Shelley Berman was an American comedian, actor, writer, teacher, lecturer and poet.
Berman began studying acting shortly after he was honorably discharged from the Navy. He enrolled as a drama student at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. After graduating from the Goodman Theatre, he joined the Woodstock Players, a stock theater company in Woodstock, Illinois. It was here that Berman had the opportunity to develop and polish his acting skills, with the support and encouragement of fellow players Geraldine Page, Betsy Palmer, and Tom Bosley.
Leaving Woodstock in 1949, Berman and his wife Sarah made their way across the country, in search of acting work. While in New York, Berman found work as a sketch writer for Steve Allen's Tonight! show, and was doing well, when he received an invitation to join an improvisational troupe known as the Compass Players, which took him back home to Chicago. With Compass (which later evolved into Second City), he got to work with many people who would go on to have very successful careers in show business, Mike Nichols and Elaine May prominent among them.
While performing improvised sketches with the Compass Players, Berman began developing solo pieces, employing an imaginary telephone to take the place of an onstage partner. While watching Mort Sahl perform at Mister Kelly's in Chicago in 1957, he realized he didn't necessarily have to tell traditional jokes as other comedians of the day did in order to work in nightclubs, and went on to audition at the club performing his one-man monologues and telephone routines, with great success. Those first dates at Mister Kelly's led to other nightclub engagements around the country, appearances on national television, and a recording contract with Verve Records. Inside Shelley Berman, released in early 1959, became the first comedy album to be awarded a gold record, and the first non-musical recording to win a Grammy Award. Berman would eventually record six albums for Verve, including Outside Shelley Berman and The Edge of Shelley Berman, both of which also went gold. He would go on to appear on numerous TV specials, and all of the major variety shows, including those hosted by Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Andy Williams, and Dean Martin.
Comedic and dramatic acting roles on television began to come his way, including memorable appearances on episodes of Peter Gunn; The Twilight Zone; Rawhide; Bewitched; The Man From U.N.C.L.E.; The Mary Tyler Moore Show; Adam-12; Emergency; CHiPs; Night Court; MacGyver; L.A. Law; Friends; Walker, Texas Ranger; The King Of Queens; The Bernie Mac Show; Grey's Anatomy; Entourage; Hannah Montana; CSI: NY, Hawaii Five-0 (in 2012) and Boston Legal, where Berman made numerous recurring guest star appearances as the hilariously semi-senile Judge Robert Sanders. From 2002 to 2009, Berman appeared as Nat David (Larry David's father) on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, a role for which he received a 2008 Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor In A Comedy Series. With dialogue entirely improvised by its cast, Curb gave Berman the opportunity to return to his improv roots, introduced him to a new generation of TV viewers, and brought him acclaim from critics and fans alike.
Berman has authored four books, two plays, several TV pilot scripts, and numerous poems. In 2013, Berman’s first collection of poetry, To Laughter With Questions: Poetry By Shelley Berman, was published. Berman had been writing and teaching poetry for many years, so the publication of this book was very much a source of great pride for him. For over twenty years, Berman taught humor writing in the Master of Professional Writing program at USC, where he was named a Lecturer Emeritus. He officially retired in 2014.
Berman died September 1, 2017, in Bell Canyon, California. He was 92.