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Jackie Mason, one of the last Borscht Belt comedians, dies at 93

He embraced Jewish themes and political incorrectness, achieving a national profile through a series of successful one-man shows on Broadway.
Jackie Mason sits in a suit at a Manhattan restaurant holding a credit card in front of Christmas decor
Jackie Mason has lunch on 6th Avenue on March 22, 2012 in New York City.Bobby Bank / WireImage

Jackie Mason, the sometimes-controversial standup comedian who unapologetically embraced Jewish themes and political incorrectness, achieving a national profile through a series of successful one-man shows on Broadway without substantial work in film or television, died Saturday in Manhattan. He was 93.

Close friend and family spokesman Raoul Felder confirmed his death in a phone call with NBC News. He said Mason had been in the hospital with various illnesses for more than two weeks. Covid-19 was not a factor.

"He died peacefully in his sleep with his wife and a few friends by his side" at Mount Sinai Hospital, Felder said.

Comedian and actor Jackie Mason died at age 93 on July 24, 2021 in New York City. In this photo from April 18, 1963, Mason visits London.Asher/Daily Express / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"He had a great life," he said. " The trajectory of his life was amazing. He was active a year before his death. He was still writing. He had a very keen mind. He had knowledge in different fields."

He defended his caricature again and again by saying it was his right to be “politically incorrect,” but they certainly did not endear him to minority groups. He denigrated then-New York City Mayor David Dinkins by using a Yiddish defamatory word for an African American — a term he used frequently in his act — generating controversy.

Mason made his feature debut in 1972 as the star of “The Stoolie” and later starred in “Caddyshack II” in 1988. The Washington Post declared that he looked “meek and miserable” in the part and was “upstaged by the gopher puppet.” In 2010 he starred as himself in the film “One Angry Man,” a courtroom dramedy that he also wrote.

He had supporting roles in a few other films, including Steve Martin vehicle “The Jerk” and Mel Brooks’ “The History of the World: Part I.”

On television he starred in the brief sitcom 1989 “Chicken Soup” and hosted 1992’s “The Jackie Mason Show,” which saw panelists address the topics of the day with irreverence in a manner that made the program something of a precursor to Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect,” which premiered the following year. (Comedy Central, which hosted the Maher program, was unhappy, however, when Mason came out with his 1994 one-man show “Jackie Mason: Politically Incorrect” and sued the comic, seeking unsuccessfully to force a name change.)

Jacob Moshe Maza was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, but grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He was ordained as a rabbi — there had been many in his family — but ultimately resigned from his post at a synagogue to become a comedian.

He brought an early version of his insult-heavy humor to a Borscht Belt hotel in the mid-’50s, but the audience was not ready for the sort of comedy that Don Rickles would later make more acceptable.

Mason made several appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” during the 1960s, but his relationship with Sullivan soured over Mason possibly having given the finger to Sullivan during one show; Mason sued Sullivan for libel and won, and the publicity helped his career at the time. Over the course of the decade he also appeared repeatedly on “The Joey Bishop Show” and “The Merv Griffin Show,” among others.

He made his Broadway debut in 1969 with the play “A Teaspoon Every Four Hours,” which he co-wrote. It ran in previews for 97 performances but upon opening closed after a single outing.

His career hit its stride with his first solo effort on Broadway, “Jackie Mason’s The World According to Me!,” in 1986.

Mason is survived by his wife, Jyll Rosenfeld, whom he married in 1991, and a daughter.

A version of this story originally appeared on Variety.com.