Steve Landesberg didn't want to make The Speech.
"I hate to make speeches," he said. "Let somebody else make the speech. I'll just go up and say some of my own stuff, some personal stuff about Jack. I'm really not prepared to make the speech." Holding it in his hands, he glanced at the prepared text. "Look, these aren't my words."
But it's unavoidable, he was told. Hal Linden was supposed to make The Speech, but his plane was delayed; the ceremony at the Smithsonian yesterday honoring the late Jack Soo was set to start in 15 minutes. Soo -- Sgt. Nick Yemana on "Barney Miller" -- died this year of cancer.
His memorabilia, some pictures of his flatiron face, his nameplate, shield and coffee cup from "Barney," posters from "Flower Drum Song," his first big show, were spread out on the ceremonial table. The guests were there. Somebody had to make The Speech.
"His brother should make the speech," Landesberg said. Panic was setting in. "Mike, hey, Mike, you make the speech. You're Japanese. Uh, I'm only -- half Japanese."
Steve Landesberg ended up making The Speech.
"Hal Linden was supposed to be here," he said. "But his plane is late. So I'd just like to tell you how I feel about Jack."
He looked over the room. He saw Soo's widow, Jean. She had tears in her eyes.
". . . he was like a big brother. He was a good guy . . . He was an American kid, born in Oakland. He played ball. When he was in high school, he pitched against Joe DiMaggio -- that was a big kick . . . you all know that in World War II, because he was Japanese, he was put in a concentration (interment) camp. But Jack wasn't ever bitter about it; he hardly ever talked about it. He was mostly talking about baseball . . . He was great, one of the best comic actors you'll ever see. He was likable and loveable. His timing was impeccable. You want to learn about timing, you watch Jack Soo -- he was beauty. . .He wasn't Japanese, he was Jack. He was my friend. He was a guy. That's all that really matters."
When he was done there was applause. Landesberg was followed by Carl Scheele, a Smithsonian official, and Rep. Norman Mineta, a California representative, a Japanese-American who had known Soo, when he was still Goro Suzuki, in the camp. Landesberg stood in a corner, listening, wiping the sweat from his face. The Speech had come and gone. He had done it.
Let me tell you about Jack," he said privately. "I really loved Jack. We'd be rehearsing, you know. Guys will a blow a line here and there, but Jack blew them all the time. Not that it mattered because when the camera was rolling, Jack was perfect. But he'd blow a line in rehearsal, and I'd go over to him and say, 'Jack, uzzhui minzah oozamoohua been guh.' And he'd fall on the floor."
Landesberg is Sgt. Arthur Dietrich on "Barney Miller." "Barney Miller" is the bigs. Consistently Top-20. Often Top-10. That's 35, 40 million people watching each week. Like "M*A*S*H" and "Taxi," "Barney" is a repertory comedey, with not so much stars as players. Radar on "M*A*S*H is every bit as important as Hawkeye; Louie on "Taxie" is every bit as important as Alex; Dietrich on "Barney" is every bit as important as Barney himself, played by Hal Linden. You watch these people week after and you fail for them. You begin to assume that the actors playing the roles aren't even acting. Landesberg is acting "I'm not really much like Dietrich," he says. "He reads everything. Science, technology, economics. I have no interest in that stuff. The first thing I turn to in the paper is the sports section. He can tell you everything that ever happened. I can tell you about the World Series. I try to play him as a cop. Intellectual and funny, but a good cop. Funny thing is, I hang out with detectives. When I'm in New York I go down to the Village, because "Barney" is supposedly set in the Village. I talk to the cops. They tell me they know guys like Dietrich. . . most cops never fire their guns -- that's why they like our show."
He is wearing brown pants, a nondescript sport shirt and glasses. He has a face that Robert Altman wants for the crowd scene. Not memorable, interesting. He looks to be between 35 and 45.
He does not want to talk about age.
"Let's just say I started late," he says.
Why the secrecy?
"I don't go for ages," he says. "It hurst you with the casting directors. They type-cast you. The way it works, if you them your age -- let's say you're middle aged -- and if they've never heard of you, they figure you're no good -- or else they would've heard of you already. I tell my friends not to tell their ages."
So how old are you?
"Are you kidding?" Landesberg says.
He wanted to be an actor.
A comedy actor.
Like Winters. Like Caesar. Like Sellers. Like Carney. Like Gleason. Gleason killed him. A couple of years ago he went up to Gleason and said, "You're still the greatest.'
Gleason said, "I know."
He never misses "The Honeymooners," even now. Gleason kills him.
Matthau kills him too. And Arkin.
He never wanted to do the stand-up.
He ended up doing the stand-up.
He was working as an assistant credit manager at the Statler-Hilton in New York when he picked up the paper one day in '69 and read how Cosby was holding an open audition for "The Tonight Show" at the Bitter End. Cosby was looking for a stand-up.
He'd have to do, what? Two, maybe three minutes? Piece of cake. Hey, he was funny. He did characters. You know, a guy on the street. A friend's father. Characters. He killed his friends with that stuff. He'd kill Cosby. So he went on down to The End, hung around all day; they never got to him. Came back the next day, everybody was gone. No Cosby. No producers. Nobody. He did his two minutes, didn't get the gig. Surprise, there was no gig. That's show biz.
That's how he started doing the stand-up.
But he doesn't do it anymore.
Now he does the panel.
"I did the stand up 10 years," he says. "I'm tired of it. I still do the stand-up for Carson -- Carson's a big fan. But mainly I do the panel. I come out and sit down. I'm so much looser sitting down."
He is sitting down now.
Steve Landesberg is sitting down in the lounge of the Washington Hilton, not really paying attention to the Redskins and the Saints. This is Sunday, a full day before he finds out he's going to have to make The Speech. Now comes schmooze-time, as in "Where would you be if it wasn't for 'Barney Miller'?" Ans.: Slicing lox at a deli in New York." Schmooze-time differs from the shpritz in that the shpritz is a series of one-liners and the schmooze is a series of conversational recollections.
". . . I wanted to be a baseball player. I still do. I'd still like to play for the Yankees," Landesberg is saying. The voice is Formica. No bumps. No bruises. The comedy is in the timing It's like the photographer who, as a matter of principle, will only shoot in black and white. If you refuse to shoot color and still get a great shot, if you only use timing and refuse inflection, well, that's the classic, isn't it?
"Excuse me," the woman says.
She is standing there with her friend. They are in their 40s, and they are giggling. Their accents are so Bostonian you could put their shoes to your ear and hear Paul Revere's Ride.
"I'm so sorry for interrupting," she says.
"Quite all right," Landesberg says.
"It's just that I had to come ovah,"she says, holding out two postcards. I'm Rose, and this is my friend. Well, I just feel so foolish, asking fah an autograph and all -- me, a middle-aged woman, acting like a silly schoolgull. But it's just that you're such a big fan of mine."
"That's right," Landesberg says. "And I've always been a big fan of yours."
He signs two cards. One, to Rose. The other, to Francyne.
We know this about Landesberg. That he was born and raised in the Bronx, on Woodycrest Avenue, that he wanted to be a performer, but he didn't want the stand-up, that he did the stand-up at The End and The Improv to get into the business, that he worked with an improv group called the New York City Stickball Team, that he did "The Bobby Darin Summer Show" and "The Paul Sand Show -- Friends and Lovers," that he does Johnny, Mike, Merv, and Dinah, that his Barry White (Oooooh, baby, right on, baby, sit on me, baby, bring yo' daddy, let him sit on me too, right on") is the best in the business, that he did the stand-up last year in Vegas, opening for Steve and Eydie, in a tux, which made him feel as if he was attending a National Guard meeting, that he plays Dietrich and that in eight years of doing ethnic material, when he does the stand-up, he has gotten only one piece of hate mail.
"A real Jew letter," he says. "Jew. Jew. Jew. Signed it, 'Proud American.' Probably wrote it from a mental institution. Probably drooled when he wrote it. I always think, he; maybe it was a she."
Oh, and we know something else.
He's good at first names.
". . . I had friends who made it before me. David (Brenner) Jimmie (Walker) Rodney (Dangerfield) all made if before me. I got real good at borrowing money. I believe in friend subsidy. Now people borrow from me. . ."
". . .I don't write. I don't get up and work in the morning. Woody (Allen) writes. Gets up and writes. Mel (Brooks) goes to the office and works, writes with other people. David writes on stage now. . . "
". . . I wrote a treatment for this movie I want to do on Columbus. Yeah, Chris. But it won't get done. Nobody's gonna buy it. You can't get money for this kind of thing unless you're Woody or Mel. Monty Python (what, not just 'Monty?) get the money in two seconds. . . "
He drops so many names that if he were a juggler, he'd never be able to do a second show.
But it's amusing rather than pretentious, Landesberg's very likable, and that's a gift. Not everyone has it. How long do you think Robert Conrad could get away with playing Alvy Singer?How far can a donkey fly?
He wouldn't have done The Speech on Johnny.
There's a time to laugh and a time to cry.
They were honoring Jack Soo. They were going to place his memorabilia on exhibit in The Nation of Nations, a hall dedicated to the celebration of ethnicity in America. Soo is the first Japanese-American to be so honored. eHis material will be on display with that of Satchmo, Crosby, Caruso, Berlin.
Two days before, a Smithsonian official had said, "Miyoshi Umeki is probably a bigger star, but she hasn't offered us anything."
"That's not so," Landesberg said. "Just not so. Jack Soo was a star, a big star. And he was very proud of his heritage. It wasn't his style to be flamboyant, buy he was a good man. A good and great man. He deserves this."
When they held the ceremony to officially donate Jack Soo's memorabilia to the Smithsonian, there were three people signing the documents, Carl Scheele, for the Smithsonian, Jean Soo and Steve Landesberg. Just before he signed his name, Landesberg lifted up the cop's gold shield belonging to Nick Yemana and stared at it. With out saying a word, he put down the shield, picked up the pen and began to write.