Documentary chronicles comedy of Robert Klein
In his 52 years in show business, Robert Klein has been in over 40 movies, hundreds of television shows and several Broadway musicals and plays, including “They’re Playing Our Song,” for which he earned a Tony nomination. His signature music-filled, improvisational standup routines spawned four comedy albums, nine HBO specials and earned him two Emmys for his music and lyrics. Altogether, they made him a comedy icon.
Now, still very much active at 75, Klein is the subject of the documentary “Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg,” premiering March 31 on Starz. He is scheduled to appear on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” that same night.
Directed by author and filmmaker Marshall Fine, the documentary showcases Klein’s life on and off the stage in new and archival footage, coupled with interviews with colleagues and admirers, including comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, David Steinberg and Billy Crystal.
“I was very impressed by what those guys said. It made me feel good,” Klein said in a telephone interview from Florida, where he had booked several engagements. “Some of them speak of me in the past tense, but I don’t find it offensive. You can see in the documentary that I’m still working.”
The documentary features many of Klein’s best-known bits, including “I Can’t Stop My Leg,” which he first performed — singing and playing the harmonica — at The Improv in New York in the 1960s.
“We’ve done it in every one of the nine HBO specials. We’ve done it in Spanish, German, a hip-hop version. It’s a silly joke but it works,” Klein said, noting that he suggested clips for Fine to use in the film. “I wanted to make sure the material that he used was the best he could find.”
Some of the material showcases his favorite Jewish jokes.
“I’ve always been a high-profile Jew,” Klein said. “I’m not observant, and I have no guilt about not going to synagogue. But I had a bar mitzvah. We never had bread and butter with meat at home because my father was brought up in a kosher home. My mother’s parents came from Hungary and were very assimilated. I was born in 1942 so I not only heard about the Holocaust, I met many survivors while working in the Catskills as a lifeguard.”
Klein grew up in The Bronx with a “high intensity, very funny” father and comedy icons Jonathan Winters and Lenny Bruce as influences. He studied at Alfred University and Yale before getting an improv education at Second City in Chicago in the mid-1960s. In the documentary, he reminisces with long-time friend and fellow Second City alumnus Fred Willard, who encouraged him to do standup.
Klein’s fame skyrocketed after he began appearing regularly on “The Merv Griffin Show” and “The Tonight Show.” Among his 82 appearances on “The Tonight Show” were a dozen as guest host, subbing for Johnny Carson. “He was so important for my career,” Klein said of Carson.
Klein hosted “Saturday Night Live” twice, including the fifth show of its first season, and remembered “SNL” cast member Gilda Radner and actress Madeline Kahn fondly.
“Both died of ovarian cancer. I do a benefit every year because they still haven’t cured it,” he said. “I don’t really watch [“SNL”] now, but I love to see that they’re doing their satirical duty by driving Trump crazy.”
Klein, who resides outside of New York City in Westchester County, has an apartment in the city and has lived in Los Angeles at times over the years, working at comedy clubs and on television shows such as “Sisters.”
Most recently, he appeared as Debra Messing’s father on “The Mysteries of Laura,” which shot in New York, a convenience he’d prefer on future TV or movie projects. ”I hope that something else will come along. I like being home,” he said.
Klein has been commissioned to write and perform four short pieces for “National Geographic Explorer” segments. He said he has enjoyed the process, so he’s considering writing a sequel to his 2006 memoir, “The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue,” a story that ends when he reaches the age of 25. Additionally, although his first screenplay wasn’t produced, he has higher hopes for a script he’s collaborating on with Marshall Fine.
Though it’s still improvisational and observational, Klein’s standup act has evolved and now incorporates material about aging. “The only way to deal with the difficulties of old age is to laugh at them,” he said. But, noting that many of his buddies are dealing with health issues, he exercises with a trainer and regularly walks “30 to 40 blocks at a good clip. My doctor says I have a quiet heart.”
Klein revealed that he has been in love four times: with his college girlfriend; his ex-wife, mezzo-soprano Brenda Boozer; and two post-divorce girlfriends. He isn’t keen on remarrying.
“But it would be wonderful to have a partner, have someone to go places with,” he said. “Everyone’s always trying to fix me up, and I appreciate their kindness. But I’m so set in my ways. What woman wants to live with W.C. Fields pictures on the wall and my model airplanes?” One of the models, he added, was a gift from Jonathan Winters’ daughter.
Klein has one son, Alexander, 33, who decided two and a half years ago to try standup comedy. “I’m encouraging him all the way,” Klein said. “He’s performing two, three times a week. He’s good. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter who your father is.”
Asked what he’d still like to accomplish, he responded that he doesn’t have a bucket list. “I’ve had such an interesting life, and I’ve done so many interesting things. Whoever would’ve thought? Private jets, making money, having people recognize me and appreciate what I do. It may be somewhat pretentious to say, but I think making people laugh is a very high calling. And good times or bad times, you could always use a laugh.”
He’s gratified that “Starting with nothing — no money, no connections — I made a pretty big career. A lot of it was good fortune,” he said. “I’ve been doing this since I was 23 years old. I’ve been in [the Screen Actors Guild] for 52 years. People feel like they know me. It’s a good feeling and I enjoy it whenever I’m on stage. I have no complaints. It’s been a wonderful ride.”