Shecky Greene, Legendary Las Vegas Comedian, Dies at 97

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Shecky Greene, the gifted comic and master improviser who became the consummate Las Vegas lounge headliner and was revered by his peers and live audiences as one of the greatest standup acts of his generation, has died. He was 97.

His widow, Marie Musso Green, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that her husband died early Sunday (Dec. 31) at their home. She said her husband of 41 years died of natural causes.

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Those who saw Greene in his decades of comedy dominance on the Vegas Strip in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s said that with a mic in his hand he could roam a room and work a crowd like no other.

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

“I’ve never had an act,” Greene told the Las Vegas Sun in 2009. “I make it up as I go along.”

Greene made huge fans of his fellow entertainers including Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, and, most famously, Frank Sinatra, who hand-picked him as his opening act for a stretch. Greene couldn’t resist the gig with the biggest star in America at the time, but the two big personalities butted heads frequently, and the relationship ended with the comic taking a beating from the singer’s cronies at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach.

It led to his most famous joke: “Frank Sinatra once saved my life,” Greene would say. “A bunch of guys were beating on me and Frank said, ‘OK that’s enough.’”

Sinatra wasn’t actually there, Greene later said, but the beatdown was real. Also true was the oft-repeated story of Greene driving his Oldsmobile into the fountains at Caesars Palace in 1968, a consequence of what he conceded was a serious alcohol problem and a dangerous desire to go for a drive when he was a few drinks in.

He got a famous joke out of that moment too, later saying that when the cops arrived at his submerged car, whose windshield wipers running, he told them, “No spray wax please!”

With a body like a linebacker’s, a wit as quick as lightning and a voice that suggested he could’ve been a lounge singer instead of a lounge comic, Greene in the course of a night would plow through dozens of impressions, do extended riffs at audience members’ tables and turn musical standards into parody songs on the spot.

Tony Zoppi, who for decades was entertainment director of the Riviera Hotel, said Greene was the finest comic mind he ever saw.

“He’ll walk out on a stage and do an hour off the top of his head,” Zoppi told the Los Angeles Times. “A waitress dropped a glass — he did 15 minutes.”

He made appearances in films including 1967’s Tony Rome with Sinatra, 1981’s History of the World Part I with Mel Brooks, and 1984’s Splash with Tom Hanks, showed-up on network sitcoms including Laverne & Shirley and Mad About You, and was a constant guest on talk and variety shows.

But he never really clicked on the screen. He needed a crowd he could interact with, and a whole night to woo them. That meant never becoming as famous as comic contemporaries like Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett or Carson. But he pulled the same six-figure-a-week paychecks as they did for live shows.

Born Fred Sheldon Greenfield, Greene took to singing, acting, making jokes and doing mock accents while growing up on the North Side of Chicago.

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

On returning to Chicago, he went to community college and thought he might become a gym teacher, but started doing comedy nightclub gigs for money.

An offer of a two-week gig at the Prevue Lounge in New Orleans turned into a six-years stint.

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

“The kid should never have been in there,” Greene told the L.A. Times in 2005. “He came out in a baseball jacket. Four or five musicians behind him had baseball jackets on. It looked like a picnic. After the first show they switched the billing, and I headlined.”

Greene would remain a Vegas mainstay, his playgrounds places 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 gained his share of national fame eventually. He could fill Carnegie Hall, and guest-hosted both Carson’s Tonight Show and The Merv Griffin Show.

He grappled with addictions to both drinking and gambling, neither ideal for a man who spent most of his time in Las Vegas. He also struggled with what were later diagnosed as severe depression and panic attacks, both of which made it increasingly difficult to perform as he got older.

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

Returning to a city now dominated by the likes of Celine Dion and Cirque du Soleil, Greene found he could stroll through casinos anonymously.

“I’m a legend,” he told the Sun in 2009, “but nobody knows me in Vegas anymore.”

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