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Jackie Mason, the former rabbi from a family of rabbis whose Borscht Belt style and issue-oriented comedy made him a popular and at times controversial performer, has died. He was 93.
Mason died Saturday at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, his longtime friend, lawyer Raoul Felder, told The Hollywood Reporter. Mason had trouble breathing and passed away in his sleep, he said.
Mason’s first of his many one-man shows, The World According to Me!, was a hit on Broadway in the late 1980s — selling every seat at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre for more than a year — and he was given a special Tony Award for his efforts. He also received an Emmy and a Grammy nomination after the show was adapted as Jackie Mason on Broadway.
On the big screen, Mason starred in the disappointing Caddyshack II (1988) after Rodney Dangerfield decided not to do the sequel and appeared in Steve Martin’s The Jerk (1979) and Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part I (1981).
Earlier, Mason produced and starred as a New Jersey snitch who steals money from the cops and hightails it to Miami in The Stoolie (1971), firing young director John G. Avildsen during production.
He also provided the voice of Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky on eight episodes of The Simpsons, the first time in 1991 and the last in 2016 (he won his second career Emmy for one such turn in 1992).
More recently, Mason did a series of video commentaries for Breitbart News in which he regularly roasted Hollywood.
Throughout his long career, the pudgy 5-foot-7 comedian attacked controversial issues with glee, and his passion often landed him in hot water.
After a stand-up performance on The Ed Sullivan Show on Oct. 18, 1964, the host accused Mason of directing an obscene gesture at him after he had signaled the comic from offstage to abbreviate his routine (a foreign-policy address by President Johnson had cut into the program). An angry Sullivan then banished him from his show.
“The gesture was in his mind,” Mason told Vanity Fair in 1997. Sullivan “used four-letter words and dirty gestures as a way of life, because he was a Broadway street guy. I was a yeshiva student and a rabbi. I didn’t know from dirty gestures.”
Mason sued for libel and slander, Sullivan admitted that he had made a mistake, and the comic was brought back for the show’s 1966 season premiere. However, Mason lamented that he had been tarnished for being crude and unpredictable.
“It basically destroyed my career for at least 10, 15 years,” he said. “Because in those days, if you had an image of a filthy person, you were wiped out. Today, if you have an image as a filthy person, you become a sensation.”
In another contretemps, Mason was involved in a lawsuit with CBS over the deletion of some of his material from a 1969 appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. He contended that the cuts, which included him criticizing President Nixon and U.S. policy in Vietnam, “tainted” him and perpetuated his image as a “censored comedian.”
In 1989, the bushy-haired Mason starred on his own ABC sitcom, Chicken Soup, in which he played a Jewish pajamas salesman who has a love affair with an Irish Catholic social worker (Lynn Redgrave).
The comedy was given the enviable Tuesday night time slot immediately following No. 1 Roseanne (both shows were produced by Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey), but Chicken Soup was canceled after 12 episodes.
It didn’t help that Mason had made inflammatory remarks about Jews and Blacks while campaigning for Rudolph Giuliani, running for New York mayor. Rick Moranis then made fun of the whole thing in an open to Saturday Night Live.
One of six kids, Mason was born Jacob Moshe Maza on June 9, 1928, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where his father — a rabbi just like his father and grandfather before him — had relocated after discovering that New York City had perhaps a surplus of rabbis.
The family returned to the Lower East Side when Jacob was still young, and eventually he and his three brothers became rabbis too. Meanwhile, he earned a bachelor of arts degree from City College of New York.
While leading his congregations in synagogues in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, Mason told jokes to the worshippers as he veered toward comedy, his true calling. “I realized that I was telling people to worship God while I was worshipping blondes,” he said.
With his career still in transition, Mason landed a summer job as a social director at a resort in the Catskill Mountains. “I was supposed to get 95-year-old Jews to play baseball,” he quipped to Newsweek. In 1959, he became a comedian, full-time.
Doing stand-up at an L.A. nightclub, Mason was spotted by Bill Dana and Jan Murray. They tipped off Steve Allen, who put Mason on his show, and he became a popular guest on programs hosted by Garry Moore, Perry Como and Jack Paar.
In Las Vegas in the ’60s, Mason headlined as many as 50 weeks a year at the Aladdin. He topped bills in Miami Beach and Atlantic City, was quite popular in the Catskills — getting a whopping $2,000 a performance — and made dozens of appearances on The Dean Martin Show.
In 1969, Mason produced and starred in his own Broadway play, A Teaspoon Every Four Hours, about a Jewish accountant who, after his wife dies, becomes involved with a Black woman. Its opening was delayed several times, played almost 100 times in previews — and then closed after one official performance.
He did not take kindly to the critics’ response to his play: “They had to preserve their semi-homosexual atmosphere of arrogant social elegance, the Noel Coward set walking and talking in their own language, living in an ivory tower of theater with all the pretentious nonsense it’s supposed to represent.”
Mason had more success with The World According to Me!, which began as a stand-up show that opened at the Las Palmas Theatre in Hollywood in 1986. A mix of comedy and social philosophy, it was a real crowd-pleaser, and Mason brought it to the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills before it catapulted to Broadway.
In his review of the show, Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote, “The huge audience goes wild for this man because, in addition to his talent, he gives theatergoers something they’re not used to finding on the Broadway stage: the truth.”
In the 1990s, Mason performed in other one-man productions, including Jackie Mason: Politically Incorrect and Much Ado About Everything. Typically, he ended his act with impassioned defenses of free speech.
He published his autobiography, Jackie, Oy!: Jackie Mason From Birth to Rebirth, in 1988 and married Jyll Rosenfeld in 1991. She was a co-writer on Stiffs, a 1985 Mason-starring comedy about a funeral home.
In addition to his wife, Mason is survived by his daughter, comedian Sheba Mason, from a previous relationship with Ginger Reiter.
Trilby Beresford and Duane Byrge contributed to this report.
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