|"I hold the record
for being the world's youngest has-been"
- Sammy Petrillo
|Illustrations by Ward Sutton|
Out of all the Jerry Lewis impersonators that roam the earth, Sammy Petrillo is the best. He's the only Jerry Lewis impersonator that matters. You don't have to convince the fans of the motion picture, Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla (1952). They know the score.
Sammy Petrillo is a never-aging phenomenon. Even as young, wacky Jerry morphed into his King of Percodan-Jerry's Kids-Day the Clown Cried-Uberschnook, Sammy Petrillo has miraculously remained in early, funny Jerry mode.
Rubber faced Petrillo came from a show business family. His mother was a double for Alice Faye and his father knocked himself out on the vaudeville circuit. With Vitamin Showbiz coursing through the kid's veins, Sammy flung himself into the world of nightclubs and fast times. For a couple of swanky, neon years the kid bathed in a surreal Nutty Professor-like haze of appreciation. The success intoxicated the young Petrillo and his partner Duke Mitchell as they soared to new heights in the entertainment field.
Being the Jerry Lewis doppleganger wasn't Sammy's sole trick. He found time for other movie roles including a couple of Doris Wishman nudies, Shangri-La (1961, photographed by Weegee) and Keyholes Are Made for Peeping (1972). He also released a mondo prank call record My Son The Phone Caller years before the Jerky Boys were even born. In time, Sammy appeared on and produced various cable TV shows and put together a new act with a gal named Suzie and called it Sammy & Suzie.
I last spoke with Sammy back in 1992 when he consented to an interview on Music To Spazz By. He has since slipped into the cracks of the S.B.M.I.A. (Show Biz Missing In Action). A horror convention here. An infomercial there. Fans of entertainment know that Sammy Rules and that He Will Return. Maybe when Ted Danson and Jim Carey do the remake of Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla, Sammy will at least get a supporting role.
I grew up in the Bronx. I lived in a project at 143rd Street and Morris Avenue. One day I went down to the Annex at the High School of Performing Arts. The Annex was a trade school and they had people who were learning how to cut hair. And so I got a freebie haircut and the guy cut my hair and he started to laugh. And I said, "Whatta ya aughing at?" and he said "You look just like that guy, Jerry Lewis!" And I said "Get outta here!" And everywhere I walked, people laughed and asked me if I was Jerry Lewis, it was unbelievable. And Jerry Lewis at the time, I guess, had made his second motion picture My Friend Irma Goes West. I really didn't know that much about him. I kinda caught some glimpses of the movie and I saw he went "Ock! Ock! Ock!" And he talked kinda high like this you know. And I said "Gee, maybe I DO resemble that guy and I can do that kind of a laugh, I could do that kind of a voice..."
Breaking InSo I went down and called The Variety from a candy store, and I asked them where Milton Berle rehearsed. And they said "He rehearses over at Nova Studios." So I went down to Nova and I told the security guys that I was Milton Berle's cousin and they gave me clearance to get on the set. Berle was rehearsing there with a whistle and a towel around his neck; he had a bunch of great writers there. I ran over to Berle and jumped right in his arms. And I started throwing lines at him. And every line that I threw at Berle, his comedy writers broke up, I mean they screamed. And every time he threw a line back at me they clammed up. They did it to put Berle on. So Berle says, "Jeez, you look a lot like Jerry Lewis," and I said "I know, know, and maybe that can help me get into show business." Berle sent me and his agent, Herb Jaffee, in a cab over to Sherry Nevlim's hotel where Jerry Lewis was staying. Jerry was in the bathroom in his shorts shaving. And so help me, he almost cut his throat when he saw me! I came in and sat down on the toilet seat and he did a double take and that razor almost went through his neck! He couldn't believe it! He said, "Where'd they get this guy?" Jerry said a couple of derogatory things to me which I really don't want to get into. He's a little paranoid. He said something to the effect of, "Don't sign any checks and tell people you're Jerry Lewis!" He wasn't being funny. He was being serious. Strange. Anyway, they said, "OK, we want you for the Colgate Comedy Hour." And I went on that show - it was my first national show and I got paid about $60 for that. We rehearsed for about a week over at the Mayflower Catering Hall on West 43rd Street. That's how I played Jerry's baby in a crib on the Colgate Comedy Hour. That was the way I got into show business.
The Left Coast
I went out to the coast when I was doing a team with this guy George DeWitt. He was the MC of a show called Name That Tune. I used to come out in the beginning looking like Jerry and then I went into my own stuff. Because I looked so much like the guy, I had to do him. I looked like him no matter what I did. Like Duke Mitchell used to say (may he rest in peace), "You could hit Sammy with a truck and he still looks like Jerry!" And that's exactly the way it was. See, in comedy you can only do so many takes, so many looks, cross your eyes, there are only so many physical things you can do. The difference between myself and other comics was that whenever I did them, I looked like Jerry anyway. People figured I was doing Jerry even if I wasn't. If I was doing the so-called norm that a comic could do, a double take, cross his eyes, I came out looking like Jerry. George would come out and do a Dean Martin thing and I would come out like Jerry and everybody would freak out and then we would do our own stuff. I did other impressions which covered up for doing Jerry. I looked like other people too! I also had a resemblance to Johnny Ray and later on I had a great resemblance to the Kennedys. People used to think that I really looked like Robert Kennedy! So I would do impressions of different people where I would look somewhat like them.
A Couple of Joes
I met Joe Besser when Duke and I were scheduled to go on the Abbott & Costello Comedy Hour, and something happened with NBC and with Jerry Lewis and we were off the show, but Lou paid us anyway. Lou was a friend of mine, may he rest in peace. I used to run into Joe Besser at this little deli in Ventura Valley and he was a great, great comic, one of the best. Joe E. Ross was a great guy also. I met Joe E. in California when I was broke and Joe E. took me under his wing. I lived at his apartment with him and a fellow named Al Cook who was in the siding business. And Joe E. used to take care of me and give me some money so I could buy some food. Joe E. got me a job at a little place called the Atoto House. It was a little place that he used to call a "pusbag." It's a disgusting expression but a lot of comics used to say that. "I'm working in a real pusbag, you know?" He said, "I gotcha this job, kid, and I know yer gonna be great in it! Heh, heh heh heh!" So he got me this job and I made $65 a week at that time. Then his friend Al Cook said,"I know this fella Duke Mitchell and you guys would be great together blah blah blah" so he introduced me to Duke Mitchell (who was also getting $65 a week) and that's where we started out as a team.
You know, we didn't always do the same Martin & Lewis schtick. Sometimes we'd throw the crowd off. We'd say, "And now ladies and gentlemen, the impression you've all been waiting for - Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis" and we'd turn around and I'd say, "Whatcha doin' there, Jer-boy?" and he'd say "Nyaahhhh It's nice ta be here!"
That was in Santa Monica. That was the number one TV show in California. Spade Cooley didn't do comedy like Milton Berle but he was the Milton Berle of Western Swing. He was very nice to me and Duke. We did forty minutes on his show! It was unbelievable! We went out to do our act and got lost - we never did a thing like this in our lives. We were really a little freaky. We were supposed to have a small spot - this was an hour show. And when we got through, Spade Cooley cursed us up and down and hated our guts and screamed and said, "I never saw anything like this in my life!" I didn't blame him for being upset. A few weeks later we played a place called Larry Potter's Supper Club. Spade Cooley showed up and apologized and said that he picked up a lot of sponsors because of that show!
Ramona, Desi & Bela
Ramona the Chimp was really Cheetah the Monkey. It was THE Cheetah at the time of the Tarzan fame. I guess they had a lot of Cheetahs. This was the current Cheetah and it actually was a boy. And we named the monkey Ramona because we wanted a girl monkey in Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla to fall in love with me.
One time I was walking in the lot. It was General Service Studios where a lot of big shows were being done at that time - Burns & Allen and Lucy & Desi. I was walking with Ramona the Chimp, whom had almost bitten me during the making of the movie. The trainer suggested, "Why don't you take the chimp out for an ice cream cone and maybe you'll get closer?" I bought this chimpanzee an ice cream cone and we're walking through the lot and all of a sudden I hear this laugh "Eh, eh eh eh eh eh" and then I hear a guy say "Deez ez thee funniest theng I've ever seen!" and I turn around and its Desi Arnaz and he says,"You must come here to meet my wife Lucy! She must see this!" And Lucy saw us and fell down laughing!
I had a wonderful time working on that film. It was a thrill for a young kid from the Bronx. Did you know that Duke and I were one of the first teams that worked in jeans? We worked in Levis outfits at times. People wouldn't do that in the fifties. Also, if you look closely in the movie you'll see that I was wearing those pointy "Beatles" boots ten years before the Beatles!
Bela Lugosi was great. He was grandfatherly and warm and very good to Duke and me. He was a beautiful man. They talk about the dope thing and I never saw or had any inkling of any such thing when I worked with him. He was a very quiet, dignified man. He used to sit and read this Hungarian newspaper and smoke a little stogie.
Duke's dead now, may he rest in peace. A lot of people don't know that we went beyond the Martin & Lewis breakup. When Martin & Lewis broke up, we were offered a TV series of 52 episodes. We turned it down. I don't know why we did that - we must've been real jerks. We thought we were flying high anyway. We then found that Dean Martin was behind that offer. He was really great. I remember when we did the Colgate Comedy Hour, Dean was very fast, very funny - a real ad lib comic. At that time he was known as the straight man so the people didn't know how funny he really was. I used to say, "Yeah this guy is really fast and funny" and people would say, "You're just saying that because you look like Jerry and you're having problems!"
My Son the Phone Caller
They were real calls. It was like Candid Camera on record. I'd call them and get them in bizarre situations. It really was a study in human nature. I called this maternity hospital and told them that I had this eight foot gorilla that was about to give birth. They told me how to deliver a baby gorilla over the phone. The nurses would tell me "Tie the cord" and I'd yell "Quick, tie the cord!" like I was speaking to somebody else. And they'd say "Don't tie it too tight!" and I'd scream "Not too tight!" It was wild.
I did a show that was modestly titled the Sammy Petrillo Show. Tiny Tim was the guest star. Then I did a kiddie show called "Uncle Sammy." I produced and directed a couple of infomercials with Al "Grampa" Lewis for a law firm. I was also on the Steve Allen Show. Steve is a genius and a very nice man. Don Knotts was there. He played a "nervous" comic at the time. Diana Dors was on the show. I don't remember what I did, but I'm sure that it was a Jerry Lewis type of thing.
A lot of people are doing jobs that they're not really happy doing. But it's nice to dream - its nice to do what you can do, when you can do it, for some kind of fulfillment. Just living and being able to pay your bills and being able to eat - that's a form of success in itself. People who strive to do show biz but still do regular type jobs and they have to do show business on the side, there still is a fulfillment in that. There's an old saying and I believe in it - "Each show that you do is a success within itself." Whether you perform for a hundred thousand people or for two people - to make them happy and to be able to lift them into another world momentarily - that's a form of success.
Dave the Spazz is heard on WFMU Thursday nights, 8-11 pm and is currently authoring Nipsy Russel's biography.
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