Shecky Greene, legendary standup comedian and Las Vegas improv master, dies at 97

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Shecky Greene, the gifted comedian and master improviser who became the consummate Las Vegas lounge headliner and revered by his peers and live audiences as one of the greatest stand-up acts of his generation, has died. He was 97.

His widow, Marie Musso Green, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that her husband died at their home early Sunday. She said her husband of 41 years died of natural causes.

Those who saw Greene during his decades of comedy dominance on the Vegas Strip in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s said that with a microphone in his hand he could roam a room and work an audience like no one else.

He couldn’t wait to abandon written jokes for the shared thrill of improvisation.

“I’ve never done a gig before,” Greene told the Las Vegas Sun in 2009. “I’m making it up as I go along.”

Greene made big fans of his fellow entertainers, including Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and, most famously, Frank Sinatra, who chose him as his opening act for a time. Greene couldn’t resist performing with America’s biggest star at the time, but the two big personalities clashed frequently and the relationship ended with the comedian being beaten by the singer’s friends at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach.

It led to his most famous joke:

“Frank Sinatra saved my life once,” Greene would say. “A couple of guys hit me and Frank said, ‘Okay, that’s enough.'”

Sinatra wasn’t actually there, Greene later said, but the beating was real. Also true was the oft-repeated story of Greene driving his Oldsmobile into the fountains at Caesars Palace in 1968, a result of what he admitted was a serious drinking problem and a dangerous urge to drive after he’d had a few drinks.

He also drew a famous joke from this moment when he later said that when the police arrived at his flooded car, whose windshield wipers were running, he told them: “No spray wax, please!”

With a body like a linebacker’s, a lightning-quick mind and a voice that suggested he could have been a lounge singer instead of a lounge comedian, Greene worked his way through dozens of impressions over the course of a night, making extended riffs on them at the audience’s tables and transform musical standards into parody songs on site.

Tony Zoppi, who was entertainment director at the Riviera Hotel for decades, said Greene was the best comedian he had ever seen.

“He’ll go on stage and perform spontaneously for an hour,” Zoppi told the Los Angeles Times. “A waitress dropped a glass – he did it for 15 minutes.”

He appeared in films such as Tony Rome (1967) with Sinatra, History of the World Part I (1981) with Mel Brooks, and Splash (1984) with Tom Hanks, and appeared on network sitcoms including “Laverne & Shirley” and “Mad About You” and was a constant guest on talk and variety shows.

But he never actually clicked on the screen. He needed a crowd to interact with and an entire night to woo them. That meant never becoming as famous as comic contemporaries like Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett or Carson. But he was paid the same six-figure weekly salaries as live shows.

Born Fred Sheldon Greenfield, Greene began singing, acting, making jokes and doing fake accents while growing up on the north side of Chicago.

He served in the Navy during World War II in the Pacific.

When he returned to Chicago, he attended community college and thought he might become a physical education teacher, but began doing comedy gigs in nightclubs for money.

The offer of a two-week gig at the Prevue Lounge in New Orleans turned into a six-year stay.

He gave his first show in Las Vegas in 1953. He found that he and the Strip were a perfect match, and within a few years he owned the city. In 1956 he opened for a young Elvis Presley at the New Frontier.

“That boy should never have been in there,” Greene told the LA Times in 2005. “He came out in a baseball jacket. Four or five musicians behind him were wearing baseball jackets. It looked like a picnic. After the first show they changed the billing and I was the headliner.”

Greene remained a mainstay of Vegas and its playgrounds like the Riviera and the Tropicana for the next 30 years.

From 1972 to 1982, Greene was married to Nalani Kele, a dancer whose show, the Nalani Kele Polynesian Revue, was a long-running nightclub hit. And in 1985 he married Marie Musso, daughter of jazz saxophonist Vido Musso.

Greene eventually gained his share of national fame. He was able to fill Carnegie Hall and hosted both Carson’s “Tonight Show” and “The Merv Griffin Show.”

He struggled with both alcohol and gambling addictions, which wasn’t exactly ideal for a man who spent most of his time in Las Vegas. He also struggled with later diagnosed severe depression and panic attacks, both of which became increasingly difficult for him as he grew older.

Greene moved to Palm Springs to retire in his late 70s in 2004, but the stage still had its appeal and he returned in 2009 for a stint in Las Vegas at the Suncoast Hotel and Casino.

When Greene returned to a city now dominated by artists like Céline Dion and Cirque du Soleil, he found he could stroll through the casinos anonymously.

“I’m a legend,” he told the Sun in 2009, “but no one knows me in Vegas anymore.”

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