Charlie Callas, comedian and rubber-faced regular in many of Mel Brooks’ films, has died of natural causes. He was 83.
Callas began his career as a big band drummer working with the likes of Tommy Dorsey and Buddy Rich, then brought that naturally loose-limbed physicality to a stand-up career based on Callas' knack for zany expressions, sound effects, and rapid-fire patter. In addition to touring with Frank Sinatra, Callas was a constant presence on seemingly every variety and talk show of the ‘50s and ’60s, from Ed Sullivan’s to Jackie Gleason’s to Flip Wilson's, and appeared regularly on The Andy Williams Show in the superhero parody “Captain Weird.” In 1965, Callas performed a version of his classic “hunting routine” on The Merv Griffin Show that left fellow guest Jerry Lewis in hysterics, and prompted him to cast Callas in 1967’s The Big Mouth, thereby launching Callas’ film career.
Johnny Carson was also a big fan of Callas, bringing him on The Tonight Show approximately 50 times until their working relationship famously ended abruptly on Sept. 21, 1982: When Callas’ routine that night didn’t go over well, Carson emitted a low whistling “bomb” sound, prompting a desperate Callas to give Carson a shove just to get a laugh. Carson, unamused, told Callas right there on the spot that he would never appear on the show again, and he never did. Here's Callas in happier Tonight Show times, spoofing The Godfather.
Of course, getting banned from The Tonight Show didn’t kill Callas’ career, particularly since he had Mel Brooks in his corner. Callas had bit parts in the director’s Silent Movie, High Anxiety, History Of The World: Part I (as the soothsayer), and Dracula: Dead And Loving It. That also carried over to several Brooks-esque spoofs like Hysterical and Amazon Women On The Moon, in which Callas appeared as himself, performing the same sort of shtick he did regularly as part of Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roasts—most notably, his memorable appearance from 1973 when he gave a mock eulogy for guest of honor Don Rickles.
Speaking of the Celebrity Roasts, here’s another clip from when Callas famously took on his former tourmate Sinatra, playing his “former bodyguard, Carlo Cappucino.”
In 1975, Callas took on a rare dramatic role on TV’s Switch, playing con man turned restaurateur Malcolm Argos opposite Robert Wagner and Eddie Albert. Although it was his only recurring series, Callas' many other TV appearances included cameos on shows like The Munsters, The Monkees, The Love Boat, L.A. Law, Cagney And Lacey, and a voiceover on Ren & Stimpy—oddly, one of his few animated roles, despite both Callas’ seeming natural flair for the stuff and what may be his most famous role (for a certain generation, anyway), that of the titular dragon in Disney’s Pete’s Dragon.
Callas was most recently seen on TV in guest appearances on two Larry The Cable Guy specials, while his last completed film role was the upcoming horror spoof Horrorween—also the last film by Dom DeLuise, with whom Callas had performed many times. He remained a staple of the Las Vegas scene until his death.