In this second part of our interview with the Old Jewish Comedians author, we discuss the late-Mickey Freeman, the search for Don Rickles’s real name and why Sid Caesar called Fantagraphics to yell at Kim Thompson.
Have you genuinely become friends with any of the subjects of these books?
Yeah. Mickey Freeman especially. He was like a mascot for the book. When I do my little tribute to him [at the Friars Club event], I’ll talk about it. He became something of a mascot for the book, because he was not only thrilled to be in the first once, he was constantly calling to suggest his friends—some people I’d never heard of, like Bobbie Baker, who I’d put in the second book. I said, “who is she?” [In Mickey’s voice] “She was the queen of the cruise ships!” I’d never known that. She wrote me or called me, and it worked out. She had a good face, and I put her in.
He hooked me up with Larry Storch and Eddie Lawrence and a few others. And some I’d never heard of, like a guy named Van Harris—who I’m sure you’ve never heard of. He was in on the Borsch Belt and Catskills in the 40s and 50s. There are photos of him performing with Joey Lewis, so, he had some kind of a career. But I asked Mickey, “Van Harris – is he Jewish?” He goes, “oh course!” Like he wouldn’t waste my time with anybody who’s not Jewish. But I didn’t waste my time with the guy, because he was a little put off. He sent me a bunch of photos of him in his prime, and I said, “no, Mickey kind of misrepresented the book.” I’m not drawing you guys back in the day, when you were young. I’m drawing you as you are now.” And he was a bit thrown off by that. So, Van Harris is not in the new book [laughs].
That’s as friendly as you get with these guys, especially him. But also, Larry Storch is a really great guy. He’s 88 now, and he still loves to perform, and he still loves the attention. And I talk to Jerry Lewis every once in a while. It’s hard to know if he’s your friend or not. I was sort of in touch with him before these books happened. He called me about some other stuff I had done about him. He was thrilled to be in the first book, but he left me a phone message after it, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. So I called him back. But he wound up loving it.
So, are you actively seeking the participation of the subjects who are still around?
No, not at all. In fact, at first I didn’t want to be in touch with any of them. I never sought them out and asked for photographs or asked for their permission. I just wanted to do it, and just put it out there. And the publisher, Fantagraphics, started sending it out to the comedians, and some of them started calling, and sure enough, they were all thrilled—the still-living ones—were delighted, except for one guy, Jack Carter, who was pissed off. But he’s kind of angry about everything. He wakes up in the morning and he’s angry. So, he was annoyed. He didn’t like the expression I gave him. He didn’t like the liver spots.
My friend Ben Schwartz wrote a piece for the LA Times, and called Jack Carter, who wasn’t aware of the book, and asked, “how do you feel about being in a book called Old Jewish Comedians?” Jack said, “old?” Jack is 88. He said, “old and Jewish? I don’t work Jewish.” I was wondering if he was okay with the word “comedian.” And then he finally saw the book, and then he was really angry. He requested that I redraw him, which I wouldn’t do, because one to a customer.
A couple of other guys claimed that I got their original names wrong, because the only text in the book is their original Jewish names and their show business names, which just about every one of them changed, except for Carl Reiner—his real name is Carl Reiner and Myron Cohen, and there are a couple of others. But overall, they all changed them, so they could work in the clubs.
But a couple of guys claimed that I didn’t get their names right, like Don Rickles. His PR guy contacted us and said, “he’s really angry. His name is not Archibald, it’s Donald Rickles.” So, we said in the second book “Don Rickles says his name is not Archibald, so that will be corrected in a future volume.” Sid Caesar was annoyed. He called Fantagraphics and started yelling at Kim Thompson, because he claimed his name is not Isaac. He was on the phone with him for half an hour. He was doing Jewish schtick and German dialect. Kim was amazed.
If you’re going to get chewed out by anybody...
Yeah. He was amazed. He was delighted. He said, “just who called to yell at me? Sid Caesar.” So, he was annoyed. A couple of other ones were a little off. Kathy, my wife, did some research, but this was a couple of years ago, so most of the research was online. We were a little more careful this time to make sure that the names are exactly right. But there’s always something that falls through the cracks.
Is it that difficult to find their real names? In the case of Don Rickles, do you believe that his name is actually Archibald, but he’s covered it up?
I’m really not sure. He was very adamant that his real name is Donald. I talked to some other comedians, like Bobby Ramsen. He believes that Don Rickles name is Archibald. It was a very popular name in the 20s, when Don was born. A lot of these guys change their name, and they just want to be what they became. They don’t want a reminder of what their original names were.
For the king of venom, Don Rickles, for people to find out his real name is Archibald—imagine him getting heckled. “Hey Archibald.” He does not want that to get out. It’s still possible, of course, that his real name is Donald. We just don’t know for sure.
A couple of years ago, when you Googled his name, Archibald “Don” Rickles would come up over and over again. And Isaac “Sidney” Caesar would come up. So we think that, little by little, they had their people make that information disappear. It’s not that important, but it’s important to these guys that people know them as what they became.
[Continued in Part Three]