They say that comedy is tragedy that happens to other people. For a few unfortunate performers, however, comedy and tragedy have shared the same stage. Every comedian has had an experience of “dying” on stage at some point, but these five comedians literally died on stage. Their loss of life is tragic, but it’s important to remember that these comics perished doing what they loved (assuming they loved dying suddenly in a front of a horrified audience.)
It’s also been said that comedy is tragedy plus time. Hopefully enough time has passed that we can look back on these shocking bits of comedy history with a sense of humor, as well as a healthy respect for the departed. After all, laughter is the best medicine. Although, if that’s true, someone must have failed to tell these 5 comedians who died on stage.
1. Redd Foxx
Most people remember Redd Foxx as the cantankerous Fred Sanford from the TV series “Sanford and Son.” But your parents might remember him as the “King of Party Records.” Back in the 50’s and 60’s, “party records” were comedy albums that were a little “blue,” featuring fun stuff like swearing and jokes about sex. Baby boomers would put these records on after the kids went to bed, often while throwing back brown drinks and smoking jazz cigarettes with their friends. Thus, the “party.”
Foxx graduated from releasing dirty records to making family TV shows with the premier of “Sanford and Son” in 1972. He remained a constant presence on TV until 1991, when he began starring in a new sitcom, “The Royal Family.” On October 11, 1991, Foxx went to the set to rehearse a scene where his character was to casually pass by in the background. In the midst of his nonchalant stroll, he suffered a massive heart attack.
In a cruel twist of irony, Redd Foxx had made feigning heart attacks one of his signature bits on “Sanford and Son.” So when he collapsed on the floor, instead of immediately rushing to his aid, the cast and crew responded by laughing at the fallen comedian. According to a spokeswoman for the show, « They all thought he was joking around at first.” He wasn’t. Within hours, Redd Foxx was dead.
Bonus Fact: Redd Foxx was in the middle of taping an interview for “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” with Robin Leach between takes on the set of “The Royal Family” when he died. Ironically, while he was still quite famous, Foxx was almost three million dollars in debt at the time.
2. Zero Mostel
Some have called Mel Brooks’ 1967 film, “The Producers” the greatest comedy of all time. In his starring role as the sleazy opportunist/off-off Broadway producer Max Bialystock, Zero Mostel certainly delivered one of the greatest comedic performances of all time.
He was popularly known as a comedic actor, but Mostel had even deeper roots on the dramatic stage, earning a Tony Award in 1961 for his role in Eugène Ionesco’s avant-garde play, Rhinoceros. By 1977, Mostel had returned to drama when he began an ill-advised starvation diet. Unfortunately, it worked. In just four months, he had shed 90 pounds. This diet might have been good for his waistline, but it was bad for his heart. On September 9, 1997, Mostel suffered an aortic aneurysm during a preview performance of The Merchant, an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. It proved to be his final performance.
Bonus Fact: Incredibly, one of Mostel’s co-stars also perished on stage. Dick Shawn, who played Hitler in “The Producers,” suffered a heart attack while appearing in a play in 1987. Unfortunately, everyone thought it was part of the show. So instead of helping him out, a theater full of people sat in silence as they watched him die. According to one eyewitness, « He literally was on the stage for five minutes until we realized that it was serious.”
3. Harry Einstein (aka Nick Parkyakarkus)
The late Harry Einstein found success doing “dialect comedy” on radio shows hosted by Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson in the 1940’s. In case you’re wondering, the answer is yes: dialect comedy is basically just acting out broad, racist stereotypes of ethnic minorities. The “Amos N’ Andy” show is the most (in)famous dialect comedy, but there were scores of others that “made fun” of groups including Jews, Italians and even Norwegians. Shockingly, it was such a popular genre that it dominated entire nights of programming—making it sort of a racist precursor to “Must See TV.” For Harry Einstein, he got his yucks playing Nick Parkyakarkus (a play on “park your carcass”), a Greek restaurant owner with a buffoonish accent.
The laughter came to an abrupt halt on November 23rd, 1958, when Harry Einstein was performing at a Friars Club roast honoring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Immediately following his performance (which can be heard in its entirety here), the show’s host Art Linkletter remarked, « Every time he finishes, I ask myself, why isn’t he on the air in a prime time?” Einstein turned to Milton Berle, sitting next to him, and said “Yeah, how come?” Those proved to be his final words, as he slumped over into Berle’s lap (itself the stuff of legends).
As they rushed Einstein off the dais, George Burns and Milton Berle got up and told a few jokes, trying in vain to lighten the mood. The audience was in no mood to laugh at this point, even if they weren’t aware that a surgeon who had been in the audience was backstage performing emergency, open-heart surgery on Einstein—with a freaking pocket knife.
After watching George Burns die on stage (figuratively, this time), Sammy Davis, Jr. wisely declined to close the show with a tune. But the schmaltzy, b-list crooner Tony Martin had fewer reservations about getting some stage time and decided to grace the audience with a song. And what a song it was.
Bonus Fact: Harry Einstein is also the father of two comedy legends. His son Bob Einstein played Super Dave Osbourne, as well as Marty Funkhouser on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” His other son, Albert Brooks (née Einstein), is the great filmmaker behind movies such as “Lost in America,” “Defending Your Life” and “Modern Romance.” If there’s any doubt as to Harry Einstein’s sense of humor, keep in mind he named his son “Albert Einstein.”
4. Al Kelly
Harry Einstein wasn’t the only comedian who lost his life at the Friars Club (or as it could be called, “The Widowmaker.”) It was in 1966 that Al Kelly, born Abraham Kalish, performed at roast for his friend and fellow vaudevillian, Joe E. Lewis. After roasting Lewis, Kelly returned to his seat on the dias and died immediately—some say before the applause had even ended.
Bonus Fact: Joe E. Lewis, the man Al Kelly was roasting when he died, narrowly avoided a tragic death himself. In 1927, Lewis was employed at a club owned by infamous mobster Al Capone. When his contract expired, he went to work at a venue run by one of Capone’s rivals. This was despite an explicit warning given to him from a Capone associate, the colorfully named « Machine Gun » Jack McGurn. Not only did he ignore the warning, he mocked « Machine Gun » McGurn in a bit on stage.
This turned out to be a poor decision. A week after testing McGurn’s sense of humor about himself, henchmen showed up at Lewis’ hotel and slashed the erstwhile funnyman’s throat, leaving him for dead. Miraculously, he survived, and in 1957 his life story became a hit movie, “The Joker is Wild.” Ironically, the man who portrayed Lewis was himself no stranger to organized crime. His name was Frank Sinatra.
5. Tommy Cooper
Perhaps the most shocking (and certainly the most public) death in the history of comedy goes to Tommy Cooper. The Welsh comedian and illusionist was a beloved performer on British TV for almost 20 years. Essentially, his act was that he was a lousy magician whose tricks would usually go wrong, with hilarious effect.
Sadly, the fact that everyone expected to see him fail would prove to be his undoing. During a performance on “Live From Her Majesty’s,” a popular variety show, Cooper suffered a heart attack on live television. When he collapsed, it looked to viewers as though he was swooning over his assistant, a lovely young lady. In one of the most horrifying scenes ever to take place on live television, the oblivious audience went on clapping and laughing for over a minute while Cooper continued to slowly slump over, dying. By the time anybody realized something was wrong, it was too late. Tommy Cooper was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.
Bonus Fact: Proving the old adage, “the show must go on,” Tommy Cooper’s death on live tv was immediately followed by a performance featuring Donny Osmond and a chorus-line of 24 dancers.
One of the greatest truisms in show business goes like this, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Sadly, for these five legendary comedians who died on stage, they went ahead and did both.