Shecky Greene, the legendary standup comedian known for his long tenure as a Las Vegas headliner and for working with Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, died Dec. 31 at his home in the city. He was 97.
Greene’s wife of 41 years, Marie Musso Greene, confirmed his death to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Greene was a regular on the TV talk show and guest star circuit in his 1960s and ’70s heyday, when he often sported a comb-over haircut and wide-lapel suits. Earlier in his career, he came to represent the epitome of the Rat Pack-adjacent comedian in a tux, delivering lightly risque or edgy anecdotal stories and zingers on stage.
Greene was known for his many appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and for working as the opening act for Sinatra in Miami and Presley in Las Vegas. During the 1962-63 season, he played a recurring character on the World War II-set ABC drama “Combat.” His other TV appearances included “Love, American Style,” “The Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island,” “Laverne & Shirley,” “The Fall Guy,” “The A-Team,” “Trapper John, MD,” “Roseanne” and “Mad About You.” His prominent film roles include “Splash,” Mel Brooks’ “History of the World: Part I” and “Tony Rome.”
He guested on more than 60 episodes of “The Tonight Show,” including several outings as a guest host replacement for Carson. He also made a 1957 appearance on the show during Jack Paar’s run behind the desk. Greene also co-hosted and guest hosted “The Mike Douglas Show” and “The Merv Griffin Show.” He was a regular on game shows and variety shows ranging from “Tattletales,” “Hollywood Squares” and “Match Game” to “The Dean Martin Show” and “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.”
Greene hailed from the Chicago area. He served in the Navy during World War II, and got his start as a comedian in Milwaukee while attending college, according to Greene’s official website. Martha Raye recruited him to her nightclub in Miami. He later returned to Chicago to work the famed Chez Paree nightclub.
Greene’s time with Sinatra inspired one of the comedian’s most oft-repeated jokes, playing on Sinatra’s reputation as a tough guy. “Frank Sinatra once saved my life,” Greene quipped. “A bunch of guys were beating on me and Frank said, ‘OK, that’s enough.’ ” (According to ABC News, “Sinatra wasn’t actually there, but the beatdown was real.”)
Later in his career, Greene struggled publicly with mental health and substance abuse problems. In 1968, he famously drove his Oldsmobile into one of the fountains outside Caesars Palace and admitted he was drunk at the time.
In the 1990s, Greene made a comeback after a long period of inactivity due to chronic depression, recalls Tony Angellotti, a longtime friend and former PR representative. “He came back roaring, filled the Wiltern Theater [in Los Angeles] on two nights and was invited by Jay Leno onto ‘The Tonight Show’ as a result. He started working after that regularly,” Angellotti told Variety.
Greene had lived in Las Vegas since the 1950s. His long association with Sin City began in 1954 when he performed on the bill with singer Dorothy Shay at the New Frontier casino, according to the Review-Journal. His last performances in the city were in 2011, per the newspaper.
Greene was renowned among comedians for his ability to work without a net or script.
“The many times I was with him I was struck by two things — he never wrote down a joke, never bought a joke, just conjured them, remembered them and performed them,” said Angellotti, who now heads the Angellotti Co. public relations firm. “He loved to entertain. It didn’t matter. He’d call my mother up and sing some made up on the spot song and hang up. He’d take a birthday cake we bought him and put red frosting on his nose to make my young son laugh. He lived to make and hear people laugh. It’s a gift he gave all of us.”
In 1978, Greene took out a full-page ad in weekly Variety to celebrate the signing of a rich new contract with Las Vegas’ Sands Hotel and Casino. “It has taken me 30 years of trial and error, triumphs and failures, good fortune and adversities to finally reach the apex of the first love of my profession — night clubs,” he wrote.
In addition to his wife, Greene’s survivors include five adult children.