“Dying is easy; comedy is hard” is an apocryphal quote that has been attributed to a number of actors, from Edmund Kean to Edmund Gwenn.
Anyone who has ever had the experience of performing stand-up in front of an “unfriendly” audience knows what an excruciating experience it can be. But sometimes, dying on stage can be literal, leading to an even quicker demise to a comedian’s career…often with an ironic twist…
To wit: In 1673, the French playwright and actor Moliere, who suffered from tuberculosis, was overwhelmed with a coughing fit while performing the lead role in his play The Imaginary Invalid. A true comic performer, Molière insisted on completing his performance before he was dragged offstage , dying shortly afterward. Ironically, the play was about a chronic hypochondriac.
Fast-forwarding to the 20th century, Redd Foxx was rehearsing an episode on the set of his sitcom, The Royal Family, in 1991 when he collapsed of a heart attack. Because he was best known for his role in Sanford and Son, whose character often feigned heart attacks (“This is the big one, Elizabeth! I’m coming to join you honey.”) for a few moments the rest of the cast thought he was kidding when he fell to the floor.
Dick Shawn, the manic actor who played Hitler in Mel Brooks’ film The Producers, had a fatal heart attack during a 1987 performance at USC in San Diego. He was performing a bit about surviving a nuclear attack. Imagining that they were the only ones to survive, he told the audience that he would be their leader, announcing: …”and I will not lay down on the job.” He then fell to the floor. The audience laughed and waited…and waited…but Shawn never got up. His live performances were unpredictably bizarre so the audience thought it was part of the act. While Shawn lay motionless on the stage, they waited expectantly for several minutes to see what he would do next…until someone from backstage came out and started giving him CPR.
Perhaps the biggest celebratory send-off of a comedian to the Paradiso of Divine Comedy was that of Harry Einstein.
Einstein was a popular comic performer on radio and in movies during the 1930s and 40s, best known as his most famous character, a Greek called Nick Parkyakarkus.
He is the father of comedian Albert Einstein who, for obvious reasons, changed his name to Albert Brooks.
After being diagnosed with a heart condition in the late 1940s, he semi-retired from comedy, appearing primarily at the Hollywood Friar’s Club Roasts. It was while performing at one of these, a roast honoring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in November of 1958 that he died of a heart attack.
The $100 a plate affair served as a fundraiser for a Burmese leper colony. A crowd of nearly 1,200 packed the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton for the Friars Club dinner.
When it was Einstein’s turn at the dais, he annihilated the audience with a hilarious barrage of jokes that lasted about 9 minutes. The audience was banging on the tables, roaring with laughter. He was the hit of the show, leaving the podium to a standing ovation…the best live performance of his career. As Einstein returned to his seat, the emcee, Art Linkletter, remarked: How come anyone as funny as this isn’t on the air?” Einstein sat next to Milton Berle and his fellow comedians called for him to stand and take another bow…which he did, amid thunderous applause. He sat down again and immediately fell over on Berle’s shoulder, stricken with a heart attack, while the sound of laughter and acclaim were still ringing in his ears
Berle screamed “Is there a doctor in the house?” which many at first thought was a joke. [There actually was an old Vaudeville bit that consisted of the star collapsing on stage, asking “Is there a doctor in the house?,” and when the physician answers, the star gets up and asks “How do you like the show so far Doc?”]
Einstein’s wife, actress Thelma Leeds, knew better and rushed to the dais with nitroglycerine pills, which were used to treat his arteriosclerosis. People in the audience began yelling for doctors, some even shouting for certain clinicians, whom they knew to be in the room, by name.
He was carried backstage, while other performers tried to divert the stunned audience. Berle asked Tony Martin to sing a song…unfortunately, the crooner’s choice from his repertoire was “There’s No Tomorrow.”
Because the Roast was also a medical benefit, five doctors were at his side within seconds, including a surgeon who cut open his chest with a pocket scalpel and massaged his heart. Another doctor administered electric shocks to his heart by stripping the insulation from a lamp cord and using it as a makeshift defibrillator. After the doctors worked on him for over an hour, he was pronounced dead.
“The interesting thing to me was that he finished,” said Albert Brooks. “He could have died in the middle, but he didn’t. He finished and he was as good as he’d ever been in his life. That’s what makes you believe in something.”