By Bruce Bellingham
Life has its hazards,” Mort Sahl once said to me. Mort, who is now 83 years old, was supposed to come to town with Dick Gregory the other day but had to cancel. I miss the friendship we once had – but life has its hazards. Just a few years back, he told me he wanted to move back to San Francisco after decades of living in Los Angeles.
“The definition of courage in L.A.,” he said, “is going to a restaurant that hasn’t been reviewed yet.”
Many may not recall what Mort Sahl meant to San Francisco in the old days. That’s the 1950s and 1960s. A stand-up comic who, with Lenny Bruce, redefined stand-up comedy. It was topical, social commentary with a bite to it. A deep bite. It was lacerating. And it was brilliant. It was an answer to stock Borscht Belt jokes. Mort would take to the stage in a V-neck sweater, clutching The New York Times.
“Here’s a typical New York Times headline,” Mort quipped. ‘World comes to an end, women and minorities affected.’”
Mort is an equal-opportunity satirist. Often described as a liberal or a lefty. That’s all wrong. One of his best friends was General Alexander Haig.
“Why is that?” I once asked him.
“Because Haig is an individual, and I’m an individual.”
Mort’s one of a kind. That must be a lonely gig.
Mort worked for Jim Garrison for a year. Yes, that Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney who indicted Clay Shaw in an alleged conspiracy to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. Mort took to all the TV talk shows to promote Garrison’s allegations. He stopped telling jokes. The TV people stopped booking him. So did everyone else. You see, America wanted to “move on” after the Kennedy assassination.
“What happened to the funny Mort?” they wondered. He never stopped being funny, of course. But great comedians are serious people.
And Mort came back. He’s quite indefatigable.
One day, Mort and I left the Big 4 after lunch. There was a collection of tourists across California Street on the steps of Grace Cathedral.
“Look,” says I to Mort, “they’re still waiting for Bishop Pike to come back.” I figured he’d like the sixties reference to the former Episcopalian bishop who vanished in the Sinai Desert, never to be seen again.
“Pike Bishop!” Mort exclaimed.
“What does that mean?”
Mort said, “When Sam Peckinpah wrote The Wild Bunch, he gave the William Holden character the name of Pike Bishop.”
I’d forgotten that. Goes to show that some of these cats don’t take the gig too seriously. Mort worked with the notorious, gifted lunatic Peckinpah who had a penchant for poetic cinema violence. Mort enjoyed being an actor in his movies.
Starting at the Hungry i and the Purple Onion, both owned by Enrico Banducci, Mort became a star. That had much to do with Herb Caen. He praised Mort Sahl in his column incessantly. He also contributed to the legend of San Francisco being a haven for the creative and the obstreperous.
“Some fellows came in the Hungry i one night,” Mort recalled, “and I signed a movie contract on a wine barrel.”
He appeared on the cover of Time in 1959. That’s a pretty big deal.
When Enrico got into financial trouble, which was frequent, Mort came to Enrico’s on Broadway to do a month-long stint for him. That was in the eighties. That’s when I first met him. He asked me to record his shows.
China, who Mort married twice – she was the first Asian centerfold in Playboy – watched the front door. Someone should have been watching all of us.
Herb Caen attended opening night, but they were never friends after a falling-out years and years before. Probably over a dame, to use the parlance of the day. Mort asked me to intercede to see if he and Herb could be reconciled. Herb wouldn’t go for it. I’m sure that contributed to Mort’s sense that I have failed him.
Stick around long enough, you disappoint everybody.
Later, Mort’s son, Mort Jr., died of a drug overdose in an L.A. rehab. Mort called me right away to tell me. His second marriage to China fell apart.
“China couldn’t stand to be in L.A. after that,” he said.
In 1960 Mort was hired to do a stand-up act at the wrap party for the John Huston film The Misfits. That was at a hotel in Reno. Arthur Miller wrote the film for his wife, Marilyn Monroe.
“Clark Gable came downstairs, in a jacket and tie, greeted everyone warmly, and apologized for retiring early,” Mort told me. “He wasn’t feeling well.”
Gable died soon after the shooting from a heart attack.
“Marilyn Monroe summoned me to her table that night,” Mort recalled. ‘‘‘Don’t be afraid, Mort,’ she said.”
“I’m not afraid,” Mort replied.
With that, Ms. Monroe took Mort’s hand, and placed it on her breast.
“We’re all afraid, Mort,” murmured Marilyn.
That story still gives me the chills.
It’s difficult not to be afraid. It would a shame if I could not talk to Mort again. It makes me fearful to consider that I can easily lose all the people and the things that I love.
It’s a fragile life. It’s treacherous out here. Yes, life has its hazards.
Bruce Bellingham is also a writer for the Marina Times. Tell him some stories at email@example.com.