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Jack Carter Wanted,

And Deserved, His Due

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Publicity photo of comedian Jack Carter, 1949.
The Cantankerous Television And Film Actor, Who Was, At One Time, A Bigger Name Than Both Jackie Gleason And Sid Caesar, Passed Away In Near Anonymity In Late June

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

July 2, 2015 — Irascible “Oh, that guy!” comedian Jack Carter passed away last week. He was 93 and died in near-anonymity, something that galled him early on in his career and continued to bedevil him to the end of his days.

We should know. We interviewed Carter last year at his home in Beverly Hills where he puttered about with the aid of his ever-handy walker. His gait had slowed to an almost imperceptible forward momentum but Carter’s rants about perceived slights (some going back a half-century) and the lack of accolades afforded to him during his incredibly long and varied career came faster than a Borscht Belt one-liner.

It’s hard (and sad) to say that Carter hadn’t earned the right to be a bit agitated. Where contemporaries such as Carl Reiner and Don Rickles are revered and other stars with lesser credentials make news, Carter and his formidable show business resume has been largely chucked into the circular file of showbiz also-rans.

“Left out, lost, forgotten, it’s the story of my life,” he told us from the home he shared with his second wife Roxanne. “First of all, I never had a press agent. Never got on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, no picture on the wall at Sardi’s (the venerable New York City showbiz hangout). Any television show or magazine article on old comedians, I’m never in it. It’s like I never existed.”

Call it a lamentable oversight or, at worst, an injustice, but Carter (TV pioneer, Broadway star and nightclub mainstay) deserves his due.

Born in New York City, Carter grew up as the last days of vaudeville were drawing to a close. Funny as a kid and with a knack for impressions, Carter decided on a career in show business after seeing the frenetic, no-holds-barred comedy of Milton Berle.

“I first saw Berle at the Paramount Theater when I was a teenager,” he said. “It was the wildest act. So many people hated Milton, but I loved the man.” He also called comedian (and Dick Van Dyke Show cast member) Morey Amsterdam a “mentor.”

Carter’s show business breakthrough came when he went on the radio and twice won first prize on the Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour, the precursor to today’s American Idol. He later went on tour with the show along with another winner, a skinny kid from Hoboken, N.J. named Frank Sinatra. “Frank was part of an act called the Hoboken Four at that time,” said Carter.

Carter’s impressions featured some of the more obscure stars of that era including many English actors such as C. Aubrey Smith, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce (the movies’ Sherlock Holmes and Watson, respectively), who later became frequent guests on Carter’s TV show in the ‘50s.

After a stint in the Army during World War II, Carter continued to hone his nightclub act by diversifying away from straight impressions (“mimicry,” he called it) toward satire, without the benefit, he boasted, of employing any writers.

“I realized I had to find a personality of my own so I mimicked classic Broadway shows from that period. Las Vegas required a joke act, whereas satire worked in the smarter nightclubs.”

Carter reminisced about the halcyon days on the Las Vegas Strip, where he was pulling down $17,500 a week as one of the kings of the lounges along with other Jewish comics like Shecky Greene, Jan Murray and Don Rickles.

“Before Howard Hughes came in and sterilized the city, it was magic,” he said. “It was a glorious time. You were booked for a four-week engagement at top dollar. There weren’t that many hotels and each one featured a headliner that was a household name.”

As for the occasional heckler that would attempt to become part of the act, Carter said, “The mic was king. When you held the mic, you could out shout them. It wasn’t really a major problem for me, except sometimes the third show in the early morning hours where some inebriated guy was out to impress his escort.”

In 1949 Carter took the plunge in the newfangled medium known as television serving as the first host of the Cavalcade of Stars variety show on the DuMont Television Network. The next year, NBC offered him his own variety show (The Jack Carter Show), part of a two-hour block called “Saturday Night Revue,” which also featured Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar. Carter bolted, but not before handing the Cavalcade show off to another television up-and-comer, Jackie Gleason.

The early days of television were unchartered waters for pioneers such as Carter. “Live TV was furious,” he said. “On one show we were caught eight minutes short and I had to ad lib to fill the time.”

Carter also had a taste of Broadway success starring with Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1956 Broadway musical, Mr. Wonderful. He was also a TV guest star staple, appearing on Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffin, the Dean Martin Roasts and dozens of sitcoms.

Although slowed from a serious car accident that happened a few years before (one that claimed the life of another passenger, Toni Murray, Jan Murray’s widow), Carter was adamant in his desire to stay active and continued to book guest spots on TV shows like Desperate Housewives, iCarly, Shameless, New Girl and as a voice talent on Family Guy, where he famously mispronounced the name of actress Sigourney Weaver.

Our time with Carter at an end, he offered one last lament on his anonymity:  “Joey Bishop used to live next door,” he told us. “The tour buses still come by and point that out. They don’t stop here.”

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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