Monday, January 11, 2010
MY BOSS, SAMMY PETRILLO
Once you've been in 'the industry' long enough, when you watch the Oscars, you pay particular attention to the 'in memoriam' section, to make sure that no one who you liked, who died, was slighted. Well, I don't expect that Sammy Petrillo will be featured, and considering how brief his film career was, I can't really complain. I think Sammy would have been astonished to see the huge obit in the New York Times.
Sammy made his one truly memorable movie when he was a teenager, costarring with his straight-man partner Duke Mitchell in 1952's Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, a pretend Martin and Lewis comedy, and Sammy didn't merely imitate Jerry Lewis, he channeled him.
I met Sammy in the mid 1970s, when I was a film major at NYU, writing for Cold Duck, an NYU literary magazine. I was interviewing the cast of the Capital Burlesque Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey -- and irony of ironies, a night club in Passaic was the fictional locale where Duke and Sammy worked in Brooklyn Gorilla. This was a real throw-back burlesque show, with a full orchestra, dancing chorus, several comics, straight-men, and three strippers who never peeled past a g-string and pasties. Sammy still looked a lot like Jerry, although he looked much more like the Jerry of the Martin and Lewis days than the more mature version. Sammy and I hit it off, and I was surprised and delighted when he called me a few days later, and offered me a job as a general assistant on the four radio shows he was producing on WBHI, a station so high up on the FM dial that only dogs could hear it.
My main duty, he told me, would be apologizing for him. "Henry, I noticed when you were doing your interviews, you got along with everyone. I don't. I rub people the wrong way, I insult them without meaning to or knowing I've done it. I need someone who can call people up and say, 'Sammy's a nice guy, and he didn't mean that the way it sounded.'" Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity to smooth ruffled feathers for $75 a week.
The more I got to know Sammy, the more I liked him, and the more I found it strange that he needed me to apologize to people -- I found him tactful and thoughtful. We worked out of the theatre, and I remember one time, backstage, I'd gone out and gotten a cup of tea for one of the elderly comics in the show who had a sore throat, and we almost came to blows over him wanting me to keep the change. Sammy stepped in. "Keep the twenty cents, Eddie! Henry got you the tea because he's your friend. If he keeps the twenty cents he's not your friend -- he's a kid running an errand." I don't think either Eddie or I had any idea what we were fighting about until Sammy explained it.
This was very small-time radio, and Sammy would buy time from the station, then sell it to other people to do their shows. So one of my other duties would be to stand in the doorway with my hand out, moments before show time, and say, "Your check bounced. I need $125 in cash, or they broadcast dead air for the next hour." One of the strangest shows Sammy produced was the Jerome Mackey - Protect Yourself Program, the first and possibly the only time anyone tried to teach martial arts on radio. The host of the show was a charming black belt from the deep south, who towered over me. He'd grin, and drawl, "Oh pu-lease, Henry, don't y'all beat me up! I'll git yo're money somehow!" I was very lucky that he had a sense of humor. Sammy and his girlfriend hosted one of the radio shows, called Out To Lunch, and I would occasionally be interviewed on the show myself -- and if guests didn't show up on time, I'd be interviewed impersonating whoever was supposed to be there.
Sammy was a wonderful story-teller, and loved to talk about making the movie, and working with Bela Lugosi. "Every day I'd come to the set, and Bela would say, 'Good morning Jerry.' It was our little joke. But after a while I started to realize that he wasn't kidding, that he thought I really was Jerry Lewis, and he was in a Martin and Lewis movie. He never learned to understand English well enough, and people took advantage of him."
"You notice Duke doesn't have a lot of close-ups in the film. He tried to play the big star in front of the crew, and they weren't impressed -- they'd worked on big movies. So they shot his close-ups just a little out of focus, so they couldn't use 'em."
Sammy had me tracking down 16mm prints of Brooklyn Gorilla and other Lugosi films, with the idea of doing a college tour talking about Bela. I never thought there was enough of an audience to warrant it.
Eventually the burlesque show closed, Sammy left town, and my job was over. Around 1979 or 1980,I'd had a movie made, and moved to Los Angeles. I was reading Variety, and spotted Sammy's name in an article about his management of a film distribution company. When I called him and identified myself, his first words were, "How much money do I owe you?"
"Not a dime."
"You're kidding! I'll buy you lunch!" We went to the Farmer's Market, where we had a nice Italian meal served to us by Dean Martin's aunt! While Jerry Lewis, who'd hired the very young Sammy to play his son on a TV sketch, felt threatened, and made life difficult for Duke and Sammy, Dean Martin had been a pal, and quietly got their act several bookings.
The film distribution company went under a little while later, and I never saw Sammy again. A few years passed, then I got an urgent call from my friend Karl Tiedemann, a writer on the David Letterman Show, who was desperate to get in touch with Sammy. That morning, Jerry Lewis had been on the Today Show, plugging something, and the lead-in was a series of clips from the black & white days, including a walk-on on the old Jack Benny Show. When they started the interview, Jerry was a mass of twitches. "That last clip was not me. That was a comedian named Sammy Petrillo, who I eventually had to sue to keep from imitating me." Jerry was going to be guesting on Letterman that very night, and they wanted to have Sammy Petrillo do a surprise walk-on in the middle of the interview. I tracked Sammy down to The Nut House in Pittsburgh, a comedy club he managed and often performed at. It was a great idea, but they couldn't talk Sammy into it: he was too bitter about Jerry to ever want to be on-stage with him again. I couldn't blame him, but I was disappointed. It would have been the biggest break Sammy'd had in forty years.