Shelley Berman, an actor who made a career as a “sit-down comedian” and who starred in composer John Kander’s first Broadway musical (the short-lived A Family Affair) has died at age 92 of complications with Alzheimer’s disease. His death was confirmed to The New York Times by his publicist.
A Family Affair was one of three Broadway appearances for Berman, a Chicago native who was trained at the Goodman Theatre. He scored his greatest success in standup comedy, comedy records, movies, and on television, where he enjoyed a late-career success earning an Emmy Award nomination for playing Larry David’s father on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Berman made his Broadway debut in 1959 as part of the ensemble cast of the musical revue The Girls Against the Boys, which ran 16 performances despite the presence of co-stars Bert Lahr, Nancy Walker, and Dick Van Dyke. He had much greater success the same year with his first solo live comedy album, Inside Shelley Berman, which included a memorable routine about an epic hangover. It earned a gold record for sales and a Grammy Award. It was followed in the 1960s by similar comedy albums Outside Shelley Berman and The Edge of Shelley Berman. Those album titled were referenced in the title of his 1980 Broadway solo show at the old Bijou Theatre, Insideoutsideandallaround with Shelley Berman.
A Family Affair, which had a book by Kander (before his collaborations with Fred Ebb) and brothers William and James Goldman, has the distinction of being the first show credited as having been directed by Harold Prince, who worked mainly as a producer up to that point. Prince replaced Word Baker, known for directing The Fantasticks, during the show’s out-of-town tryout.
In A Family Affair, Berman played Uncle Alfie Nathan, the legal guardian of a young woman planning her wedding. The happy occasion rapidly degenerates into war between the two families, one of which wants to have huge blowout wedding, and the other wanting to have just an intimate “family affair.” Rita Gardner, Larry Kert, and Linda Lavin appeared in supporting roles.
Though his Broadway stints had brief runs, Berman appeared in numerous regional stage productions, including leading roles in Guys and Dolls, Fiddler on the Roof, Two by Two, The Odd Couple, and I'm Not Rappaport.
Berman’s movie career included The Best Man (1964), based on the Broadway play; Divorce American Style (1967), Every Home Should Have One (1970), and Meet the Fockers (2004). He was one of myriad storytelling comedians in The Aristocrats (2005). He also had a featured role Adam Sandler’s father in You Don’t Mess With the Zohan (2008). On TV, he appeared as a guest star on dozens of shows over six decades, including The Judy Garland Show, The Twilight Zone, Bewitched, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and King of Queens.
He is survived by his wife Sarah Herman, their daughter Rachel, and two grandchildren.