Shelley Berman

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Shelley Berman
Berman in the 1960s
Sheldon Leonard Berman

(1925-02-03)February 3, 1925
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
DiedSeptember 1, 2017(2017-09-01) (aged 92)
Resting placeHillside Memorial Park Cemetery
Culver City, California
EducationArt Institute of Chicago (BFA)
  • Comedian
  • actor
  • writer
  • teacher
  • lecturer
Years active1954–2014
Sarah Herman
(m. 1947)
Comedy career
MediumStand-up, film, television
GenresObservational comedy

Sheldon Leonard "Shelley" Berman (February 3, 1925 – September 1, 2017) was an American comedian, actor, writer, teacher, and lecturer.[1]

In his comedic career, he was awarded three gold records and he won the first Grammy Award for a spoken comedy recording in 1959.[2] He played Larry David's father on Curb Your Enthusiasm, a role for which he received a 2008 Emmy Award nomination.[3]

Berman taught humor writing at the University of Southern California for more than 20 years.[4]

Early life and education[edit]

Berman was born in Chicago, the son of Irene (née Marks) and Nathan Berman. He was Jewish.[5] He had a younger brother, Ronald.[6]

He served in the Navy during World War II.[7] He then enrolled in Chicago's Goodman School of Drama at the Art Institute of Chicago (now at DePaul University) as a drama student. There he met fellow student Sarah Herman; they married in 1947.[7] His acting career began with an acting company in Woodstock, Illinois.[5] Leaving Woodstock in 1949, the couple made their way to New York City.[8] He studied acting at the HB Studio.[9] To make ends meet, Berman found employment as a social director, cab driver, speech teacher, assistant manager of a drug store, and a dance instructor at Arthur Murray Dance Studios.[8]

Eventually, Berman found work as a sketch writer for The Steve Allen Plymouth Show.[10]


Early career[edit]

Berman began as a straight actor, receiving his training at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, performing in stock companies in and around Chicago and New York City.[11]

In the mid-1950s, he became a member of Chicago's Compass Players, which later evolved into The Second City.[12] While performing improvised sketches with Compass, Berman began to develop solo pieces, often employing an imaginary telephone to take the place of an onstage partner.[12]

Nightclubs and live performances[edit]

In 1957, Berman was hired as a comedian at Mister Kelly's in Chicago, which led to other nightclub bookings, and a recording contract with Verve Records.[13] His comedy albums earned him three gold records and his debut, Inside Shelley Berman, won the first Grammy Award for Best Comedy Performance - Spoken.[2] Berman appeared on numerous television specials and all of the major variety shows of the day.[2]

He starred on Broadway in A Family Affair and continued with stage work in The Odd Couple, Damn Yankees, Where's Charley?, Fiddler on the Roof, Two by Two, I'm Not Rappaport, La Cage aux Folles, The Prisoner of Second Avenue and Guys & Dolls.[13]

Berman's voice was used as the inspiration for the voice of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character Fibber Fox, performed by Daws Butler.[14]

Television career[edit]

Berman portrayed the role of Mendel Sorkin in an episode of CBS's Rawhide ("The Peddler", 1962).[15]

Berman also appeared fairly regularly as a panelist (and once as the "Mystery Guest") on the CBS game show What's My Line in the early and mid-1960s.

Berman performed both comedic and dramatic roles on television, including appearances on episodes of The Twilight Zone (both radio and TV versions), Bewitched, Peter Gunn, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Adam-12, Emergency!, Brothers, Night Court, MacGyver, L.A. Law, Friends, Walker, Texas Ranger, The King of Queens, Grey's Anatomy, Boston Legal, Lizzie McGuire, Hannah Montana, CSI: NY and the revived Hawaii Five-0.[16][17] He also had a recurring role on the short-lived sitcom Walter & Emily.[18]

From 2002 to 2009, Berman appeared as Larry David's aged father on Curb Your Enthusiasm, a role for which he received a 2008 Emmy Award nomination.[3]

Film career[edit]

Among Berman's film credits are Dementia (1955, with Shorty Rogers), The Best Man (1964, with Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson), Divorce American Style (1967, with Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds), Every Home Should Have One (1970, with Marty Feldman), Beware! The Blob (1972, with Robert Walker Jr.), Rented Lips (1988, with Martin Mull and Robert Downey Jr.), Teen Witch (1989, with Robyn Lively and Zelda Rubinstein), The Last Producer (2000, with Burt Reynolds), Meet the Fockers (2004, with Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller), The Holiday (2006, with Cameron Diaz), and You Don't Mess with the Zohan (2008, with Adam Sandler).[19][11][13][17][18]

Late career[edit]

For over 20 years, Berman was a lecturer (later lecturer emeritus) in humor writing in the Master of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California. He was also a teacher for the Improv Olympics program.[4]

Personal life[edit]

Berman married Sarah Herman on April 19, 1947. The two met while they were studying acting at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.[20]

In the mid-1960s, Berman and wife Sarah adopted two children, son Joshua and daughter Rachel.[11] The Bermans were planning Joshua's bar mitzvah when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Joshua died on October 29, 1977, at age 12.[20]

Berman and his wife were supporters of the Motion Picture and Television Fund (located in Woodland Hills, California), a charitable organization that offers assistance and care to those in the motion picture and television industries with limited or no resources, and contributed their time and resources to benefit the facilities and the residents.[3]

In the 1980s, the Chamber of Commerce in Canoga Park, California selected Berman to be one of the celebrities to serve a term as honorary mayor of Canoga Park.[21]

Allegation of plagiarism[edit]

In a 2012 podcast interview with Marc Maron, Berman alleged that comedian Bob Newhart plagiarized his improvisational telephone routine style, describing its genesis and saying it was a "very special technique that couldn't really be imitated. It could be stolen. And it was." "I was coming to work at night and a guy stopped his car, passed me by, and said 'Hey, Shelley! There's a guy [who] stole your act!'"[22] When asked by Maron if it was done maliciously, Berman replied, "Maliciously? He wouldn't do it maliciously. Nobody does that. But he did it to make a living. And he became a star."[23]

When asked in interviews about the telephone issue, Newhart said:

Shelley Berman did it before I did it. Mike (Nichols) and Elaine (May) did a version of it. There was a thing called 'Cohen on the Telephone,' which was a very, very early recording by Edison [Records] of a guy on the phone.[24]...George Jessel had a radio show...At the end, he would call up his mother and tell her how the show had gone. As a kid growing up, I remember listening to him and he would call his mother up and say, 'Mama, this is Georgie'" – he paused, skillfully – "'from the money.'"[23]


Berman died from Alzheimer's disease-related complications at his home in Bell Canyon, California, in the early morning of September 1, 2017.[11] He was 92 years old. His archive was donated to the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York.[25]

Comedian Steve Martin praised Berman on Twitter, thanking him for "changing modern stand-up [comedy]".[26] Marc Maron also tweeted "Shelley Berman has hung up the phone. RIP. The guy who inspired me to sit. Great comic."[27]



Year Title Role Notes Ref.
1955 Dementia Stoned Beatnik Uncredited [28]
1964 The Best Man Sheldon Bascomb
1967 Divorce American Style David Grieff
1970 Every Home Should Have One Nat Kaplan
1972 Beware! The Blob Hair Stylist
1988 Rented Lips Bill Slotnik
1989 Teen Witch Mr. Weaver
1990 Elliot Fauman, Ph.D. Stromberg
1991 Motorama Million Dollar Driver
2000 The Last Producer Poker Player #1
2004 Meet the Fockers Judge Ira
2006 The Holiday Norman
2008 You Don't Mess with the Zohan Zohan's Father
2010 The Legend of Secret Pass Ira (voice)


Year Title Role Notes
1954 The Repertory Theatre Sheldon Berman Episode: Time of Delivery
1955 Goodyear Playhouse Manager Episode: The Catered Affair
1959 Peter Gunn Danny Holland Episode: The Comic
1961 The Twilight Zone Archibald Beechcroft Episode: The Mind and the Matter
General Electric Theater Stanley Episode: The $200 Parlay
Car 54, Where Are You? Rabbi Einsenberg Episode: Catch Me on the Paar Show
1962 Rawhide Mendel Sorkin Episode: The Peddler
1963 Breaking Point Roy Chase Episode: Whatsoever Things I Hear
1964 Burke's Law King Dmitri Episode: Who Killed Cassandra Cass?
Bewitched Mr. Brinkman Episode: The Witches Are Out
1966 Mister Roberts Performer Episode: The Replacement
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Sheldon Veblen Episode: The Super Colossal Affair
The Hero Performer Episode: The Truth Never Hurts
1967 The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. Doctor Toulouse Episode: The Moulin Ruse Affair
1967 Get Smart Elwood Box Episode: Classification: Dead
1968-69 That's Life Mr. Quigley 6 episodes
1969 The Tommy Leonetti Show Performer 1 episode
1970 The Mary Tyler Moore Show Dr. Walter Udall Episode: Divorce Isn't Everything
1971 Adam-12 Phil Duke Episode: Log 165: Once a Cop
1970-71 Love, American Style Various Roles 3 episodes
1974 Emergency! Art Frommich Episode: The Screenwriter
1975 Police Woman Eddie Bender Episode: The Company
1977 Forever Fernwood Mel Beach 1 episode
1978 Vega$ Mickey Episode: Milliken's Stash
Flying High Phil Episode: High Rollers
1979 Brenda Starr, Reporter A.J. Livwright Television Movie
Eischied Performer Episode: Angels of Terror
1978-81 CHiPs Strum/Desperate Car Owner 2 episodes
1983 Matt Houston Dickie Bevak Episode: The Yacht Club Murders
1984 Brothers Marcus 2 episodes
1985 Hotel Barney Episode: Obsession
1985 Knight Rider Josh Bevin Episode: Knight Song
1987 St. Elsewhere Bill Belvedere Episode: Getting Ahead
The New Mike Hammer Comedian Episode: The Last Laugh
CBS Summer Playhouse Harry Episode: Mabel and Max
ABC Afterschool Special Harold Episode: The Kid Who Wouldn't Quit
1988 Night Court Al Episode: I'm OK, You're Catatonic
1989 What's Alan Watching? Mel Krasoen Television Special
The Munsters Today Sam Hawkins Episode: The Trial
1990 What a Dummy Grandpa Lou Episode: Grandpa Lou
1991 Monsters Leo Tandoski Episode: Werewolf of Hollywood
MacGyver CIA-Agent Abe Episode: Honest Abe
Walter & Emily Albert 1 Episode
1992 Carol Leifer: Gaudy, Bawdy & Blue Himself Television Movie
Civil Wars Performer Episode: The Triumph of DeVille
1992-93 L.A. Law Ben Flicker 6 episodes
1994 Garfield and Friends Dick Drake (voice) Episode: Horror Hostess
1995 Living Single Hyman Episode: Baby I'm Back...Again
1996-96 Friends Mr. Kaplan Jr. 2 episodes
1997 Chicago Sons McGlashan Episode: The Things We Do for Love
1997 The Blues Brothers Animated Series Alderman J. Alderman (voice) 8 episodes
1998 Arlis$$ Ollie Fogle Episode: The American Game
1999 L.A. Doctors Performer Episode: Been There, Done That
2000 Providence Performer Episode: Syd in Wonderland
Walker, Texas Ranger Ira Goldberg Episode: Lazarus
2001 That's My Bush! Principal Episode: Fare Thee Welfare
2002 Lizzie McGuire Nobby Frostybump Episode: Xtreme Xmas
2003 The King of Queens Skitch Episode: Queens'bro Bridge
2004 Dead Like Me Theo Episode: The Shallow End
2005 Grey's Anatomy Jed Sorento Episode: Let it Be
2007 Entourage Uncle Shelley Episode: The Return of the King
State of Mind Harvey Fleischman Episode: Passion Fishing
2006-08 Boston Legal Judge Robert Sanders 11 episodes
2008 Hannah Montana Dr. Froman Episode: Don't Go Breakin' My Tooth
Pushing Daisies Gustav Hofer Episode: Robbing Hood
2009 CSI: NY George Savar Episode: Yahrzeit
The Unusuals Tom Speigelman Episode: The Tape Delay
Raising the Bar Danny Rose Episode: Rules of Engagement
2002-09 Curb Your Enthusiasm Nat David 13 episodes
2012 Hawaii Five-0 Morty Sapperstein Episode: Ohuna


Year Title Role Venue Ref.
1959 The Girls Against the Boys Husband Alvin Theatre [29]
1962 A Family Affair Alfie Nathan Billy Rose Theatre
1973-74 The Prisoner of Second Avenue Mel Edison National Tour
1980 Insideoutsideandallaround with Shelley Berman Playwright-Performer Bijou Theatre


  • Inside Shelley Berman (1959)
  • Outside Shelley Berman (1959)[30]
  • The Edge of Shelley Berman (1960)[30]
  • A Personal Appearance (1961)[30]
  • New Sides (1963)[30]
  • The Sex Life of The Primate (And Other Bits of Gossip) (1964)[30]
  • Let Me Tell You a Funny Story (1965)[30]
  • Live Again! Recorded at the Improv (1995)[30]
  • To Laughter with Questions (2013)[30]
  • When Jews Were Funny (2013)[30]


  • Cleans and Dirtys (1966)
  • A Hotel Is a Place ... (1972)
  • Up in the Air With Shelley Berman (1986)[31]
  • To Laughter With Questions (2013)[32]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Year Award Category Nominated work Result Ref.
1959 Grammy Awards Best Comedy Performance - Spoken Inside Shelley Berman Won [33]
1961 Grammy Awards Best Comedy Performance - Spoken The Edge of Shelley Berman Nominated
2006 Screen Actors Guild Awards Outstanding Ensemble in a Comedy Series Curb Your Enthusiasm Nominated
2008 Primetime Emmy Awards Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series Nominated


  1. ^ "Shelley Berman, Famed 'Sit-Down' Comedian, Dies at 92". September 1, 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  2. ^ a b c "Grammy Winner Shelley Berman Dies". September 1, 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  3. ^ a b c "Shelley Berman, Stand-Up Comic and 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' Actor, Dies at 92". NBC News. September 1, 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  4. ^ a b "Shelley Berman". University of Southern California. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  5. ^ a b "18Doors". Retrieved March 18, 2020.
  6. ^ "Shelley Berman obituary | Comedy | The Guardian". Retrieved February 12, 2022.
  7. ^ a b McLellan, Dennis (September 1, 2017). "Shelley Berman, angst-filled comedian who pioneered standup (or sit-down) comedy, dies at 92". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 4, 2017.
  8. ^ a b "Shelley Berman, angst-filled comedian who pioneered standup (or sit-down) comedy, dies at 92". Los Angeles Times. September 1, 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  9. ^ "HB Studio - Notable Alumni | One of the Original Acting Studios in NYC". Retrieved March 18, 2020.
  10. ^ "Vintage Television". Kine Video. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  11. ^ a b c d Keepnews, Peter (September 1, 2017). "Shelley Berman, Stand-Up Comic Who Skewered Modern Life, Dies at 92". The New York Times. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  12. ^ a b "The Second City Mourns the Loss of Shelley Berman". Broadway World. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  13. ^ a b c "Comedian Shelley Berman, who got his start in Chicago, dies at 92". The Chicago Sun-Times. September 1, 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  14. ^ "Yakky Doddle in Foxy Duck". August 19, 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  15. ^ "Rawhide "The Peddler"". TV Guide. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  16. ^ "Shelley Berman Biography". Film Reference. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  17. ^ a b "'Curb Your Enthusiasm' Star Shelley Berman Has Passed Away". The Observer. September 1, 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  18. ^ a b "Shelley Berman dead: Curb Your Enthusiasm alum dies at 92". Entertainment News. September 1, 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  19. ^ "Shelley Berman, Famed Comedian and 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' Actor, Dead at 92". The Rolling Stone. September 1, 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  20. ^ a b "Shelley Berman, comedian-bard of everyday life, has died". The Washington Post. September 1, 2017. Archived from the original on December 20, 2018. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  21. ^ "The Los Angeles Times from Los Angeles, California · Page 270". The Los Angeles Times. September 9, 1991. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  22. ^ "Episode 332 – Shelley Berman". November 5, 2012. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  23. ^ a b Martel, Ned (April 12, 2005). "For Bob Newhart, Dean of Deadpan, the Laughs Go On". The New York Times. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  24. ^ Thorn, Jesse (May 16, 2012). "Bob Newhart talks about stand-up, sitcoms, and why he stays busy | Comedy | Interview". The A.V. Club. Retrieved February 18, 2013.
  25. ^ "National Comedy Center Acquires Archive Comedian Shelley Berman". The Post-Journal. February 1, 2018. Retrieved February 1, 2018.[permanent dead link]
  26. ^ "Steve Martin on Twitter". Twitter. September 1, 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  27. ^ Ivie, Devon (September 2, 2017). "Shelley Berman, Comedian and Curb Your Enthusiasm Actor, Dead at 92". Retrieved March 18, 2020.
  28. ^ "Shelley Berman". Retrieved March 18, 2020.
  29. ^ "Shelley Berman – Broadway Cast & Staff". Retrieved March 18, 2020.
  30. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Shelley Berman Discography". AllMusic. Retrieved September 1, 2017.
  31. ^ Shelley Berman obituary The Guardian, accessdate February 20, 2018
  32. ^ Shelley Berman, Comic And ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Actor, Dead At 92, Huff Post, accessdate February 20, 2018
  33. ^ "Shelley Berman". IMDb.

External links[edit]