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Comic Actor Dick Shawn Dies at 57

April 18, 1987

LA JOLLA, Calif. (AP) _ Comic actor Dick Shawn, who played Hitler in Mel Brooks’ spoof ″The Producers,″ died after collapsing face-down in front of an audience that thought it was just a gag. He was 57.

Shawn, described by Bob Hope as ″one of my favorite buffoons,″ was stricken in front of 500 to 600 people after delivering a punchline during a stand-up routine Friday night, witnesses said.

He died about 45 minutes after arrival by ambulance at Scripps Memorial Hospital, said hospital spokeswoman Diane Yohe.

″They’re assuming he had a heart attack,″ she said.

Ken Leighton, a reporter for the Times-Advocate of Escondido, said Shawn lay on stage for several minutes before the actor’s son, Adam, watching from a balcony, called for help. A doctor rushed to the stage and administered cardiac massage.

″People thought it was a joke. They thought it was part of the act,″ said Leighton. ″Finally, after the doctor started beating his chest ... the reaction of the audience was amazement and shock.″

Shawn had earlier promised a few unrehearsed surprises during the performance at the University of California at San Diego, Leighton said.

Shawn’s films included ″It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World″ in 1963 and ″The Producers″ in 1968, in which he played a hippie actor with the initials LSD who portrays Adolf Hitler in a Broadway musical.

″He was gentle. He was funny. He was one of the greatest improvisers and ad-lib men. He was so original,″ said Milton Berle, a close friend.

Hope, reacting to Shawn’s death, described him as ″one of my favorite buffoons.″

″He was a delight to the audiences. He was so crazy and nutty and funny,″ Hope said. ″I lose a good friend and the world loses a very good comic brain.″

″There was no comedian that I know that didn’t have respect for Dick Shawn,″ said comedian Carl Reiner. ″Usually, a comedian will say ‘I don’t like him,’ ‘I don’t like him.’ But just mention Dick Shawn to any group of comedians and they’ll say, ’He had it - he was it.‴

In ″The Producers,″ characters played by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder devise a get-rich scheme that calls for them to put on a flop musical titled ″Springtime For Hitler″ and then run off with their backers’ money. But Shawn’s hilarious portrayal of a hip, blues-singing Hitler makes the play a hit. ″The Producers″ won Brooks an Oscar for best screenplay.

Shawn’s movies also included ″Love at First Bite″ in 1979, ″Wake Me When It’s Over″ in 1960, ″A Very Special Favor″ in 1965 and ″What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?″ in 1966.

He appears in ″Maid to Order,″ a movie starring Ally Sheedy scheduled for release this summer.

On Broadway, he was in ″The Egg″ and ″A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.″ He also appeared on TV series, including ″St. Elsewhere.″

Shawn scored a hit in 1985 with his one-man show, ″The Second Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World,″ in Beverly Hills. He played roles ranging from a down-at-the-heels comic to a Las Vegas star doing everything from tap dancing to ″Othello.″

″I’ve always been hard to classify,″ Shawn told The Associated Press in an October 1985 interview. ″I don’t do mother-in-law or ugly girl jokes. In fact, I hardly tell jokes at all. I just stick to my own point of view instead of fitting into any formula.″

Shawn was born Richard Schulefand in Buffalo, N.Y., and grew up in nearby Lackawanna, which he once called the ″organic source″ of his idiosyncratic comedy style.

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