Gilbert Gottfried obituary | movies

Those who don’t know Gilbert Gottfried, the comedian and actor who died at the age of 67 from a rare form of muscular dystrophy, would instantly recognize his voice, shrill, shrill and grating. It was the voice of Iago the parrot in the movie Aladdin, or Mr Mxyzptlk, Superman’s trickster nemesis, or Kraang Subprime in the TV series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. If you put a face to the voice, you might remember his desperately devious, corrupt accountant, Sid Bernstein, in Beverly Hills Cop 2.

While Gottfried’s voice made him a family favorite, it also belonged to the character of a tasteless, often profane, stand-up comic. Just 5 feet 5 inches (1.65 meters) tall, with a frail-looking body and a large head that performed with an exaggerated squint, his performance resembled a precocious child’s tantrum: as the audience recoiled at a sensitive joke embodied in was worked out in increasingly flowery language, the voice became louder, more urgent. Then he could pause to deconstruct what he was doing: “That doesn’t make any logical sense,” he would yell, “but it’s a joke!!”

Iago the Parrot, voiced by Gilbert Gottfried, in Aladdin

He achieved his greatest fame as a comedian in the film The Aristocrats (2005), in which comics discussed and performed the eponymous dirty joke they had been telling each other for decades: a detailed description of a family (and their dog) made famous for their depraved vaudeville show -Act auditions for an agent. When they’re done, the agent asks what they call their act, and the father proudly replies, “The Aristocrats.” Gottfried’s storytelling stole the film; in fact, he may have been his inspiration.

In 2001, while appearing at a roast hosted by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, Gottfried made a joke about 9/11 that much of the audience booed, exclaiming, “Too soon.” To recover, he told The Aristocrats and famously won them over. For an R-rated version of the effect, you can listen to his 2012 read Excerpts from the novel Fifty Shades of Gray.

He was born in Brooklyn, where his father Max ran the family hardware store; his mother, Lillian (née Zimmerman), was a homemaker. His older sister Arlene became a successful photographer, but Gilbert got into comedy at an early age, starting at open mic nights when she was 15. He soon learned to aim for the last spot where he could mimic those who had already performed. “Jerry Seinfeld refused to come into the room when I did it to him,” he recalled.

His big break should have come in 1980 when he was hired for Saturday Night Live, but he barely got any action in its 12 episodes. He was Alan Thicke’s sidekick on Thicke of the Night (1983-84) and directed a 1987 special for Cinemax which in 1989 led to him hosting USA Network’s Up All Night for nine years, presenting bad B movies. Beginning in 1994, the show kicked off with the offbeat animated sitcom Duckman, starring Jason Alexander, in which Gottfried had a recurring role.

Gilbert Gottfried, center, in a Saturday Night Live sketch in 1980. The show was supposed to be his big break, but it hardly got used. Photo: NBCUniversal/Getty Images

Another missed breakthrough came in 1988 when he starred in a pilot series called Norman’s Corner, written by Larry David, playing a New York kiosk clerk. The failed series didn’t sell, but the pilot was released as a TV movie. Gottfried later joked that when David went to Seinfeld, the executives said, “Aren’t you the guy who wrote that shit for Gilbert Gottfried?”

Then he hosted the 1991 Emmys, opening with jokes about the arrest of Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman) for masturbating in an adult movie theater (“If masturbation were a crime, I’d be on death row. At 8:14 this morning I was already Al Capone”). It angered Fox so much that the jokes were cut from the program’s eventual West Coast feed.

Gottfried’s credits are a comedy routine in their own right, fitting for someone who was nominated three times for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor in 1990 (as Johnny Crunch in The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Joey the Baby Gym Instructor in Look Who’s Talking Too, and Mr Peabody in Problem). Kind, a role he reprized in his sequel). He had cameos as Hitler in Highway to Hell (1991) and Abraham Lincoln in A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014). He played TV reporter Ron McDonald in two Sharknado films, then Ron’s father Rand in The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time (2018).

But his best, most uncensored work came in roasts, which he performed for his fellow comics, including, memorably, fellow Bad Taste comics Bob Saget, Joan Rivers, Star Trek’s George Takei, and Roseanne Barr, whom he dubbed Rozilla. Insiders knew where he came from. As Tom Bergeron — the host of the game show Hollywood Squares, in which Gottfried provided a memorable sequence when contestants got it wrong six times in a row, Gottfried yelled “You fool!” every time — pointed out, “Never has such a sharp joke gotten along a sweeter source.”

Gottfried wrote a memoir, Rubber Balls and Liquor (2011), but more revealing was the 2017 documentary Gilbert, which chronicles his family life with his wife Dara Kravitz, whom he met at a post-Grammys party in the ’90s and married in 2007.

He is survived by Dara, her children Lily and Max, and a sister, Karen. Arlene died in 2017.

Gilbert Gottfried, comedian and actor, born February 28, 1955; died April 12, 2022

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