Sammy Petrillo

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Sammy Petrillo
BrooklynGorilla.jpg
Petrillo (right) opposite Duke Mitchell in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla
Pseudonym Samuel Petrillo
Birth name Sam Patrello
Born (1934-10-24)October 24, 1934
The Bronx, New York, U.S.
Died August 15, 2009(2009-08-15) (aged 74)
Bronxville, New York, U.S.
Medium Stand up, film
Nationality American

Sammy Petrillo (October 24, 1934 – August 15, 2009) was an American nightclub and movie comedian best known as a Jerry Lewis lookalike.[1]

Early life[edit]

Sammy Petrillo was born Sammy Patrello in The Bronx, New York City, New York, to a show-business family in which his mother, Anne Jackowitz Patrello,[2] was Alice Faye's double, and his father, Abraham Patrello,[2] "was a comic and a hoofer" [dancer] who performed in Catskills Mountains resorts and went by the stage name Skelly Petrillo. By age six, Sammy would sometimes join his father onstage.[3]

Petrillo, who had one younger sibling, brother Marvin,[2] was raised in a housing project at 143rd Street and Morris Avenue,[4] and attended the High School of Performing Arts, in Manhattan.[3]

In a 1992 interview, he recalled the genesis of his Jerry Lewis look:

Career[edit]

After finagling a meeting with famed comic Milton Berle, then rehearsing at Nova Studios in New York City, Petrillo recalled, Berle sent Petrillo and Berle's agent, Herb Jaffee, to meet with Jerry Lewis at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel in Manhattan. Lewis, after overcoming his initial trepidation — "Jerry said a couple of derogatory things to me", Petrillo recalled in the same interview.[4] "He said something to the effect of, 'Don't sign any checks and tell people you're Jerry Lewis!' He wasn't being funny. He was being serious" — hired the 16-year-old Petrillo for a sketch with him on NBC's Colgate Comedy Hour television series.[4] Petrillo rehearsed "for about a week over at the Mayflower Catering Hall on West 43rd Street", and was paid "about $60" for playing Lewis' baby in a crib,[4] though only at the end of the sketch, in which Petrillo has no lines.[3] The episode ran November 12, 1950.[3]

Petrillo said in a 1991 interview that a favorable writeup in the trade paper Variety prompted Lewis to have Petrillo sign with Lewis' talent agency, MCA. Despite promises by Lewis, Petrillo found no work. After New York Journal-American entertainment writer Jack O'Brian remarked that he hoped Lewis had nothing to do with Petrillo's predicament, Petrillo said he and his father realized that Lewis was "keeping me on a shelf because he doesn't want me to work".[3] His father got Petrillo, a minor, released from his MCA contract.

Petrillo went on to perform comedy once more on The Colgate Comedy Hour, in a sketch with host Eddie Cantor, and also appeared on NBC's Four Star Revue with the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson; NBC's Texaco Star Theater, starring Berle; ABC's Stop the Music; and several local New York City quiz shows and variety shows.[3]

Teaming with Duke Mitchell[edit]

On one such local show, the seminal late-night television program Seven at Eleven, Petrillo met singer George DeWitt, emcee of the NBC musical quiz series Name That Tune. Forming a nightclub team, the duo played at such major spots as the Paramount Theatre and the Copacabana in New York, and the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, disbanding there.[3]

Petrillo relocated to Los Angeles, California, where he eventually teamed with singer Duke Mitchell for a successful nightclub act approximating the popular Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis team. Petrillo in 1992 recalled how he and Mitchell began working together:

In addition to impersonating Martin & Lewis, Petrillo mimicked other film stars and cartoon characters, and Mitchell would sing in the styles of Frankie Laine, Vaughn Monroe, and Billy Daniels, among others.[5] For the climax of the show, they would announce to the audience that they would now do their impression of Martin and Lewis — followed by Petrillo playing Martin and Mitchell playing Lewis, inverting expectations.[5]

In 1952, movie producer Jack Broder, president of Realart Pictures, hired Mitchell and Petrillo to star opposite aged screen legend Bela Lugosi and the latest incarnation of the Tarzan film-series chimpanzee Cheetah in a low-budget, jungle-themed comedy, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (also known as The Boys From Brooklyn).

Through mid-1950s[edit]

Mitchell and Petrillo returned to nightclub work but, according to Petrillo, Lewis threatened to boycott anyone who booked them and club owners caved in, not wishing to spoil their chances of someday hiring Martin and Lewis. Petrillo in 1991 recalled an instance after he and Mitchell were booked on the Colgate Comedy Hour, being hosted by the comedy team Abbott and Costello:

Regardless, Allied Artists film studio offered Mitchell and Petrillo a contract, and the production company Federal Films pitched the two on a TV series. "We were offered things we turned down. We were stupid", Petrillo said in 1991.[7] The duo did play the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, and Hollywood's famed Cocoanut Grove, and made a single TV appearance as a team, on the local L.A. program The Spade Cooley Show, starring American Western swing musician and big band leader Donnell Clyde "Spade" Cooley.[7] In 1953, Petrillo, solo, guest-starred in a TV pilot, Wings for Hire, starring Lawrence Tierney and filmed in Florida.[8] Petrillo would later become head of production for the Network Film Corporation owned by Dick Randall, producer of that pilot and of several films.[9]

Mitchell and Petrillo amicably dissolved their professional relationship in 1954, but reteamed the following year. The duo broke up for good following the highly public, July 25, 1956, breakup of Martin and Lewis.[7]

Later career[edit]

For Randall's Network Film Corporation, Petrillo produced and co-wrote the 1958 NBC television special Holiday in Brussels, mixed NBC footage from the Brussels World's Fair, with Petrillo shooting additional of New York City's Central Park standing in for the Belgian capital.[10] In 1959, he appeared on the talk show The Steve Allen Show,[10] on an edition with fellow guests Don Knotts and Diana Dors.[4]

He starred in producer Randall's low-budget Shangri-La (1961),[11] a "nudie cutie" nudist exploitation film,[10] and after appearing on the set of his director friend Joe Green's The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962), played a cheesecake photographer, earning $90 for the improvised scene.[10] In 1963, Randall released two comedy albums featuring Petrillo: All About Cleopatra, capitalizing on the Cleopatra craze of the time, and also featuring Will Jordan, Joel Holt, and Dave Shor; and My Son the Phone Caller, a collection of humorous, real-life crank telephone calls.[10]

Petrillo again starred opposite Lawrence Tierney, in Randall's uncompleted or unreleased Unholy Alliance, filmed in and around a Catskills Mountains resort.[10] In the late 1960s, Petrillo starred in film buff Bill Gyorfy's uncompleted superhero-comedy film Gas Is Best, about a man who gains superpowers by drinking a celery tonic, and flies via flatulence.[10] Another obscure film Petrillo produced and in which he starred, Off the Wall, reportedly had a brief release in the early 1970s.[10]

Through Gyorfy, Petrillo met exploitation film legend Doris Wishman, and performed two days of filming on the soft-core sex comedy Keyholes Are for Peeping (1972), built around extant sex footage. Though Petrillo says Wishman promised a two-picture deal, and that if he would "make the first movie for me cheap, I'll be your partner in the second one", that did not come to pass. Wishman's next film was the cult classic Deadly Weapons, starring the stupendously endowed big-bust stripper Chesty Morgan, who was handled by the same agent as Petrillo.[12]

At an unspecified point, Petrillo said in 1992, he starred in a television series titled The Sammy Petrillo Show, on which ukulele novelty act Tiny Tim was a guest star. Afterward Petrillo starred in a children's TV program, Uncle Sammy; and produced and directed "a couple of infomercials" with comic actor Al "Grampa" Lewis.[4] He wrote a TV-series treatment, titled "My Daddy Was a Monster", that served as the basis for the 1960s sitcom The Munsters,[13] and wrote lyrics for the Isley Brothers' song "Angels Cried".[13]

In the late 1970s, Petrillo rekindled his friendship and again worked with Duke Mitchell in California, where Petrillo became a distributor for the Transcontinental Film Corporation.[14] The company was in talks to release[15] Mitchell's 1974 movie Massacre Mafia Style, a.k.a. Like Father, Like Son, a.k.a. The Executioner, which finally appeared direct-to-video on the Video Gems label[7] sometime after Mitchell's death in 1981.

In 1980, Petrillo and standup comic Adam Keith starred in a sketch-comedy film, Out to Lunch, produced by J. G. Tiger in association with Paul Tongue and which "played around New York".[14] Also that year, Petrillo dubbed the voice of a seaside CEO, "Mr. Boden", in the New World Pictures horror movie Humanoids from the Deep.[14]

On the October 5, 1982, edition of the TV morning show Today, host Bryant Gumbel showed a montage of clips of guest Jerry Lewis, there promoting his autobiography Jerry Lewis in Person and the movie The King of Comedy. The first clip, however, showed not Lewis but Petrillo in a Colgate Comedy Hour sketch with Eddie Cantor. Lewis remarked on air:

Petrillo recalled in 1991 that he shortly afterward received a call from bookers at the NBC talk show Late Night with David Letterman, on which Lewis was scheduled to appear; Petrillo said they asked him to make a surprise appearance, and that he turned down the offer.[15]

Final years and death[edit]

By 1991, Petrillo was living in Pittsburgh, where he ran a family-oriented comedy club, The Nut House, and, elsewhere in the city, emceed stage shows starring such porn stars as Georgina Spelvin. "I was accepted by people in both things without any tarnishment on my character", Petrillo recalled.[16] He and comedienne girlfriend Suzie Perkovic, a.k.a. Suzie Fiore, became business partners,[16] and performed comedy onstage for over 10 years as Suzie & Sammy.[13] Later in the decade, Petrillo was interviewed for the 1997 documentary Bela Lugosi: Hollywood's Dracula.

Petrillo died of colon cancer at age 74, in Lawrence Hospital in Bronxville, New York. At the time of his death, he lived in Tuckahoe, New York.[2] with Suzie and her husband Rocco Fiore and their children. He leaves behind 4 sons: Shawn, Mark, Jeffery and Kurt Patrello. He is buried at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, NY.


Petrillo's grave at the Actors' Fund section at the Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, NY

Legacy[edit]

Petrillo, who remained active performing standup comedy, mentored young comics including Richard Pryor and Dennis Miller, the latter a native of Petrillo's adopted home, Pittsburgh.[13]

One of Jerry Lewis' sons, Gary, told The New York Times upon Petrillo's death that, "When Sammy and the other guy played in that gorilla movie, I remember my dad and Dean [Martin] saying, 'We got to sue these guys — this is no good' ... Whenever there was any mention of Sammy Petrillo, it was a tense moment".[2]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Rick Saphire (August 17, 2009). "Sammy Petrillo, the comedian who was often mistaken for entertainer Jerry Lewis in the 1950s, has died in a New York hospital". Press Release. Retrieved October 12, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Havesi, Dennis. "Sammy Petrillo, an Actor and Nightclub Comedian, Dies at 74", The New York Times, August 24, 2009, p. D8
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Rutt, Todd. "Duke Mitchell & Sammy Petrillo: Those Two Fireballs of Fun", Psychotronic Video #11, Fall 1991, p. 23
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Abramson, Dave, a.k.a. "Dave the Spazz" (professional pseudonym). "Sammy Petrillo Speaks Out" (1992 interview with Petrillo), WFMU.org, posted 1998
  5. ^ a b Rutt, p. 24
  6. ^ Rutt, pp. 25-26
  7. ^ a b c d Rutt, p. 26
  8. ^ Rutt, p. 27
  9. ^ Rutt, pp. 27-28
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h Rutt, p. 28
  11. ^ Shangri-La (1961), TVGuide.com review
  12. ^ Rutt, pp. 28-29
  13. ^ a b c d Barnes, Mike. "Jerry Lewis double Sammy Petrillo dies", HollywoodReporter.com, August 17, 2009.
  14. ^ a b c Rutt, p. 30
  15. ^ a b c Rutt, p. 32
  16. ^ a b Rutt, p. 29

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