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Shecky Greene, High-Energy Comedy Star, Is Dead at 97

Shecky Greene, a high-energy stand-up comedian who for many years was one of the biggest stars in Las Vegas, died on Sunday at his home in Las Vegas.He was 97.

His daughter Alison Greene confirmed his death.

Mr. Greene was a frequent guest of Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson and other television hosts, and had acting roles in movies and on television. But he never reached as wide an audience as many of his fellow comedians, probably because his humor was best experienced in full flower on a nightclub stage rather than in small doses on the small screen.

In Las Vegas, though, he was an institution. A versatile entertainer of the old school — he told stories, he made faces, he ad-libbed, he did impressions, he sang — he would do just about anything for a laugh, including physical comedy so broad that it sometimes left him black and blue.

He was not one to stick to a set routine. “I wasn’t an A-B-C-D comic. ‘Hello, ladies and gentlemen’ and then the next line,” he told the comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff in 2011. Audiences who went to see Shecky Greene never knew quite what to expect.

“One of the greatest I ever saw in a nightclub,” his fellow comedian Pat Cooper told Mr. Nesteroff. “I saw him climb the curtain and do 20 minutes on top of the curtain! He destroyed an audience.”

Some said he was at his funniest when he was angry, which was often. “He’s got to be somewhere where he hates the owner, hates the hotel,” the comedian Jack Carter once said, “so that he’s got something to go on.”

He was at least as unpredictable off the stage as he was on it. He became famous not just for his act but also for his drinking binges, gambling sprees and erratic, often self-destructive behavior.

“I should have been fired maybe 150 times in Las Vegas,” Mr. Greene told The Las Vegas Sun in 1996. “I was only fired 130 times.”

Probably the most famous Shecky Greene story involved the time he drove his car into the fountain in front of Caesars Palace. In a 2005 interview with The Los Angeles Times, he confirmed the story, but admitted that the way he told it in his act was slightly embellished: He did not really greet the police officers who rushed to the scene with the words “No spray wax, please.” That line, he said, was suggested to him after the fact by his friend and fellow comedian Buddy Hackett.

Another of his best-known jokes was also, he insisted, based on a true story. Frank Sinatra, the joke went, once saved his life. Five men were beating Mr. Greene, but they stopped when Sinatra said, “OK, boys, that’s enough.”

Shecky Greene was versatile entertainer of the old school — he told stories, he made faces, he ad-libbed, he did impressions, he sang.Credit…Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, via Getty Images

As amusing as the stories of Mr. Greene’s behavior were, the truth is that he had severe mental health problems, including bipolar disorder and panic attacks, which were apparently exacerbated when he developed a dependence on his prescription medication. He had other ailments as well, including cancer, and by the mid-1980s he had stopped performing.

Mr. Greene, who had a family history of mental illness, went public with his condition in the 1990s and, with the help of a new therapist and new medication, gradually resumed his career. He even incorporated his illness into his shtick.

“I’m bipolar,” he told a Las Vegas television interviewer in 2010. “I’m more than bipolar. I’m South Polar, North Polar. I’m every kind of polar there is. I even lived with a polar bear for about a year.”

By 2005, although he was happily describing himself as retired, he could be persuaded to perform at private parties. In 2009 he made his first Las Vegas appearance in many years, at the Suncoast Casino, and he continued to perform occasionally in Las Vegas.

As early as 1996, Mr. Greene was performing, he said, for one reason only. “I’m not in it for a career anymore,” he told The Sun. “I had my career. I’m in it to enjoy myself.”

Although never known as the most decorous of comedians, Mr. Greene made news in the comedy world in 2014 when he stormed out of a Friars Club event in Manhattan and announced that he was resigning from the club after his fellow comedian Gilbert Gottfried did material that Mr. Greene, who had been scheduled to speak, found offensive.

“He got dirtier and dirtier,” Mr. Greene told a radio interviewer, without providing details, “so I got up and I said, ‘That’s it.’”

Fred Sheldon Greenfield was born on April 8, 1926, in Chicago. (In 2004 he legally changed his name to Shecky Greene, long after his professional first name had come to connote a certain kind of brash, aggressive, old-school comedian even to people who had never seen him perform.)

Mr. Greene performing on “The Hollywood Palace” television show in 1965. Credit…ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content, via Getty Images

After serving in the Navy during World War II, he enrolled at Wright Junior College (now Wilbur Wright College) in Chicago with plans of becoming a gym teacher. But he was sidetracked by his interest in performing.

He took a summer job at a resort near Milwaukee, where, he once recalled, “They paid me $20 a week and gave me a fancy title, ‘social director.’” He became a performer, he said, because the resort couldn’t afford to hire big-name acts. “I wasn’t Red Skelton,” he recalled, “but I got a few laughs.”

He returned to college that September but also continued developing a comedy act and occasionally performed in nightclubs. It would be a few years before his commitment to show business became full time.

He left college to accept a two-week engagement in New Orleans; that booking stretched into three years, and ended only when the nightclub burned down. Unsure of his next move, he returned to Chicago and went back to college, but left for good when the comedian Martha Raye offered him a job as her opening act in Miami.

“This time,” he said in an interview for his website, sheckygreene.com, “I made up my mind: I would stick with show business. I was only 25 years old and making $500 a week. Besides, I had a silent partner to support — I had discovered how to bet the horses.”

He first ventured into Nevada, then in its early days as an entertainment mecca, when the Golden Hotel in Reno hired him for four weeks in 1953. His opening-night performance so impressed the hotel’s owners that they held him over for 18 weeks and offered him a new contract, for a guaranteed $20,000 a year (the equivalent of more than $200,000 today). He was soon headlining in Las Vegas, where for one week in 1956 Elvis Presley was his opening act.

Mr. Greene on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson in 1975.Credit…Gary Null/NBCUniversal, via Getty Images

By 1975 he was making $150,000 a week (more than $800,000 in today’s money), one of only a handful of comedians in that salary range at the time. He liked to say that he gambled most of it away, but that it didn’t matter because he had more money than God — whose weekly salary, he happened to know, was only $35,000.

He was also gaining a reputation for his sometimes violent offstage behavior. A decade later, his mental health problems had brought his career to a halt.

He eventually overcame those problems, for which he gave much of the credit to the support of his wife, Marie, whom he married in 1985.

In addition to his daughter Alison, he is survived by another daughter, Dorian Hoffman, both adopted at birth when he was with his first wife, Jeri (Drurey) Greene. also survived by his wife, Marie Musso Greene.

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Although destined to be remembered primarily as a Las Vegas performer, Mr. Greene had a considerable television résumé, as both a comedian and an actor.

He had a recurring role on the World War II series “Combat!” in 1962 and 1963 and appeared on “The Love Boat,” “Laverne & Shirley” and “Mad About You,” as well as variety and talk shows. (He was an occasional “Tonight Show” guest host in the 1970s.) He appeared in a few movies as well, including “Splash” (1984) and Mel Brooks’s “History of the World, Part I” (1981).

Interviewed by The Washington Times in 2017, Mr. Greene looked back on his career philosophically:

“Why did I do this and that? At 90 I still don’t know. Once in a while I’ll have a nice sleep. Most nights I wake up yelling, ‘Why did I do that?’

“Life is strange, but if you’ve had a mixture of a life like I had, it’s all right.”

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