Buddy Hackett (born Leonard Hacker; August 31, 1924 – June 30, 2003) was an American comedian and actor. His best remembered roles include Marcellus Washburn in The Music Man (1962), Benjy Benjamin in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Tennessee Steinmetz in The Love Bug (1968), and Scuttle in The Little Mermaid (1989).
Hackett was born in Brooklyn, New York to Anna (née Geller) and Philip Hacker, an upholsterer and part-time inventor. He grew up on 54th and 14th Ave in Borough Park, Brooklyn, across from Public School 103 (now a yeshiva). He graduated from New Utrecht High School in 1942.
While still a student, he began performing in nightclubs in the Catskills Borscht Belt resorts as “Butch Hacker.” He appeared first at the Golden Hotel in Hurleyville, New York, and he claimed he did not get a single laugh. He enlisted in the United States Army during World War II, and served for three years in an anti-aircraft battery.
Hackett’s first job after the war was at the Pink Elephant, a Brooklyn club. It was here he changed his name from Leonard Hacker to Buddy Hackett. He made appearances in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and continued to perform in the Catskills. He acted on Broadway, in Lunatics and Lovers, where Max Liebman saw him and put him in two television specials.
Hackett’s movie career began in 1950 with a 10-minute “World of Sports” reel for Columbia Pictures called King of the Pins. The film demonstrated championship bowling techniques, with expert Joe Wilman demonstrating the right way and Hackett (in pantomime) exemplifying the wrong way. Hackett would not return to movies until 1953, after one of his nightclub routines attracted attention. With a rubber band around his head to slant his eyes, Hackett’s “The Chinese Waiter” lampooned the heavy dialect, frustration, and communication problems encountered by a busy waiter in a Chinese restaurant: “No, we no have sprit-pea soup … We gotta wonton, we got eh-roll … No orda for her, juss orda for you!” The routine was such a hit, Hackett made a recording of it, and was hired to reprise it in the Universal-International musical Walking My Baby Back Home (1953), in which he was third-billed under Donald O’Connor and Janet Leigh.
Hackett was an emergency replacement for the similarly built Lou Costello in 1954. Abbott and Costello were set to make a feature-length comedy Fireman, Save My Child, featuring Spike Jones and His City Slickers. Several scenes had been shot with stunt doubles when Lou Costello was forced to withdraw due to illness. Universal-International salvaged the project by hiring Hugh O’Brian and Hackett to take over the Abbott and Costello roles, using already shot footage of the comedy duo in some long shots; Jones and his band became the main attraction.
Hackett became known to a wider audience when he appeared on television in the 1950s and ’60s as a frequent guest on variety talk shows hosted by Jack Paar and Arthur Godfrey, telling brash, often off-color jokes, and mugging at the camera. Hackett was a frequent guest on both the Jack Paar and the Johnny Carson versions of The Tonight Show. According to the board game Trivial Pursuit, Hackett has the distinction of making the most guest appearances in the history of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
During this time, he also appeared as a panelist and mystery guest on CBS-TV’s What’s My Line? and filled in as emcee for the game show Treasure Hunt. He made fifteen guest appearances on NBC-TV’s The Perry Como Show between 1955 and 1961.
Hackett starred as the title character on NBC-TV’s Stanley, a 1956-57 situation comedy which ran for 19 weeks on Monday evenings at 8:30 pm EST. The half hour series also featured a young Carol Burnett and the voice of Paul Lynde. The Max Liebman produced program aired live before a studio audience and was one of the last sitcoms from New York to do so. Stanley revolved around the adventures of the titular character (Hackett) as the operator of a newsstand in a posh New York City hotel. On September 30, 1960, he appeared as himself in an episode of NBC’s short-lived crime drama Dan Raven, starring Skip Homeier, set on the Sunset Strip of West Hollywood.
After starring on Broadway in I Had a Ball, Hackett appeared opposite Robert Preston in the film adaptation of The Music Man (1962). In It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Hackett was paired with Mickey Rooney, with whom he had also recently made Everything’s Ducky (1961), in which they played two sailors who smuggle a talking duck aboard a Navy ship. Children became familiar with him as lovable hippie auto mechanic Tennessee Steinmetz in Disney‘s The Love Bug (1969).
He appeared many times on the game show Hollywood Squares in the late 1960s. In one episode, Hackett was asked which was the country with the highest ratio of doctors to populace; he answered Israel, or in his words, “The country with the most Jews.” Despite the audience roaring with laughter (and Hackett’s own belief that the actual answer was Sweden), the answer turned out to be correct. Hackett’s regular guest shots on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show in the early 1960s were rewarded with a coveted appearance on his final program on March 29, 1962.
Hackett continued to appear on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show until Carson left the series in 1992.
In 1978, Hackett surprised many with his dramatic performance as Lou Costello in the television movie Bud and Lou opposite Harvey Korman as Bud Abbott. The film told the story of Abbott and Costello, and Hackett’s portrayal was widely praised. He and Korman did a memorable rendition of the team’s famous “Who’s on First?” routine. In 1979, Hackett was the voice of the groundhog “Pardon Me Pete,”,and the narrator of the Rankin/Bass Christmas special Jack Frost (1979). He starred in the 1980 film Hey Babe!. That same year, he hosted a syndicated revival of the 1950-61 Groucho Marx quiz show You Bet Your Life which lasted for one year. Throughout the 1970s Hackett appeared regularly in TV ads for Tuscan Dairy popsicles and yogurt. But his most famous television campaign was for Lay’s potato chips (“Nobody can eat just one!”) which ran from 1968–71; Hackett had succeeded Bert Lahr as Lay’s spokesman. He guest-starred in the Space Rangers episode, “To Be Or Not To Be,” as has-been comedian Lenny Hacker, a parody of his stage persona. The character’s name was Hackett’s own real name.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Hackett was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2000, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to him.
In April 1998, Hackett guest starred in an episode of LateLine called “Buddy Hackett.” The episode focused on a news broadcast paying tribute to Hackett following his death, only to discover that the report of his death was a mistake. Robert Reich and Dick Gephardt also appeared in the episode, paying tribute to Hackett.
In his final years, Hackett had a recurring spot called “Tuesdays with Buddy” on The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn in which he shared stories of his career and delivered some of his comedic routines.
On June 12, 1955, Hackett married Sherry Cohen. They lived in Leonia, New Jersey in the late 1950s. In August 1958, they bought the house previously owned by deceased crime boss Albert Anastasia in Fort Lee, New Jersey. After renovations, they moved in and lived there through most of the 1960s. In 2003, Hackett and his wife established the Singita Animal Sanctuary in California’s San Fernando Valley.
He was an avid firearms collector and owned a large collection that he sold off in his later years due to declining health.
Hackett died on June 30, 2003 at his beach house in Malibu, California at the age of 78. His son, comedian Sandy Hackett, said his father had been suffering from diabetes for several years and suffered a stroke nearly a week before his death which may have contributed to his demise. Two days later, on July 2, 2003, he was cremated and his ashes were given to family and friends.