as amply displayed in his memorable series of Doritos commercials in the 1970s, in which he appeared as a chef, a pilot, a judge and other characters distracted by people loudly crunching the corn chips.

But Schreiber sometimes lamented being a funny man instead of a leading man, a confession that once prompted a reporter to tactfully point out that Schreiber was hardly Cary Grant.

"There's a Cary Grant in there trying to get out," Schreiber replied, tapping his ample tummy. "Once, I gave the business its chance. Shaved off the mustache, clipped the eyebrows, had my hair styled and dieted down as svelte as a gazelle. I was the man I left behind 12 years ago. I could not get a job. Out of frustration, I started eating again. As long as I got fat, I grew the mustache and went back to work."

Schreiber, who studied directing at the Goodman Theater Drama School in his hometown of Chicago, joined the improvisational comedy troupe Second City in 1960.

"He was just fun and smart and inventive and very generous on stage," said comedian Joan Rivers, who worked with Schreiber on stage at Second City in 1963. "He had the mustache and that buffoon look, but he was very smart."

Schreiber met Burns, a onetime Boston newscaster who previously had been teamed with comedian George Carlin, when Burns joined Second City in 1962. Two years later, they were part of a Second City revue that went to New York, where they were spotted and signed by well-known show business manager Bernie Brillstein.

Within a month, Burns and Schreiber made their debut as a comedy team on Jack Paar's weekly TV show, where they did their signature taxicab routine.

"It was a marriage of opposites," Burns said of their onstage chemistry. "He was Jewish, I was Irish. He was mellow and sweet and optimistic and I was angry and cynical and pessimistic."

Burns and Schreiber were a smash on the Paar show. Appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show," "The Hollywood Palace" and other variety shows followed.

"When we broke up the act [in 1968], it was because they wanted us to do the same routines over and over," Schreiber later told The Times. "When we started working together in the Second City, we improvised all kinds of situations with all sorts of characters....But we found ourselves doing nothing but the cab driver and his fare everywhere we went."

Avery and Schreiber began working as a team again in 1972, after getting together for a benefit in Los Angeles. In 1973, ABC gave them a summer variety series, "The Burns and Schreiber Comedy Hour."

Cecil Smith, The Times' TV writer, raved about the team's comedy special that preceded the weekly series, calling it not only funny but literate and articulate:

"I mean how often do you find a comedy team ... doing a sketch in which an integral part is the recitation of an alliterative lyric poem by the Jesuit mystic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins? On television?"

Schreiber enjoyed skewering politicians. Among his and Burns' albums was "The Watergate Comedy Hour."

Schreiber appeared in a number of TV series and movies, including "My Mother the Car" and "Days of Our Lives" on television, and the Mel Brooks' film "Robin Hood: Men in Tights."

He also appeared frequently on stage.

Schreiber is survived by Rochelle, his wife of 40 years; and two children, Jenny of San Francisco and Joshua of Los Angeles.

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