Television was never better than when a “Dean Martin Celebrity Roast” came on my parent’s RCA console TV.
If you’ve ever been to Hollywood, it is remarkable how small it is. The “Hollywood” sign sits on a nearby mountain and can be seen from almost anywhere. Take a short excursion and you can be in Bel Air, Beverly Hills or many other well-known Zip codes — all of which you and I can barely afford to drive through.
From 1974 to 1984, The roast (an extension of Martin’s highly rated “The Dean Martin Show,” which aired from 1965 to 1974) was filmed in the LA area and later at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
After his weekly variety show ended, Dean was still very popular so he used his star power as a way to continue performing. It was also a way for his friends, many of whom weren’t as popular as they had once been, to still get some exposure and make a few bucks in the process.
But, Celebrity Roast wasn’t just a vehicle for him and his buddies to make money. It was legitimately hilarious. No doubt the program was very scripted, but you’d never know it. The dozens of stars who frequented the roasts delivered the lines as if they were their own.
And no one delivered their lines better than Foster Brooks. Brooks played the “Lovable Lush.” Today, laughing at alcoholism is considered politically incorrect, but the fact is Brooks made himself the joke. And he did it to perfection.
Through slurred words and malapropisms, Foster Brooks roasted the week’s roastee. He was beyond funny. I challenge anyone to pull up one of his Celebrity Roast segments on YouTube and not laugh until your sides hurt.
What most people didn’t and probably still don’t know about Brooks is that he didn’t drink alcohol. But his ability to play someone who was significantly inebriated did come from having been a drinker when he was younger.
He said he gave up drinking and smoking in 1964 on a bet, during a time when he wasn’t making much money.
Brooks’ life was an interesting one. There are some great facts on his IMDB.com database and in his New York Times obituary.
He had tried to make it in show business for many years, but it wasn’t until he was 59 that he finally got his big break — from all people, singer Perry Como.
Brooks and Como shared a mutual friend (the game show host, Dennis James) who asked Brooks to tell a few jokes during a charity golf tournament. That led to an invitation to open for Como, which then led to other jobs, including the one that gave him national exposure — “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.
Brooks was also an excellent skit comic. He and Dean Martin together were magical. One of their best bits was a scene in a bar where Brooks is obviously sloshed and strikes up a conversation with Dino.
He keeps telling Martin he’s had a rough day and needs a few drinks to calm his nerves before going to work. Right before leaving, Martin finally gets Brooks to reveal that the drinks he needs before he goes to work are because he’s an airline pilot.
Brooks’ act was so convincing that many people could not be convinced it was an act. But, according to a quote from him, Brooks quit drinking on a $10 bet. He said he took the bet and quit drinking because he needed the $10.
He was probably the most unlikely member of an otherwise exclusive and insulated club.
The guests of honor on Celebrity Roast may have agreed to be the center of attention. But, Johnny Carson, Jack Benny, Betty White, Michael Landon, Kirk Douglas, Joe Namath, Don Rickles and the dozens of other celebrities who accepted the hot seat had to know that if Brooks was on the guest list the night they were featured, they’d be losing the spotlight.
The Celebrity Roasts do live on and are available on DVD box sets now, even if most of the stars are gone, including the Loveable Lush.
Foster Brooks died at age 89 in 2001 in Encino, California. He left behind a treasure trove of hilarious bits with some of the biggest stars in the history of show business.
By all accounts, he was a humble and nice man. And I absolutely believe that.
A pretty amazing legacy — from a drunk who didn’t drink.