LAS VEGAS -- A documentary film crew is in Las Vegas to record the return of Las Vegas legend comedian Shecky Greene. He is regarded by many as the greatest nightclub comedian of all time.
Greene was a major star in Las Vegas in the 1950's and 1960's. He hung out with the Rat Pack, worked for the Mob, moved into television and movies and has now come full circle by opening a three-night stand at the South Pointe Casino. Ask the great comedians of the 20th century who was the best of all time and the consensus answer is Shecky Greene.
Greene was a huge star who almost single handedly created the Las Vegas lounge scene back when that was the hottest entertainment venue anywhere. Along the way, he had about as much fun as a guy could have, blew fortunes on gambling, booze, and other diversions, but he survived all that and his standup skills are still as sharp as a stiletto.
"I'm bipolar. 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. I have manic depression very bad. Matter of fact, they have a pill for it," Greene said.
Even when talking about painful episodes from his personal life, Greene has always found ways to extract the humor.
"I even put a song in my act. Mr. Prozac, you're a wonderful pill, each time I take you, I feel a thrill...."
At the ripe young age of 84, Greene's mind still bounces along at a jaunty clip, always a trademark of his live performances. His counterparts, people like Sid Caesar and Don Rickles, have long considered Greene the best nightclub comedian of all time, and a new generation has also learned to appreciate Greene's talents.
He worked at Mob owned clubs in Chicago before coming to Nevada in 1953 where he earned an astonishing $3,500 a week delivering his free-wheeling, almost stream of consciousness blend of jokes, songs, impressions, and bits. Nearly every hotel on the Strip had mobsters and mafia money.
"Sam Giancana was a godfather for me. When I first worked for Sam, I didn't know he was into that type of thing. I found out soon enough," said Greene.
Reporter George Knapp: "Was this a concern for entertainers?"
Greene: "I think that was before, in the Jerry Lewis era where they would cut them and everything else. It was suggested, you know, that you work for them, but it wasn't quite that bad."
Greene was a major star in Las Vegas, a headliner. He had top billing at the new Frontier when the hotel brought in a hot young singer named Elvis Presley as Shecky's opening act.
"This happened to be one of the nicest kids I had ever known in show business," said Greene. But Elvis bombed with the Las Vegas crowd, in part, because he didn't dress like a star. Greene says he gave some advice to Presley's manager Col. Tom Parker.
"You gotta do something with the dress. You can't walk out on stage in a nightclub in a baseball jacket. So, from there they went to see Liberace and got together and that's how he started wearing those clothes."
Greene, along with Louis Prima, ushered in the golden age of Las Vegas lounges and paved the way for comics who became stars. His Las Vegas stardom propelled him into television. He made 40 appearances on the Tonight Show, even had a dramatic role in the iconic war series Combat, and was a contemporary of Frank Sinatra, with whom he had a contentious relationship.
"He was a very strange man. He once said, 'I have never met anybody more insane than you.' I say, 'take a look in the mirror,' let me tell you something."
Greene says after he riffed on Sinatra during a performance, Old Blue Eyes sent some goons to see him. "So Frank Sinatra saved my life one day. Five guys are beating me up and I heard Frank Sinatra say, 'that's enough.'"
Greene developed every bad habit Las Vegas had to offer. He still plays the ponies but after numerous arrests and scandals, he quit drinking years ago. He marvels at the Las Vegas he helped build but is glad to merely visit
"To people like me, is it better? No. Maybe for these performers who stay here for 30 weeks doing these shows, these concerts, the thing with O, the swimming, they wanted me for a lifeguard but I couldn't make it."
A documentary crew is taping this weekend's performances at the South Point for a future film and Shecky told us he's got a book offer on his plate as well. If you are wondering whether he needs the money, the answer is yes. He's not broke. He lost $3 million investing with the infamous Bernie Madoff.
It's hard to know which stories about him are true and which are mere legends. There is one story about him driving into the fountain at Casears. Shecky says he was drinking, a casino gave him a car, he sped down the Strip and ended up with the car in the fountain. As he put it, when the cops arrived, he rolled down the window and told them, "no wax." They didn't think it was funny.