YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Hey, Shelley Berman's phone is ringing again

October 23, 2005|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

"I'M still not a peaceful man," Shelley Berman said a few weeks ago. "I'm still not able to behave.... When somebody says 'Relax,' that really makes me nervous."

The 80-year-old Berman, who is experiencing some bittersweet career redemption playing Larry David's alter-kocher father on the HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm," was sitting in the den of a friend's house at the top of Country Club Estates, a development just up the 101 from the Berman place. It was the morning after he and his wife, Sarah, evacuated their Bell Canyon house during the Topanga fires, a hot, dry day; you could still smell smoke in the air. Fire trucks were parked in the local strip malls and there was ash on the ground. It was Shelley Berman weather -- clear but worrisome.

"It's a good thing for me to have this interview," he said, "it's a good thing for me."

Season 5 of "Curb," which began late last month to continued fanfare tempered by its first sour critical notes, kicked off with Nat David suffering a stroke in a deli while eating the Larry David sandwich, white fish with sable, capers, onion and cream cheese. Later, in the hospital, he motions for Larry to come in close and whispers what the son hears as, "You're adopted."

The show isn't so much an attention-getting experience for Berman as an attention-resurrecting one. It means something to him -- a great deal, in fact -- that a car brings him to the set, that there's a chair with his name on the back. His was a career that played out in the public eye and then, suddenly and by degrees, came the vanishing. And Berman has never stopped worrying the question of why.

This, then, is how he sums up knocking over the room during the audition for the role of Larry David's father, after all these years: "Is that redemption? Well, it's part of redemption. Redemption is that finally people began to look at me and say, 'You know, he's not a prick.' "

A too-candid camera

THE story of Shelley Berman is that he was a great comic, an important comic, done in by a TV moment at a time when TV moments could still do you in, before television inured us to the inappropriate and the uncomfortable, before the raw feed of cable news and the hyperbolic reality of reality TV.

It sounds, in fact, like the leanest of footnotes: On a 1963 NBC documentary special called "Comedian Backstage," Berman was seen losing his temper after a show because a telephone rang backstage during one of his trademark telephone routines.

The documentary, seen today, is a fascinating piece of arcana, a kind of lost treasure -- an hour with a comic at the height of his fame in Room 809 of the Diplomat Hotel in Miami as he prepares for opening night. At the time, Berman was a cultural force, on the leading edge of an epoch in stand-up that included Mort Sahl and Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce and Bob Newhart and Nichols and May, people who moved stand-up away from tuxedo-clad one-liners delivered in nightclubs and into coffeehouses, stoking conversation about the culture.

Berman was considered radical for the simple fact that rather than standing, he sat on a stool, and he didn't do jokes but contemporary situations, unburdening himself, a man slowly unraveling; he was the "devout coward."

He acted out phone calls before Newhart became equally and then more famous for them; if in Newhart's hands the absurdity grew from understatement, Berman could make the phone call a more perilous and emotionally charged journey into the unknown. He was the office worker calling the department store across the street to report a woman dangling from a ledge, who gets bounced from the complaint department to lingerie ("Describe her? What for? I'm looking at the building right now, she's the only one hanging out of a window.").

He was afraid or annoyed or anxious about lots of things, and he brought to the stage an intense, actorly focus, his elocution marvelous -- "the first of the Method comics," Gerald Nachman called him in "Seriously Funny," his overview of the "rebel comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. Berman -- the accidental comic, an actor first, who had worked with Mike Nichols and Elaine May at Chicago's Compass Players -- was the first with a gold record for spoken word.

Los Angeles Times Articles