Dick Shawn is one of those people that may have been the funniest person in a movie you just saw on late-night television, but might not have known who he was. Each character he played was so very different.
Shawn was a comedian who did stand-up, Broadway musicals, and like most of his counterparts, Hollywood movies. One of his best is The Producers (1968). The movie is already pretty hilarious, with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as two Broadway musical producers desperate for a flop so that they can take their investors’ money and run, before he shows up about halfway through. But when Shawn, as singer/dancer L.S.D., auditions for the part of Adolph Hitler in their guaranteed sure-fire-miss musical Springtime for Hitler, he steals the movie, singing the song, “Love Power.” Pure genius.
The miscast L.S.D. does everything wrong and it all turns out so very right, for him and Springtime for Hitler’s audience. His exaggerated hippie mannerisms paired with a Hitler mustache are unforgettable. Did Dick Shawn invent the “gimmee five?” According to imdb, it’s very possible:
“[Shawn] was supposedly the first person to execute the icon “The High Five”, in the movie, The Producers. It was during the play in the movie, Springtime For Hitler, the character of Hitler played by Shawn sent for Goebbels who was played by David Patch, and instead of putting his hand in front of for the “give me five”, Shawn held it up and Patch slapped it. Though it would not become popular till many years later.”
Shawn’s just one of many in the huge ensemble cast of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but again he managed to leave a lasting impression. He plays beach bum Sylvester, who usually only has surfing and bikinis and dancing on his tiny mind. But Sylvester also loves his Momma, played in stentorian fashion by Ethel Merman, and when she issues a cry for help he runs to her rescue and keeps running, full-tilt, in red bathing trunks and a pompadour, through the rest of the movie. Shawn manages to be pathetic, frightening and above all, funny. And that’s saying a lot with the cream of sixties comedy to go up against—Buddy Hackett, Phil Silvers, Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters and many more. It’s a crazy, wonderful film and keeps you laughing until the end credits.
Shawn didn’t even have to physically appear in a program to be memorable. Who can forget his distinctive vocal turn as the stop-motion villain Snow Miser in The Year Without a Santa Claus?. Luckily that almost-forgotten-from-my-childhood favorite is now on heavy rotation around the holidays, so everyone can enjoy his show-stopping number that begins “I’m Mister White Christmas …”
Whether Dick Shawn appeared in brightly-colored sixties comedies like The Producers or the tons of sitcom guest spots he did in the seventies and eighties, his many characters did share one trait—they were always larger-than life, in some cases downright crazy. And always very entertaining. The three appearances I’ve highlighted here are, I think, not only his best, but a great selection of what the man could do and how funny he was.
He was the coolest, baby.
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