Shelley Berman’s show business story begins in 1943, when he was honorably discharged from the Navy. He then enrolled as a drama student at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, where he met Sarah Herman, another aspiring thespian. They fell in love, and were married in 1947. After graduating from the Goodman Theatre, Shelley joined the Woodstock Players, a stock theater company in Woodstock, Illinois. It was here that Shelley had the opportunity to really develop and polish his acting skills, with the support and encouragement of fellow players Geraldine Page, Betsy Palmer, and Tom Bosley.
Leaving Woodstock in 1949, Shelley and Sarah made their way across the country, with Shelley in search of acting work. When those jobs were scarce, Shelley worked as a social director, a cab driver, a speech teacher, an assistant manager at a drug store, and an instructor at Arthur Murray Dance Studios. While in New York, Shelley found work as a sketch writer for the Steve Allen Tonight Show, and was doing well, when he received an invitation to join an improvisational troupe known as The Compass Players, which took him back home to Chicago. With Compass (which later evolved into Second City), Shelley worked with soon-to-be famous performers Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Severn Darden, and Barbara Harris, among others.
While performing improvised sketches with The Compass Players, Shelley began developing solo pieces, employing an imaginary telephone to take the place of an onstage partner. While watching Mort Sahl perform at Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago in 1957, Shelley realized he didn’t necessarily have to tell traditional jokes as other comedians of the day did in order to work in nightclubs, and went on to audition at the club performing his one-man monologues and telephone routines, with great success. Those first dates at Mr. Kelly’s led to other nightclub engagements around the country, appearances on national television, and a recording contract with Verve Records. INSIDE SHELLEY BERMAN, released in early 1959, became the first comedy album to be awarded a gold record, and the first to win a Grammy for Best Comedy Performance, Spoken Word. Shelley would eventually record a total of six albums for Verve, including OUTSIDE SHELLEY BERMAN and THE EDGE OF SHELLEY BERMAN, both of which also went gold. Shelley would go on to appear on numerous TV specials, and all of the major variety shows, including those hosted by Ed Sullivan (where Shelley appeared 21 times), Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Andy Williams, and Dean Martin.
Shelley’s great success as a comedian enabled him to continue with his first love – acting. He starred on Broadway in A FAMILY AFFAIR and would continue to do stage work in productions of THE ODD COUPLE; DAMN YANKEES; WHERE’S CHARLEY?; FIDDLER ON THE ROOF; TWO BY TWO; I’M NOT RAPPAPORT; LA CAGE AUX FOLLES; THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE and GUYS AND DOLLS, among many others. Comedic and dramatic acting roles on television began to come his way, including memorable appearances on episodes of PETER GUNN; THE TWILIGHT ZONE; RAWHIDE; BEWITCHED; THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.; THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW; ADAM-12; EMERGENCY; CHiPS; ST. ELSEWHERE; NIGHT COURT; MacGYVER and L.A. LAW. In recent years, Shelley has graced the small screen on FRIENDS; ARLI$$; LIZZIE McGUIRE; PROVIDENCE; WALKER, TEXAS RANGER; THE KING OF QUEENS; DEAD LIKE ME; THE BERNIE MAC SHOW, GREY’S ANATOMY and ENTOURAGE. Since 2002, Shelley has appeared as Nat David (Larry David’s father) in HBO’s CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. This show, largely improvised by cast members, has given Shelley the opportunity to return to his improv roots, and introduced him to a new generation of TV viewers. Most recently, Shelley has been making numerous recurring guest star appearances as the befuddled-but-compassionate Judge Robert Sanders on ABC’s BOSTON LEGAL, which have brought him acclaim from critics and fans alike.
Among Shelley’s film roles: THE BEST MAN (with Henry Fonda); DIVORCE, AMERICAN STYLE (with Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds); EVERY HOME SHOULD HAVE ONE (with Marty Feldman); ’80s cult favorite TEEN WITCH; THE LAST PRODUCER (with Burt Reynolds); MEET THE FOCKERS (with Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller); THE ARISTOCRATS and THE HOLIDAY (with Cameron Diaz and Jack Black).
Shelley continues to do film and television work, as well as headline in Las Vegas several times a year. He has authored three books, two plays, several TV pilot scripts, and numerous poems. For over twenty years, Shelley has been teaching humor writing at USC in the Master of Professional Writing program. Shelley spends his (precious little) free time volunteering for various charitable organizations, and indulging in his favorite hobby, knife collecting.