The final days: Buddy Hackett's last interview
By some quirk of fate, my girlfriend and I were two of the last people to speak to actor/comedian Buddy Hackett. At the age of 78, Hackett died June 30, five days after I interviewed him.
Hackett's facial contortions, portly build, bulbous nose, and outlandish voice had been seen and heard in films for nearly five decades, ranging from The Music Man (1962) to The Little Mermaid (1989). He was a Las Vegas and TV comedy staple whose Borscht-Belt antics either thrilled or tremendously annoyed the public. In the late 1970s, he was a frequent guest on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show.
I wanted to talk to Hackett for my forthcoming biography of filmmaker George Pal, who directed Hackett in The Wonderful World of The Brothers Grimm (1962) in which Hackett plays Hans, a heroic squire in the film's "Singing Bone" segment. Paired with a craven knight, he sets off to slay one of the cinema's most charming dragons.
Hackett profoundly startled my girlfriend when he phoned us one recent Saturday. He grilled her about the book, and, yes, he really did talk like that. After inquiring about my age, which is 24, he asked her, "Shouldn't you be dating a man?"
Apropos of very little, he lamented, "If you put together all the money I made on my movies put together, it wouldn't add up to what I made in Vegas in a week."
He began our first conversation, "What's on your mind, child?" He seemed grouchy, and stated outright that he remembered little about Brothers Grimm. Despite this caveat, he wasn't stingy with anecdotes when it came time for the actual interview. When I had tried to schedule it, he told me, "I don't know what I do, see? I don't make plans. I'm at a time in life when I do whatever strikes me... I won't sit home and wait for a phone call if I wake up in the morning and just decide to go off in the woods or something."
During the interview, I told him I'd send him a copy of the published book. His reply: "I'm not worried about that. I may not live that long. At this point in life, I'm interested in having a bowel movement."
In spite of his cantankerousness, he made my week by serenading me over the phone with "D-R-A-G-O-N," the song that he and Terry-Thomas sang together 42 years ago in Brothers Grimm.
The eeriest thing about Hackett was his persistent focus on his mortality. While talking to my girlfriend about Brothers Grimm, he said, "Everybody from that movie has died" (which is nearly true). During my first of two conversations with Hackett, he said something very similar about Anthony Mann's God's Little Acre (1958): "The only people left alive from that movie are me and Tina Louise."
Then there was his answering machine's message: "If you are one of my friends who is still alive, please leave me a message. If you are not," and then he sang, "I'll be seeing you..."
Requiescat en pace, Buddy.