Arguably one of the most prolific comedians of the 20th century, Jack Carter was a super-charged, multi-talented star of stage, screen, television and nightclubs for over six decades, as well as one of the unsung pioneers of early variety television. A gifted mimic and rapid-fire comic, Carter could also sing, dance and play dramatic roles, which led to an astonishingly prolific career in virtually every genre and medium, from the Broadway stage to live television, TV movies and occasional features like "Hustle" (1975) and "Alligator" (1980). He was less well known as the host of his own series, "The Jack Carter Show," which aired on NBC as part of the "Saturday Night Revue" (1950) and was reportedly axed due to conflicts with its follow-up, "Your Show of Shows" (NBC, 1950-54). But if Carter failed to gain the enduring fame of Sid Caesar, he enjoyed a career that not only lasted but continued to improve over the course of 60 years, with appearances on top-rated shows like "Desperate Housewives" (ABC, 2004-2012) in his eighth decade. Carter's extraordinary longevity in the entertainment business was proof positive that talent, versatility and determination earned their own rewards. His death on June 28, 2015 at the age of 93 was mourned by generations of comedy fans.
Born Jack Chakrin in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of New York City on June 24, 1923, Jack Carter became acquainted with the entertainment world through his father's candy store. The Brighton Beach Theater was a regular destination for touring vaudeville acts, and such celebrities of the day as Al Jolson and George Jessel would frequently visit his family's store. As a student at New Utrecht High School, Carter gained a reputation as a natural mimic of famous voices and mannerisms, but actually aspired to become a dramatic actor. He went on to earn a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Art. While performing with a stock company in Long Island, he was introduced to Dinah Shore's manager, who helped him hone his knack for imitations into a stand-up act. At 19, he appeared on and twice won the talent competition on radio's popular Major Bowes' Amateur Hour, which earned him a spot on its roadshow alongside Frank Sinatra, ventriloquist Paul Winchell and singer Robert Merrill. He briefly halted his career to serve in the Army, but returned to touring the country after completing his service. Carter's act soon grew to include more jokes and observations, often delivered in a highly energized and acerbic tone, and frequently penned by veteran comic Morey Amsterdam, who became Carter's mentor and friend for decades.
His tireless performing schedule made him a nightclub and radio veteran while still in his twenties, but it was the relatively new medium of television that proved to be Carter's greatest showcase. As early as 1949, he was hosting a variety series, "Cavalcade of Stars" (DuMont, 1949-1951), which essentially transposed the vaudeville circuit to television. He left the series in 1950, which was hosted briefly by Jerry Lester before Jackie Gleason assumed the mantle, ushering in what would eventually become "The Jackie Gleason Show" (CBS, 1952-1970). Carter then moved to NBC to host "The Saturday Night Revue," a four-and-a-half hour block of variety programming that consisted of his own eponymous, hour-long show, followed by the legendary "Your Show of Shows." According to Carter, "Shows" producer Max Liebman disliked Carter's program, which he felt was too similar to his series, and lobbied to have it dropped from the network. Carter refused to change his format, which allegedly led to his dismissal.
Despite the setback, Carter remained an in-demand performer throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He appeared in countless live dramatic series as an actor, including "Tales of Tomorrow" (ABC, 1951-53) and "Studio One in Hollywood" (CBS, 1948-1958), as well as numerous quiz shows and variety shows, most notably "The Ed Sullivan Show" (CBS, 1948-1971), where he logged over 40 appearances. A capable singer and dancer, he made his Broadway debut opposite Sammy Davis, Jr. in 1956's "Mr. Wonderful," and even recorded his own album of musical numbers, called Broadway a la Jack Carter. And he was a top draw in Las Vegas lounges, where he offered a furious blend of comedy, imitations and songs.
The only medium that seemed to elude Carter was motion pictures. He made his feature debut in the harmless romantic comedy "The Horizontal Lieutenant" (1962), but would mark only sporadic appearances on screen over the next decade. Most notable among these was an uncredited turn as himself in the Elvis Presley-Ann-Margret vehicle "Viva Las Vegas" (1964), which preceded a five-year absence from features until the disastrous 1969 comedy "The Extraordinary Seaman," with David Niven and Mickey Rooney. Television offered him a broader canvas for his talents, and he balanced comic roles with more serious fare that revealed a talent for gritty, streetwise roles like the 1969 thriller "The Lonely Profession" (NBC).
Carter was a ubiquitous presence on television throughout the 1970s, where he divided his time between sitcoms, dramatic series, game shows and the few surviving variety programs. In 1978, he played George Jessel in "Rainbow" (NBC), a biopic of Judy Garland, with whom Carter had performed on numerous occasions. There were also occasional feature turns, again as morally ambiguous figures on the periphery of the crime world in Burt Reynolds' "Hustle" (1975) and Lewis Teague's outrageous monster movie, "Alligator" (1980). The 1990s saw him in numerous low-budget features, often of dubious quality, like 1990's "Satan's Princess" and "Caged Fury." But Carter persevered, and soon found himself an in-demand voiceover actor for animated projects, most notably on "Ren and Stimpy" (Nickelodeon, 1991-96) as the aged cartoon producer, Wilbur Cobb. He was also cast as Arthur Spooner in the pilot for "The King of Queens" (CBS, 1998-2007) after Jerry Stiller initially refused the part. However, Stiller later accepted the role, which eliminated Carter from the popular show.
To the astonishment of many, Carter continued to log numerous television and film appearances in the new millennium, including such top-rated shows as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (CBS, 2000-15), "ER" (NBC, 1994-2009) and "Desperate Housewives." He also found a second home as a guest star on various teen-oriented programs, including recurring appearances on "iCarly" (Nickelodeon, 2007-12) as the blind grandfather to Noah Munck's eccentric, often shirtless Gibby. In 2009, Carter was seriously injured in a car accident that killed his companion, Toni Murray, the widow of fellow comic Jan Murray. Despite having to rely on a walker, the incident appeared to have little impact on his TV appearances, as he guest starred on popular series including "New Girl" (Fox 2011- ), "Parks and Recreation (NBC 2009-15), and "Shameless" (Showtime 2011- ). Jack Carter died of respiratory failure in Beverly Hills, California on June 28, 2015. He was 93 years old.
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Big screen debut in the horror film "The Devil's Daughter."
Hosted the Dumont network variety show "Cavalcade of Stars."
Hosted "The Saturday Night Revue with Jack Carter" on NBC
Appeared as a nightclub comic in Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas."
Appeared in three segments of the comedy anthology "Love American Style."
Appeared as a senator in the sexploitation comedy "The Happy Hooker Goes To Washington."
Performed several voices on cult animated series "Ren & Stimpy."
Interviewed for the comedy documentary "When Jews Were Funny."