Charlie Callas, Zany Comedian, Dies at 83
Published: January 28, 2011
Charlie Callas, a rubber-faced comedian who cavorted on television and the nightclub circuit in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, often punctuating punch lines with sound effects emanating from his motormouth, died on Thursday in Las Vegas. He was 83.
A string bean of a man with a Cyrano-size nose, Mr. Callas appeared on virtually every television variety and talk show in the days of Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson. He was a regular on “The Andy Williams Show” and “The ABC Comedy Hour,” a semiregular on “The Flip Wilson Show” and a co-host of “The Joey Bishop Show.”
Mr. Callas tried his hand at drama in 1975, opposite Eddie Albert and Robert Wagner, as a former con man and restaurant owner, Malcolm Argos, in the crime show “Switch.” But that was just a detour from the zany.
“There were two things he could do that made his career,” Tony Belmont, executive director of the National Comedy Hall of Fame in St. Petersburg, Fla., said in an interview in October. “He could think very fast on his feet, and he had an unbelievable number of sounds that he made with his voice.”
For example, Mr. Belmont said: “He would tell a joke about two guys hunting. If you or I told it, the joke wasn’t so funny. But Charlie made it hysterical by sticking in these sounds; so you would hear the gun cocking, the duck flying overhead, the explosion of the shotgun and then the duck falling and screaming all the way to the ground.”
Carson was also impressed by Mr. Callas, inviting him to appear on the “The Tonight Show” nearly 50 times. Then came the night of Sept. 21, 1982.
With Mr. Callas bombing, Carson made a whistling-buzzing sound — as if tracing a bomb’s trajectory. In comic desperation, Mr. Callas leaned over and shoved Carson. Carson, almost always amiable on the air, was so annoyed that on the spot, in front of his television audience, he told Mr. Callas that he’d never appear on the show again. Carson kept his word.
It was not the end of Mr. Callas’s career, however. Besides nightclub gigs and guest spots on other talk shows, he went on to appear in several movies. Among them were the horror-film spoof “Hysterical” (1983), in which he played Dracula; “Amazon Women on the Moon” (1987), a bizarre take on low-budget movies in which he did his own stand-up shtick; and Mel Brooks’s “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” (1995), a parody of the Bram Stoker novel. In 1981, Mr. Callas played the soothsayer in Mr. Brooks’s dawn-of-man spoof, “History of the World — Part I.”
In the 1977 live-action and animated film “Pete’s Dragon,” Mr. Callas provided the voice of the title character, a dragon named Elliot.
Mr. Callas was born Charles Callias in Brooklyn on Dec. 20, 1927. The Associated Press reported that he is survived by two sons, Mark and Larry, and that his wife, Evelyn, died in July.
Mr. Callas started playing drums as a teenager and, after serving in the Army in World War II, performed around the country with major bands, including those led by Tommy Dorsey and Claude Thornhill.
While performing he would engage in madcap antics, cracking up audiences and musicians alike, inspiring him to turn to comedy in 1962. A year later he made his first network television appearance on “The Hollywood Palace.” Soon he was opening for Frank Sinatra in nightclubs around the country.
Mr. Callas was predictably unpredictable, Mr. Belmont said. In 1973, when the crusty comedian Don Rickles was the target of a Dean Martin celebrity roast on NBC, Mr. Callas stepped to the microphone and decided to set aside his planned bit.
“Instead,” Mr. Belmont said, “he started rattling on as though Rickles — sitting at his side — had died. And as the mock eulogy ran, Rickles was laughing so hard that he couldn’t lift his head off the table.”
At a roast for Frank Sinatra, Mr. Callas was introduced as Mr. Sinatra’s former bodyguard, Carlo Cappuccino. Dressed in a gangster-style suit and wide white tie, he told of growing up in a neighborhood where “you could walk 10 blocks and never leave the scene of a crime.”
Placing his broad-brimmed hat over his heart and looking toward heaven, he said, “I’d like to say hello to Frank’s friends.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 28, 2011
An earlier version misstated Mr. Callas's age. He was 83, not 86. It also misstated the title of a Mel Brooks movie. It is "History of the World -- Part I" not Part II.