Sunday, March 13, 2011

An Interview with Steve Rossi - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm working on an article right now about Joe E. Ross. I know you had a very short time with him as a comedy team.

Steve Rossi: Yes, we worked together for about ten months and shortly after, I believe, he passed away.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you first meet him?

Steve Rossi: I met him many years ago, I would say, in the late fifties in New York at the Stage Deli and the Carnegie - the typical hang-outs. There was a drugstore we used hang out at in those days; Hansen's it was called. Hansen's Drugstore was sort of a celebrity hang-out along with the deli's there and Jack Dempsey's where they had a roundtable for all the name comics at that time. So we were friends and then in those days he was working with Nat Hiken on the Bilko series. He was a character on the Bilko series and then later on he did Car 54 and a couple other shows. So it was Joe E. Ross and Steve Rossi and we did a couple of Ed Sullivan shows. We headlined in Vegas and the Holiday House in Pittsburgh and the Latin Quarter in New York. We did quite a few dates together. We did The Mike Douglas Show and Merv Griffin because [Ross] was quite popular from his own shows at that time and he was very funny.

Kliph Nesteroff: How was it that you two came to form a comedy team?

Steve Rossi: He was living in Hollywood and I had gone in for some meetings at the studio. I was doing some recordings at that time on Reprise Records which was Frank Sinatra's label. In fact, I was the one that got Nancy Sinatra signed to the label and picked out her first hit song; These Boots Are Made For Walking, after listening to a bunch of demos. Strangely enough, she didn't want to do the song. She said that she thought it stunk - and it went to number one. But I loved the feel of the song and that's why I told her she should record it. Then I told Frank. I said, "She needs a record contract." So he signed her to the label and I believe Neal Hefti was the head of A&R at that time at Reprise Records. A dear friend of mine, he passed away about three years ago.

Kliph Nesteroff: I believe her arranger on that song was Billy Strange.

Steve Rossi: Billy Strange and Lee Hazlewood wrote the song. That same year or a year later, Marty Allen and I had a motion picture contract with Paramount where Sinatra was doing a movie at the time, I believe it was called Assault on a Queen. He asked if I could get Nancy Sinatra into our movie called Last of the Secret Agents with Telly Savalas and Ed Sullivan. Marty and I starred in the film. I said, "Let me see what I can do," and I spoke to the producer and the director and they made her the lead with us. It was Allen & Rossi and Nancy Sinatra. Of course, she had already done a couple of movies with Elvis and one of the beach party movies I think.

Kliph Nesteroff: She did a beach party movie called For Those Who Think Young. The comedian who starred in For Those Who Think Young was Woody Woodbury, who is a friend of mine.

Steve Rossi: Oh, right! Yeah, he started his career - well, most of his career was spent in Florida. He had his own club there. But Joe E. when I met him there at Du-par's on Ventura Blvd, where a lot of showbiz people hung out, and also at Jerry's Deli - we met two or three times and somebody came up to us, I think it was Phil Foster. He [would do] a TV series ... trying to remember... two gals were headlining the series... something and Lorraine.

Kliph Nesteroff: Laverne and Shirley.

Steve Rossi: Laverne and Shirley, yeah. Cindy Williams I spoke to a couple of times in the past year. I'm talking to Penny Marshall. I'm working on a movie deal of my own script called The Wedding of the Year. I'm going to call her - if it goes through - and it looks pretty good right now - I'm gonna call her and see if she'd be interested in directing it. She's a very good comedy director. But more about Joe E. is - his life centered around dating strippers. He was very likable and he had a catchphrase, "Ooh! Ooh!" So he'd come out and say "Ooh! Ooh!" when we'd go into different routines and he was a pretty good ad-libber as well. I wrote some new material that we did together, besides some of the stuff I did with a couple other comics. For a while I worked with Slappy White as the first black and white [comedy team]. So, I've got quite a history behind me and for the past five years I've been doing stand-up at the Improv and the Comic Strip and co-starring with Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell at the Sun Coast and some concert dates with them. I also write all the material for Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell's act. Also Rich Little, I'm directing his new Broadway show. So I'm keeping pretty busy for an old guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you and Marty broke up, your formation with Joe E. Ross seemed to come together pretty fast. 

Steve Rossi: Yeah, it did. I had met him just before we broke up and Phil Foster saw us there at Jerry's Deli and said, "Why don't you guys get together? You've got a lot of the appearance of Allen and Rossi." He said, "Ooo! Ooo! That's a good idea." We were in Hollywood at the time. I would go from "Hello Dere" to "Ooh! Ooh!" Boy, that's a big stretch (laughs). He did a little monologue in the act and he got pretty good laughs. The show was clean. I always worked clean. Including with Slappy. Now that I'm working solo and doing stand-up, I don't say any four letter words but I do do some double entendre. Stuff that is acceptable for nightclubs today.

Kliph Nesteroff: You and Joe E. appeared on Ed Sullivan pretty quick after forming.

Steve Rossi: Yes. Well, Ed was a dear friend of mine. When I told him about Joe E. and me he said, "Why don't you guys come on my show and I'll be the first person to present you as a new team."

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you remember anything about that appearance?

Steve Rossi: I think, as I recall, we got pretty good laughs, but Joe E.'s timing was off because he was very nervous. He sorta hesitated on a couple of punchlines, so it wasn't the best performance I've ever had on the Sullivan show. But we did get respectable laughs and the people did like him. That's about all I remember about it. Then we did Mike Douglas, I think, shortly after.

Kliph Nesteroff: On the same episode it was you, Joe E. Ross, Stevie Wonder and Norm Crosby.

Steve Rossi: Yeah. In fact, I'm going to see Norm Crosby next weekend at the Orleans. He's headlining there. He's terrific and funnier than ever. Hilarious. He's not playing so much on the words et cetera - he's really doing more jokes kind of thing rather than malapropisms. He's getting a laugh every twenty seconds, it's pretty damn good and his memory is pretty damn good. He's in his eighties. I'm putting a show together called the Legends of Comedy with Norm Crosby, Pat Cooper, myself and maybe David Brenner.

Kliph Nesteroff: I spoke with Norm Crosby two months ago. I spoke with Pat Cooper yesterday.

Steve Rossi: Oh, really? Atlantic City, a couple hotels in Atlantic City proposed that combination. Pat Cooper and Norm Crosby and Marty and I headlined at The Tropicana many years ago. About fifteen years ago and sold out about three engagements in the ballroom that seats about fifteen hundred, so it was a good package then and I think it would still work pretty well.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, I would sure love to see that.

Steve Rossi: Well, I'll let you know, because I've got your number.

Kliph Nesteroff: That would be wonderful. You know, I haven't been able to get in contact with Marty Allen - I've been trying for well over a year.

Steve Rossi: If you give me a buzz Wednesday I'll check on my Blackberry, I think I have it on that phone.

Kliph Nesteroff: I would certainly appreciate that. Did you know Mitch DeWood? Marty's original partner?

Steve Rossi: Yes. Mitch DeWood was, well it was his second or third partner. In fact, it was after he and Mitch broke up in Chicago at the Chez Paris in the late fifties - it was shortly after that that Marty and I got together. Mitch later became the entertainment director at The Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas.

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you know what led to the demise of their partnership?

Steve Rossi: I heard it was animosity. They really didn't... they were together for, I would say, seven to ten years, but they never had the exposure that Marty and I had. I became friendly with Ed Sullivan and Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin - so as soon as we had the exposure we became stars within three years.

Kliph Nesteroff: Huge stars. You guys were the biggest comedy team of that era.

Steve Rossi: Oh, yes. After Martin and Lewis I think we were definitely the biggest. And Rowan & Martin were around too, but they never really attained the status that we did. We starred in movies and had over eight hundred appearances on national television. They had Laugh-In and that was a success, but even with Laugh-In they never really were a major attraction. But they were very good. I liked them very much.
Kliph Nesteroff: You guys were everywhere. I watched an episode of What's My Line with you and Marty on it.

Steve Rossi: Oh yeah, we were on twice. I think we were the only ones on twice in a period of three years. Dorothy Kilgallen was a dear friend of mine. I'm writing a book now and I have a whole chapter on her. She was madly in love with Johnny Ray and Johnny Ray was crazy about her. The only woman he ever slept with in his life was her. To this day, the files are open in the New York police department on how she died. They never solved the case. They alleged that she died from an overdose of barbituates, but I know for a fact that she wasn't taking anything at the time. She felt like she was being poisoned. And I think that's what happened. Once she started writing the book on the Kennedy assassination, I think somebody came in there and poisoned her.

Kliph Nesteroff: There are a couple of episodes of What's My Line from shortly before she died, where she is visibly off. There's something wrong.

Steve Rossi: Oh yes, for sure. You could see it. Plus she lost a tremendous amount of weight. She was turning yellow, you know. I saw her two weeks before she died. She looked really bad. And she thought she was being poisoned, but they couldn't detect it. You know, there's a lot of poisons out there that are undetectable. They're usually, you know, with the government (laughs). But you know, I'm not going to write too much about that. I've got a whole chapter on her, but who knows who's still lurking out there.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you and Marty broke up, a lot of people wanted the story to be that it was because of animosity. The reports at the time, however, all said it was a very amicable break-up. Was it amicable?

Steve Rossi: Yeah, it was amicable, but there was animosity that caused it. It just got to a point where we agreed to disagree. It happened practically with every comedy team. It wasn't because it was prevalent ... when you're in a team, and of course I was writing a lot of the material at the time, you just get to the point where one wants to do this and the other wants to do something else. Doesn't want to do this and the other one does. It's just very, very difficult, you know? You get moody and you have to deal with it. It's like being in a marriage except when you disagree in a marriage you can always go to bed with your wife. It was hard to go to bed with Marty. Although we did it three times... naw, I'm kidding (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: The billing was originally Marty Allen assisted by Steve Rossi...

Steve Rossi: Originally, no. It was Marty Allen - Steve Rossi all the time. But when we first started, because I wanted to make an honest effort to make it happen. He had a manager at the time by the name of Buddy Allen, and his manager said, "Well, Marty has been around a lot longer than you." I didn't have any TV exposure, but at that time neither did Marty. Anyhow he said, "Because Marty is established in nightclubs and everything, we can only give you twenty-five percent." At the time I accepted it. But the billing was always [equal]. Later on it became fifty-fifty.

Kliph Nesteroff: There were so many comedy teams back then. Did you ever encounter the sorta legendary-by-default comedy team of Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo?

Steve Rossi: Yes. They did a take-off on Martin and Lewis. In fact they did Martin and Lewis routines. And they did a movie in the Martin and Lewis style. Duke Mitchell was the straight man and Petrillo played the Jerry Lewis character - looked very much like him also. Yeah, I saw them work a couple times. But you know, it was basically physical humor and it was mostly scenes with the audience. You know, going out into the audience. Which is what Martin and Lewis did for years. I mean most of the laughs that Jerry got was going out in the audience, sitting on a guy's lap and dropping trays. 

It was the old burlesque stuff that he was doing. The waiter bit where he would come out with the tray in the middle of the song and crash, bang, you know. I liked Martin and Lewis, but I never really appreciated them as I did Dean. I thought Dean was much more talented, more sophisticated, and I thought he got bigger laughs when he did his stand-up stuff than when they did their team stuff. I mean, I'm not taking away that Jerry was visually very funny and very likable... they did... both of them had other talents. They both danced pretty well at the time. Dean did a couple of impressions ...

Kliph Nesteroff: Jerry himself put out an LP or two of straight singing.

Steve Rossi: Right. There was some jealousy, not on the part of Dean, but on the part of Jerry. Jerry got jealous when Dean became a recording star. Instead of... the reality of it was that when Dean became the recording star, he really didn't need Jerry anymore. He could've just said goodbye because he was already making millions in record royalties. But he couldn't go on TV shows without Jerry because they were under contract together.  The reality is, when Dean hit it big, their price doubled and tripled because of the hit records. 

Then Dean would come out to sing his hit records like Volare and whatever the songs were and Jerry would come out and interupt him in the middle of the songs. You could see the jealousy. Dean would get annoyed because a lot of his fans wanted to hear the songs, they didn't want the interruption. But he did it anyhow and eventually that caused the break-up. Plus, in the movies, when they were at Paramount, Jerry literally cut out scenes with Dean because he said, "We don't need to put him in this scene because he likes to play golf and we can take that scene out." So then the movies became seventy percent Jerry Lewis and thirty percent Dean.

Kliph Nesteroff: You and Marty had appeared on The Dean Martin Show a number of times.

Steve Rossi: Several times, yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you close with Dean? Did you get to know him well?

Steve Rossi: I got to know him fairly well. I don't think anybody got to know him really well because Dean was very much - he was pretty aloof to most people. We were pretty close because we both did the same thing, we dealt with the same things, and we became close enough that I named my son after Dean Martin. My son's name is Dean Martin Rossi. But he looks like Jerry Lewis so...

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) On the same episode of What's My Line that I watched, one of the panelists was Woody Allen. Do you remember Woody back then?

Steve Rossi: Oh, yes. In fact I was up for Broadway Danny Rose - to play the lead in it with him and Mia Farrow. I was working alone at that time. I auditioned and did three screen tests in Brooklyn at his studio where he worked there. The third time I did the screen test it was a love scene with Mia Farrow which was in the original script and then they took it out. Anyhow, what happened was, Danny Aiello got me the audition because he had worked with Woody a few times and Woody said, "You've got the part. You're fantastic." I was thrilled about that because I felt that might be my big break working alone. Star billing. Woody Allen - Steve Rossi. Like Allen & Rossi with a different Allen, you know? So a week before I got a call from the office there in New York and he says, "I'm so terribly sorry, Steve. I never go back on my word, but this reflects upon my career." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Well, when I said I'm getting Steve Rossi everybody said, 'Oh, that's great. Like another Allen & Rossi." And he just didn't want to be put in that category. So I lost that because of my name. And I said, "Well, why don't we use my real name, Joseph Tafarella?" He said, "Because the reason I wanted to use you is because I have those comics and I knew your name would mean something in selling some tickets."

Kliph Nesteroff: That's a shame because there are a bunch of nightclub comedians of that era in the film. Sandy Baron and...

Steve Rossi: Sandy Baron and Corbett Monica... Yeah, there were quite a few. I already knew the script because he let me see the whole script - which normally he wouldn't do, but he did because I was in so many scenes, you know? I knew about the scenes in the deli and all of that before it ever happened. I was so let down because I felt like I really had it. A guy like him says, "You're fantastic and you've got the part." You want to take the word of the guy. But I could understand his concern, it's just a shame that it happened that way.

Kliph Nesteroff: Going back to The Dean Martin Show for a moment - did you ever encounter a comedy writer named Harry Crane?

Steve Rossi: Oh, yes. He was a great writer. He wrote for Martin and Lewis for years and later on he went with Dean. Excellent writer and he also wrote situation comedy as well.

Kliph Nesteroff: I had always heard that the giants loved him. Guys like Dean, Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason...

Steve Rossi: Yup. Because he had a great comedy mind, you know, he would rewrite the jokes to fit the personality, to fit the person delivering it. So whenever he gave them a joke, it was a joke that he knew already worked. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you ever encounter a comic named Gene Baylos?

Steve Rossi: Yes. Gene was a delicatessen comic. He worked up in the Catskills, but he never worked the real big rooms like The Concord or Grossingers. I think he might have worked those rooms during the week but never as a headliner on the weekends. But he was funny and he was actually a lot funnier when he'd come to your table in the deli doing shtick. Start to drink water and spill it all over himself. He was like Jerry Lewis - a lot of visual comedy.

Kliph Nesteroff: What led to the break up of your act with Joe E. Ross? 

Steve Rossi: At the time, you know, Joe E. used to drink quite a bit. One day he came up to me and he said, "Ooh! Ooh! Steve! You know I love working with you, but I'm having problems with my memory and my health. I think we should finish out our dates. No reflection on my friendship with you or what we've done together." And I could understand that. it was not too long after that, he was doing a couple of condo dates in California and he had a heart attack doing one of the shows. I don't know if you have heard about that. There is a supposedly true story about the agency that booked him for it. He was only doing a half hour, you know. We used to do an hour and twenty minutes together. He just did the stuff he was absolutely sure of because his memory wasn't that good at that point. He was in his, I think, late sixties or seventies when we broke up. He did have health issues. A lot of times he'd forget lines and stuff. It affected his memory. But the story that got out was that the agent that booked him went back two months later to collect the five hundred [dollars] and the guy that owned the condo, gave him a cheque for two-fifty. The agent said, "Wait a minute. You're supposed to give me five hundred." "Well, he only did half of his act." I don't know if you had heard that, but that was the story.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, I have heard several different versions of that story now. Sometimes it's the agent, sometimes it's his wife, sometimes it's a prostitute and in one instance it's character actor Chuck McCann.

Steve Rossi: Ah, okay. Isn't that funny? Chuck McCann has been working with Tim Conway. Tim Conway, Rich Little, Ronnie Schell, me and Tommy Smothers who has just separated from The Smothers Brothers, they're no longer working...

Kliph Nesteroff: Really!? I didn't hear that.

Steve Rossi: We all did two shows at the University of San Francisco ... Tim had to close the show because he was the biggest name. Tommy came on just before me - a helluva show. Two and a half hours.

Kliph Nesteroff: What is Tommy Smothers doing in his act by himself?

Steve Rossi: He did some stand-up and he got some pretty good laughs for his first time and then he did his yo-yo man bit. He has the potential to do a single act, I think, because he's got a lot of confidence and he's got his own style.

Kliph Nesteroff: I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. If you stumble across Marty Allen's contact info, please let me know.

Steve Rossi: Call me next week and I'll find that for you and we can talk more about my career if you like.

Kliph Nesteroff: I would love that.


Michael Powers said...

Wow! Fascinating insights about Dorothy Kilgallen and Martin & Lewis. I think this interview will become especially well known in the long run because of the business of Kilgallen being gradually poisoned. I've heard rumors ever since her death but never anything remotely as concise and convincing as this. I've seen that clip of Kilgallen botching an introduction on "What's My Line" and it's like the Jessica Savitch news read between network TV shows one night in the 80s when she was blotto on drugs; I saw that Savitch meltdown live and, idiotically enough, it didn't even occur to me that it was drugs, I assumed she must be very sick or having a stroke, and I don't usually think of myself as naive, it just didn't fit with the public image of network news readers. How times have changed...

greg6363 said...

Great interview, Kliph. However, I have the feeling Rossi is laying out some pure BS in his recollection of certain events but it's entertaining nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if "The Last Of The Secret Agents" is as horrible as Rossi says it is. It was directed by Bud Abbott's nephew, and written by him and Mel Tolkin.

Tolkin has an impressive resume including Your Show Of Shows and All In The Family.

I haven't seen Last Of The Secret Agents, but I wonder why it turned out so bad, with a real writer working on it.