Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Dom DeLuise


After graduating from Manhattan's High School of the Performing Arts, DeLuise knocked around New York without much success. He actually attended Tufts College to study biology, with plans to become a teacher. He had a bit of a stage career early on, including a few seasons at the Cleveland Playhouse, some summer stock in Provincetown, Mass. (where he met comic actress Carol Arthur, left, who became his wife of 44 years), and a stint on Broadway in Here's Love (much later, he returned to Broadway to replace James Coco in Last of the Red-Hot Lovers). His first noticeable film role, a nervous sergeant in the cold-war thriller Fail-Safe (1964), was not indicative of his later career. ("I became a comedian when they laughed at my serious acting," he said.) Instead, his physical shtick in the Doris Day flick The Glass Bottom Boat that same year reflects the talent which would make him a major supporting player in film comedies and TV variety shows.

Dom was part of the comic ensemble of the early 60s program The Entertainers, alongside Carol Burnett, Bob Newhart, Ruth Buzzi (at right) and John Davidson, and he created "Dominick the Great," a hapless magician, for Garry Moore's variety show. The character was popular enough to become an early trademark of Dom's, who took it to Dean Martin's show and parlayed the routine into a substantial career on all the variety programs of the 60s and 70s. He headlined his own summer replacement series in 1968, and was a regular sketch performer on both Glen Campbell's and Dean Martin's shows in the early 70s.

DeLuise provided several over-the-top comic cameos in films of the late 60s, but it was his performance as a money-mad priest in 1970's The Twelve Chairs (left)which brought him in contact with the man most responsible for his movie career, Mel Brooks. The film, produced early in Brooks's career (back when Mel cared a little about plot, and before his movies became a string of comic bits), is not remembered as one of Brooks's great achievements, though I find it far more satisfying than many of his broader hits. (Take a look at it if you haven't seen it; Ron Moody is a comic powerhouse in the film, and a young Frank Langella makes a terrific leading man.) As a result of The Twelve Chairs, Dom became a member of Mel Brooks's stable of stars, appearing in Blazing Saddles, Silent Movie, History of the World Part One (right, as Nero) and Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

Dom spent the majority of his career "in support," including a string of films starring his friend Burt Reynolds (the Cannonball Run series, The End, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). Around the time Mel Brooks and Burt Reynolds began to fade from the frontlines, television variety shows were also petering out. For a sketch comedian like Dom DeLuise, this could have spelled extinction, but he continued his career as a voice-over artist in such cartoon franchises as An American Tail and the All Dogs Go To Heaven series (and he contributed a memorable vocal performance in Mel Brooks's Star Wars parody Spaceballs, playing Pizza the Hutt.)

In his later life, Dom parlayed his lifelong love of food into a second career as a celebrity chef, authoring several cookbooks and appearing on talk shows to prepare various recipes. Food, in fact, was a major problem for DeLuise throughout his life, as he battled obesity in his middle and later years. His hip-replacement surgeon flatly refused to operate until he lost 100 of his 325 pounds. Dom's self-professed obsession with food mirrored that of the rare leading character he had played in Fatso (1980), a dark comedy directed by, and costarring, Anne Bancroft.

Dom DeLuise was known throughout his career as a physically expressive comedian, whose rotund body seemed to help, rather than hinder, his physical agility. As proof, please enjoy the following clip of his early work, in 1964's The Glass Bottom Boat (and don't ignore Doris Day in the scene; she was not known for her physical comedy, but here, she holds her own).
Dom DeLuise died yesterday at the age of 75.
He is survived by his wife Carol, and sons Peter, Michael, and David, all of whom are actors.

Ernie Barnes


Don't recognize this guy's name? I didn't, but I recognize his most famous work. Barnes had a dual career; not only was he an artist, he was also (are you ready?) a professional football player. He went to college to study art, and ended up playing ball for the Denver Broncos among other pro teams. He used to sketch the defensive lineman who would be opposing him each week. His most famous work was featured in the credits of the 70s sitcom Good Times; it also appeared on an album by Marvin Gaye. Farewell to the artist of The Sugar Shack.