NEW YORK. Maury Fleming, an all-purpose entertainer who is widely credited as the inventor of the role of comic straight man and side kick, died yesterday at the age of 89.
“Maury was very versatile, he could do anything,” said Jerry Cohen, his agent for many years. “A lot of people watched his act and said ‘I could do that,’ but they couldn’t, it was so subtle,” said Shelly Wernick, the first comedian for whom Fleming served as foil.
Fleming, born Maurice Phlegm, began his career as a ventriloquist, performing at lodge meetings, bar mitzvahs and weddings, according to his wife of 65 years, Fran Fleming. “After a while he became more comfortable if the dummy did all the talking,” she recalls fondly. “That’s probably because he could never get a word in edgewise around the house.”
As straight man, Fleming perfected a number of comic comebacks that endure to this day, including “Go on!”, “You’re pulling my leg!” and “Get outta here!” “He had a fertile mind, and in many ways it worked against him because he never came up with one signature phrase he’d be remembered by,” according to Arnold Waller of the American Museum of Comedy.
With the advent of television, Fleming sought to reduce his time on the road and formed a partnership with Wernick that led to “It’s Getting Late!”, a long-running talk show on station WBUF in Buffalo. “We had that town in the palm of our hands,” recalls Wernick. “Of course our hands were freezing, but we didn’t care.”
With Wernick, “Slats” Greene, an African-American tap dancer, and Stan Dworpkin, the “Polish King of Knock-Knock Jokes,” Fleming formed “The Weasel Gang,” a precursor to the Rat Pack that lit up second-class cities such as Worcester, Mass. and Schenectady, New York, bringing a touch of glamour to the hum-drum lives of their residents with a fast-paced revue whose hijinx would often continue after hours into hotel rooms and private residences.
“I never saw Maury drunk except when he was inebriated,” says Dworpkin, who still performs occasionally at restaurants and tire and battery store openings in Lake George, New York. “And the women–woo!” he exclaims. “Before he settled down with Fern, Maury was quite the ladies’ man. He never had to buy a copy of Playboy Magazine, if you know what I mean.”
Funeral services will be private. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Home for Retired Comics, Magicians and Accordion Players, Plattsburg, New York.
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