Shecky Greene, Legendary Las Vegas Comedian, Dead at 97

SHECKY GREENE – Credit: Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

Shecky Greene, the legendary stand-up comedian who spent decades as one of the biggest acts in Las Vegas, has died at the age of 97.

Greene’s widow Marie Musso Greene, his wife of 41 years, confirmed the comic’s death Sunday to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, noting that he died at natural causes early December 31 at his home in Las Vegas.

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Born Fred Greenfield in Chicago in 1926, Greene was already an established comedian from the Borscht Belt and beyond when he was recruited to become one of the first comics to have a residency in the burgeoning entertainment and gambling cities in Nevada, first in Reno before moving on to Las Vegas in 1953. At the peak of his success, during a Vegas run that lasted decades, Greene claimed he was making $150,000 a week ($800,000 in today’s currency) performing in Sin City. (The majority of that money, he claimed, was frittered away on gambling and horse racing.)

One of Greene’s classic bits centered around his love-hate relationship with Frank Sinatra, who he once opened for in Miami Beach. “Frank Sinatra saved my life,” Greene would say, adding that Sinatra had his henchmen rough him up following a joke that offended the singer. “Five guys were beating me up and Frank said, ‘Okay, he’s had enough.’”

The story became part of Hollywood lore:

Greene, whose career stumbled later in life as he battled mental illness, would often joke about his struggles. “I’m bipolar,” he told a Las Vegas television interviewer in 2010 (via the New York Times). “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.”

Another infamous incident that wound up in his act occurred after he allegedly drove his car into the Caesars hotel fountains. “I had a bad habit when I got drunk, and I think it must have been a death wish: To get in my car and just drive,” Greene told Los Angeles magazine in 2005.

“One night I drove 90 miles an hour down the Strip — which you couldn’t do now, crowded as the Strip is — and I hit this breakaway lamp at the entrance to Caesars. It went shearing across Las Vegas Boulevard, and I went right over the curb and into the water. The cops came, and I went. I told Buddy Hackett about it. He gave me the line about the spray wax, and I put it in my act.”

While in Vegas in 1956, Greene found himself on a bill with a young singer named Elvis Presley, with the future King serving as his opening act. “I didn’t even know who Elvis Presley was. The kid should never have been in there,” Greene would later recall.

Outside of Las Vegas, Greene was known nationwide thanks to his many appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show and The Merv Griffin Show, where he would occasionally serve as guest host; during Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first American talk show appearance in 1974 on The Merv Griffin Show, Greene, who was guest hosting, quipped to the future box office star, “I can’t believe it! You can talk!”

Greene also occasionally starred on the big screen with roles in Tony Rome, History of the World, Part I, and Splash, plus TV appearances on Laverne & Shirley, Mad About You, Roseanne, and The Love Boat.

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