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The comedian traces his rise from a New York City youth of the 1950s and 1960s to a stage and film star, describing his childhood antics as a young class clown, his Jewish heritage, and his professional achievements.
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Robert Klein is an American stand-up comedian, singer, and actor whose career has spanned over forty years. He has had an acclaimed career in comedy, on Broadway, on television, and in film. Born in the Bronx, he was a member of the famed Second City theatrical troupe in Chicago in the 1960s. Twice he was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album of the Year: Child of the Fifties (1973) and Mind Over Matter (1974). He received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor and won a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for his performance in the hit Neil Simon musical They're Playing Our Song in 1979. In 1993, he won an Obie and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig. He was a star of the hit NBC series Sisters and has made more than a hundred appearances on the Tonight show and the Late Show with David Letterman. Notable films include Hooper, The Owl and the Pussycat, Two Weeks Notice, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.
My grandparents came from the two largest cities in Hungary -- Budapest and Debrecen -- in 1903. My mother and father were born and raised in Manhattan, and my childhood and that of my sister, Rhoda, were spent in the Bronx, so the great outdoors was not exactly in the lexicon of my urban parents, being a concept as alien to them as reading the catechism. The only hunting my father ever did was for bargains at Macy's, though he did bring home a copy of Field & Stream once that he found on the subway, and read it on the toilet. When he moved his bowels he liked to price kayaks. My mother hated eating at outdoor barbecues and was particularly disgusted by insects, so when a picnic was unavoidable, she never packed rye bread with seeds, because the seeds looked like ants. She made a big deal about mosquito bites and the danger of infection, and I got the impression early on that the world outside our home was a dangerous place. Any contemplation of an activity that involved risk was discarded as foolhardy. As a result, I was not destined to be an explorer or a test pilot or an airborne ranger or a motorcycle daredevil.
My mother and father were careful, cautious people; wary people. This ensured the certainty of careful, cautious children; wary children. In my sixteen years living in our apartment building, there was never a crime committed on the block. Nevertheless, when our doorbell rang, my sister and I were instructed to always ask: "Who is it?" and never open the door unless there was a response and the respondent was someone known to us. Anyone else had to be viewed through the peephole in the double-locked steel door. We lived on the sixth floor and viewed the world through well-placed window guards and stern warnings about leaning out too far. Parental invocations repeated over and over again like mantras became well absorbed and governed a good deal of how I dealt with my childhood world. This was, of course, their purpose. "Be careful, be careful, watch out, watch out, don't take any chances, it's not safe, it's not safe, that can take your eye out, stop that, you'll get hurt, you can lose a leg doing that, don't take candy from strangers." These were just a few.
Not unexpectedly, caution became my modus operandi. My entire childhood was pervaded by endless warnings and pleadings and reminders of dire consequences: "Watch out for that lamp cord! If you're going out at night, wear white so the cars can see you! Never touch a light switch with wet hands! My God, don't cut that bagel toward your neck!" Statistically speaking, the possibility of severing one's head while slicing a bagel seemed remote indeed, yet Ben and Frieda Klein took no chances. Danger lurked everywhere. Even the garbage incinerator had a poster full of warnings promising five years in prison for throwing carpets or naphtha down the chute. I didn't even know what naphtha was, but I pitied those naughty souls in Sing Sing who were doing hard time for throwing it out with the garbage. I felt equally bad for those criminals who, in a fit of pique or defiance, had torn the tags off their mattresses. Yet it was their own fault, as they should have been forewarned by the clearly visible printed admonition.
This atmosphere of constant vigilance and circumspection put a definite crimp in my activities. For example, it was the passion of the little boys on the block to act out the movies we saw every Saturday at the David Marcus Theatre on Jerome Avenue. Period pictures like Robin Hood and movies about pirates, the ones with dueling scenes, were special favorites. We would fashion swords out of appropriate pieces of wood or branches that we found where we played, in the vacant lots that would not be built on for another five years. One day my father, in his bellowing voice, called me to supper from the sixth-floor window while I was in the middle of a furious duel with Michael Newman from Apartment 2F. Then my father screamed at the top of his lungs a bone-chilling addendum to the dinner call, that embarrassed me in front of all the other pirates: "Stop it now! You're gonna take your eye out! Oh, you're gonna get it when you come up here! Are you gonna get it!" I reluctantly cast away my sword, which everyone leaped for because it was a beauty. I had spent much time shaving the bark and shaping a large twig from the sumac trees that abounded in the area and had survived the ecological insult of castaway junk and discarded tires. Alas, I was not as hardy as they were, and it was I who had to face my furious father.
It was an anxious and unhappy trip up the elevator home. Though my father was frequently more bark than bite, that bark could be terrifying, along with the anticipation of an occasional smack. I did receive a hard one across the face this time, signifying the seriousness he attached to the issue. In short, my dueling days were over, at least during the hours that my father might be home, though I had to be careful lest some adult neighbor tell on me.
I was forbidden a cap gun for playing cowboys and Indians because my father considered caps to be explosives, and besides, he said, "It gives me a headache." My mother said she'd heard of a boy who went deaf from a cap gun. Certain bad boys would light fires among the rubbish in the lots, sometimes bringing a fire truck to the scene -- an event that caused much excitement and heads popping out of windows. In order to make sure I never lit fires, my father issued a two-pronged warning. First he reminded me of the pain associated with fire, and second that if I were caught, I would have a criminal record. Could reform school be far behind? The possibility of a life behind bars, like the animals in the Bronx Zoo, was quite an unappealing prospect.
No lesson was more repeated than the absolute command to look both ways before stepping into the street, which was referred to as the gutter. This was boilerplate stuff for all neighborhood children, as we lived in an urban environment with a fair amount of vehicular traffic, and the street was our playground. We were taught a song in school called "Let the Ball Roll," though we all forgot at times. These were the words of the song: "Let the ball roll, let the ball roll. / No matter where it may go. Let the ball roll, / Let the ball roll. It has to stop somewhere, you know. / Often a truck will flatten the ball. / And make it look like an egg. / Though you can get many a ball, / you never can get a new leg." The song notwithstanding, there wasn't one of us who had not had a frightening close call while chasing a ball into the street, with a car screeching noisily to a stop and a cursing driver relieved to know that he had not killed someone's child.
As usual, my father took the radical scary approach and made use of object lessons, frequently showing me newspaper accounts and pictures of boys hit by cars, maimed by firecrackers, burned by starting fires, killed by falling out of buildings, disabled by baseball bats, and paralyzed by horseplay they saw in the movies. On-site object lessons, when available, were also part of his repertoire. On one occasion he pulled me out of a curb-ball game hard by the arm and began walking me down the Decatur Avenue hill toward Gun Hill Road. "Where're we going, Dad? I was in the middle of a game."
"Never mind your game. This is more important. This is life and death." I could see a crowd and a police car in front of Frank's fruit store. My father, never letting go of my arm, forced his way through the crowd toward the object of everybody's curiosity. It was a horrifying sight. A woman was lying barely conscious in the gutter. She had been hit by a car, her grocery bag spilled over, with potatoes and apples rolling down the steep hill toward Webster Avenue. Her right leg was terribly mangled and bloodied so I could see the bone. The blood flowed down the hill as well, forming tiny eddies in the grooves and bulges of the cobblestones. I was stunned and felt sick. My father grabbed me aside. "See that? That's what happens when you don't look both ways."
"How do you know she didn't look both ways, Dad? Maybe she did and the driver didn't see her."
"Don't be a wise guy," he replied.
My mother had her own crusade for safety and longevity. When I requested her written permission to play hardball in the Police Athletic League, she looked at me incredulously, like I was a lunatic asking to eat a bicycle, and said, "Hardball? Hardball?" She hardly contained her emotion as she launched into a quick and illustrative horror story (she always had one on hand) of a boy mutilated by a hardball. Her voice would always drop to a somber sotto voce whisper when she got to the description of the affliction: "Hardball? Sure, like that boy on Hull Avenue who got a hardball right in the head. [whispers] He walks backward now."
"How about football?" I suggested.
"Football? Football? Like that boy on Perry Avenue who got hit by all those boys and now [whispers] he can't spell his name and thinks he's Abraham Lincoln. He was an excellent student, and now he sells The Bronx Home News and plays potsy with the girls."
Even playing checkers had its risks and parental provisos, though it was not forbidden. "A boy on Webster Avenue [whispers] died from a checker." Yes, the idiot had tried to swallow one and choked in full view of three friends, or so the story went. Anyway, what could you expect thirty years before the Heimlich maneuver? I never had even the slightest desire to swallow a checker.
My father played baseball as a kid on East Seventy-seventh Street, and he regaled me with stories of his adventures as a catcher in hostile neighborhoods. He referred to the oft-quoted definition of catchers' equipment as "the tools of ignorance," because it was, he emphasized, the most dangerous position on the field and was to be avoided. Never mind that he played catcher; the point was that his experience should be enough to keep me from a similar fate. There was an implicati...
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