Greek-American Charlie Callas: A Comedic Force of Nature

The National Herald Archive

Source: YouTube

Without question Charlie Callas remains one of the most renowned and celebrated Greek-American comedians of all time. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s Callas seemed to be performing his elastic sense of humor, everywhere all at once. It proved to be a nearly endless cycle of touring the country performing in one club after another to television appearances to motion pictures and then back again. You can still see Callas' brand of frenetic comedy in movies, DVDs of classic American television programs and YouTube.

Today, published accounts on Callas speak of his 'antics' and his seemingly nearly uncontrollable physical humor. But more was at work with a man whose gifts extended beyond simple humor to music and even a type of kinetic humor that verged on a form of Americanized mime. While Callas has never been forgotten by the Greek-American community his true place in the American comedic traditions needs reexamination.

Born Charles Callias on December 20, 1924 in Brooklyn, New York, he was the son of a Greek father and German mother. Curiously little of Callias early life and experiences are reported upon. Two moments in his early life are always noted. First that he served in the United States Army during World War II and that he loved music. Such was Callias' energy and talent that after World War II he became a professional drummer. Callias played with some of the foremost musicians of the era such band leaders as Bernie Cummins, Tommy Dorsey, Claude Thornhill, and Buddy Rich. Far from a passing fancy Callias was not only a recognized musician of considerable talent. Reference volumes and historical accounts of American music in the post-War period in jazz, big band, and popular orchestras frequently cite Callias' presence and participation. For Callas the late 1940s and 1950s proved a period of sustained musical success and transition.

Callias didn't seem able to take his unquestionable success as a musician seriously. All available sources report that Callias was always clowning around and would drive the band members crazy on the bus as they traveled. Professional performers, all his band mates soon began to urge Callias to become a professional comedian. Callias, ever the natural comic, eventually gave up drumming to try his hand at comedy. He dropped a vowel from his legal name, Callias, when he took to the stage in his first television appearance in 1963 on the Hollywood Palace variety show. For the next four decades Callas was literally all over the entertainment scene in North America.

Tracking Callas' career after this point is for all intents nearly impossible. No performance venue was beyond his considerable talents. While I will more or less 'block' Callas' venues by the categories of television, motion pictures, and clubs/casino reviews – the truth of the matter is this man was all over the place all the time.

In terms of television it is no exaggeration to report that Charlie Callas was an inordinately frequent performer on most of the variety talk shows on television from 1960s into the 1980s such as Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Merv Griffin, The Andy Williams Show, The Jimmy Dean Show, The ABC Comedy Hour, the Des O'Connor Variety Show, Bobbie Vinton Show, The Flip Wilson Show, and he even co-hosted The Joey Bishop Show. Other guest spots followed on many programs including, but most certainly not limited to, The Monkees, American Style, The Munsters, The Brady Bunch, and The Love Boat.

From 1975 through 1978, Callas co-starred with Robert Wagner and Eddie Albert on the series, Switch in his role as Malcolm Argos, the restaurant owner and former con man. Callas' character used different disguises in most shows, proving his innate versatility.

As a comedian of his standing and popularity it is not surprising to learn that Charles Callas appeared over 50 times on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Callas remained a popular favorite of Carson's until September 21, 1982. On this occasion Callas' free association and improvising were simply not funny. “With Mr. Callas bombing, Carson made a whistling-buzzing sound – as if tracing a bomb's trajectory. In comic desperation, Mr. Callas leaned over and shoved Carson (who subsequently fell out of his chair). Carson, almost always amiable on air, was so annoyed that on the spot, in front of his television audience, he told Mr. Callas he would never appear on the show again. Carson kept his word.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette January 29, 2011)

Among Callas' very last television appearances were on Larry The Cable Guy's Christmas Spectacular (2007) and Larry The Cable Guy's Star-Studded Christmas Extravaganza (2008) where he delighted audiences with his trademark antics and exceptional comedic talents.

Callas' appearance in motion pictures began with his antics on television. In 1967, Callas was appearing as a guest on The Merv Griffin Show. Jerry Lewis, (another one of Merv's guests), was so taken by Callas' hysterics he told Merv that he had to use Charlie in his upcoming film, The Big Mouth (1967). Without detracting from Callas' performance as the manic character of Rex in Lewis' film, it is also the case that he is undoubtedly most remembered for his various Mel Brooks films such as Silent Movie (1976), High Anxiety (1977), History of the World: Part I (1981), and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995). Let me quickly note that Callas appeared as a character actor in other films as well. Callas also received considerable renown for his voice work as Elliott the dragon in Disney's live-action/animated musical film, Pete's Dragon (1977).

No single account could ever present a true chronological listing of the night clubs, dinner theaters, and casino showrooms in which Callas performed. Without question Callas had a rapid-fire humor that tantalized audiences in nightclubs from coast to coast. Among his nightly appearances was a one-year tour of major engagements with Frank Sinatra, including the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles. Callas also appeared at the Hilton Hotels, Caesar's Palace, The Sands Hotel, Flamingo Hilton, Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas; Harrah's Clubs in Reno and Lake Tahoe; Cal-Neva Lodge; Lake Geneva Playboy Club, Resorts International, the Playboy Club (in Detroit and elsewhere), Claridge Hotel and Park Place.

It is said that beginning certainly by the late 1950s, Callas' brand of stand-up comedy backed top performers in Los Vegas (and elsewhere) including Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Tom Jones, and Frank Sinatra; he later became especially identifiable for his frequent appearances on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts. Callas' touring association with these specific performers has led to the question of whether or not he is the 'missing' Rat Pack member. Mark Callas, one of Callas' two sons, has said his father without question knew and performed with every member of the Rat Pack.

For those readers too young to know, the Rat Pack consisted of a group of actors/performers that included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford. Whether or not Charles Callas was an official member of this unofficial group of individuals, without question he and persons such as Don Rickles were, by the 1960s, part of the overall fun. For those who wish to see Charlie Callas perform at the height of his powers, you need only view any of his appearances on the Dean Martin Roasts. YouTube clips and DVD re-releases of the Roasts are readily available.

Whatever the performance venue, Callas' incredible abilities as a physical comedian cannot be over stated. While his stand up routines were frequently punctuated with sudden outbursts of odd sounds and incredibly dynamic jolts of sudden movement, his speechless performances, most famously as a fly or as an ostrich, were legendary not simply for their comedic flair but also for his incredible accuracy as to his ability to so closely mimic their actual physicality.

Charles Callas died on January 27, 2011, in Las Vegas. One of the most telling memories of this man I have found was recalled by longtime friend Mel Brooks: “Charlie Callas was a cast of thousands all by himself. He could do a thousand faces, a thousand voices, and a thousand sound effects. In High Anxiety, he played a cocker spaniel. He cost me a lot of money – it was almost impossible to finish a scene without the whole crew collapsing in laughter. The world of comedy will miss him very much.” (Los Angeles Times January 29, 2011).