Comedian Buddy Hackett Dead At 78

actor/comedian Buddy Hackett, in a 1998 role
AP (file)
Buddy Hackett, the squat, round, rubbery-faced funnyman who appeared for more than 50 years as a top act in nightclubs, Broadway shows, on television and in such movies as "The Music Man," "The Love Bug" and "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," has died, his son said. He was 78.

Hackett died at his Southern California beach house either late Sunday or early Monday, Sandy Hackett told The Associated Press on Monday night. The cause of his death was not immediately known; his son said Hackett had diabetes.

"He was one of the greatest ever. He was a terrific father. He was my best friend. He prepared me very well for this day, but no matter how much you prepare it still hurts," Sandy Hackett said as he arrived at his mother's house in Los Angeles.

The younger Hackett, who is also a comedian, said he had driven to Los Angeles from his Las Vegas home as soon as he got the word of his father's death.

"Buddy Hackett's range of comedy was remarkable, from G-to X-rated," reports CBS News Correspondent Steve Futterman. — "He appeared in Disney films like the "The Love Bug and "The Little Mermaid", but there was another very explicit side of Buddy Hackett on the night club stage.

"He had success in many different venues. In films he presented a much different image."

Hackett was invited to join the Three Stooges when "Curly" Howard, the bald-headed member of the comedy team, suffered a stroke in 1946. But Hackett declined, believing he could develop his own comedy style. Playing for small money on the Borscht Circuit for New York City vacationers in the Catskill Mountains, he learned to get laughs with his complaints about being short, fat and Jewish.

His career grew with appearances on the TV shows of Jack Paar, Arthur Godfrey and others. Soon he was earning top money in Las Vegas, Florida and Las Vegas.

In the beginning his material was suitable for family audiences, but in later years nightclubs advertised his show "For Mature Audiences Only." His performances in those days were noted for their prolific use of four-letters words at a time when that just wasn't done.

"Compared to motion pictures, I'm very mild these days," he remarked in 1996.

He was born Leonard Hacker in a Jewish section of New York City's borough of Brooklyn on Aug. 31, 1924. For a time he apprenticed in his father's upholstery shop, but at school he found he had a talent for making his fellow students laugh. That was a necessity to offset the taunts about his roly-poly shape.

When he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame a few years ago, he quipped that he had left Brooklyn "to get away from the subway" only to discover that his star had been placed above the one in Los Angeles.

"It's a damn circle," he joked.

After graduating from New York's New Utrecht High School, where he had played on the football team, Hacker spent three years in the military during World War II, then reinvented himself as Buddy Hackett, standup comedian.

"He was born funny," his son said Monday. "It was in his bones. He didn't know how not to be funny."

He was also willing to share his material with others.

"If I was going to a corporate job somewhere, I'd call him up, and he'd rattle off 10 jokes," his son recalled. "He never called just to say hello. He'd call and say: 'A guy walks into a bar. ... "'

Hackett had flopped using joke writers, and he soon came to realize that only he could write for Buddy Hackett. Doing so, he moved on to Los Angeles, where he scored at a small showcase club.

Soon he was making big money across the country, and audiences called for his most noted routine, the Chinese waiter.

In 1954, playwright Sidney Kingsley persuaded Hackett to appear on Broadway in "Lunatics and Lovers." Brooks Atkinson, writing in The New York Times, described Hackett as "a large, soft, messy comic with a glib tongue and a pair of inquiring eyes."

He also appeared on the New York stage in "Viva Madison Avenue" (1960) and "I Had a Ball" (1964).

Hackett made his film debut in 1953 with "Walking My Baby Back Home." Among his other movies: "Fireman Save My Child," "God's Little Acre," "All Hands on Deck," "The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm," "Muscle Beach Party," "Loose Shoes," "Scrooged" and Disney's animated "The Little Mermaid," as the voice of Scuttle. He played legendary comic Lou Costello in the 1978 film "Bud and Lou."

The comedian appeared on television from the medium's beginnings and starred in the short-lived series "Stanley" from 1956 to 1957.

He made numerous guest appearances on other shows, appearing in recent years on "Just Shoot Me" and "Sabrina The Teenage Witch" and, in a recurring bit called "Tuesdays With Buddy," on "The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn."

He turned down many offers to star in another TV series, complaining that he could rarely get along with network executives.

"That ends the meeting," he once said of network officials telling him how to structure a comedy show.

Hackett was married to the former Sherry Dubois, whom he met at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills.

In addition to his wife and son Sandy, Hackett's survivors include daughters Ivy Miller of Denver and Lisa Hackett of Los Angeles.