Of the Fifties,
All Grown Up
Funny man Robert Klein
on his life—and love—
By Nancy L. Claus
Actor, comedian, and writer Robert Klein is lounging in his sun-drenched living room in his Briarcliff Manor country home. Wall-to-wall wraparound windows look out over drop-dead gorgeous views of the Hudson River to the west and Sleepy Hollow Golf Course to the south.
“I love the semi-rural quality of where I live in Westchester County and the spectacular view of the Hudson,” Klein muses. “I look out the window and see the river and all the beautiful birds. I could be quite content just tending to my bird feeders and the fountains.”
Not much chance of that. Klein, who got his start doing improv with the famed Second City comedy troupe and had audiences in stitches when he guest-hosted for Johnny Carson, is today, at 64, hardly just watching birds fly. He is, quite busy in fact. This month you can catch him in the film Reign Over Me, a drama about a man who lost his family on 9/11. Later this year, you can watch him in the divorce comedy Ira & Abby, which won the audience award for best narrative feature at the 2006 LA Film Festival. The film is “a gentle indictment of marriage and shrinks,” Klein says, who concedes that since he’s “too old” to be the leading man, he happily settles for playing the father of the “hot young stars.” Late this spring, a boxed set of his eight HBO comedy specials is slated for release and he has agreed to do a ninth HBO comedy special next year. He also performs 60 to 75 times a year in such far-flung places as Las Vegas and Monte Carlo.
Yes, Klein is one busy man—and, apparently, a Renaissance man, too. This Bronx native is funny, for sure, but he is also really smart (he loves to read history books and everything by E.L. Doctorow); a cook (he can whip up all kinds of soups, from scratch, natch); and a talented musician (he plays a mean harmonica and once jammed with blues greats B.B. King and Buddy Guy). He is also a loving dad (his only child, 23-year-old son Allie, recently graduated from the University of Vermont) and, oh yes, he has a sweetie.
Klein’s stormy marriage to Allie’s mother, Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Brenda Boozer, ended 17 years ago. “Singing wasn’t the problem in the relationship,” he allows. They were happy at first, he says, but after a few years, things turned bad, ending in a bitter divorce. Afterward, he went a long spell without a love in his life. “I’d go for a long time, hours even, without thinking about sex,” he deadpans. “I didn’t want to go online or go out on blind dates. Everyone had a woman for me, but I wasn’t motivated. And the longer I lived by myself, got set in my ways, the more difficult it became to commit myself.”
Then, last year, over peaches at the local Stop & Shop, he met Jennifer Zwiebel, an “age appropriate” woman who conveniently lives just down the street from him.
“I saw a tall man, all alone in the produce section, and I thought, my gosh, that looks like Robert Klein,” Zweibel recalls. “So I said to him, ‘You must be Robert Klein.’ He said, ‘I was this morning.’” And that was that. A few months later, however, Zweibel went to see Klein read “scary” stories at Sunnyside for Halloween—and the two clicked. Their first date was at Guida’s in Ossining, a traditional Italian restaurant that is one of Klein’s favorites. “The food was wonderful and we had a wonderful time,” Zweibel recalls. “He called me the next night and told me he had just made a seafood chowder and asked, ‘You want to come over and try it?’” They’ve been together ever since.
The arts—culinary or otherwise—were not what his middle-class parents had envisioned for their only son. Klein entered Alfred University in Western New York as a pre-med student. “To my family, there could be no finer or more prestigious attainment,” he writes in his memoir, The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue: A Child of the Fifties Looks Back, now in paperback. “But a few things got in my way—chemistry, college algebra, zoology, inclination, comprehension, preparation, concentration, aptitude, attitude, per-severance, and depression.”
However, Klein joined the school’s acting company and, he says, “found a new passion and purpose—the theater.” His drama professor convinced Klein’s parents their son should pursue acting. He enrolled in the Yale School of Drama but left after one year. “I felt that I’d had enough training. I wanted to go out in the world and work,” he says. “My first gig was at a place in New Haven that paid thirty-five dollars a weekend and all the sauerbraten I could eat.” An agent for the Second City comedy troupe caught his show, liked what he saw, and asked him to audition. In March, 1965, Klein joined the company, moved to
Still, growing up in the Bronx is a dominant theme for Klein, one chronicled in his memoir, which focuses on his life in the ’50s and ’60s, and ends with a fateful performance at the Improv in New York in 1967. That was the night his mentor, Rodney Dangerfield, introduced him as “the next dimension” in comedy.
Not surprisingly, we learn from the book that Klein was the class clown at PS 94, JHS 80, and DeWitt Clinton High School, and that while the sexual urges of teenage boys haven’t changed, our attitudes sure have. “I have always been grateful that I grew up during the sexual revolution,” Klein notes, “which, as revolutions go, was much more fun than the French or Bolshevik revolutions.”
He grew up watching the classic comics who played the Catskills on television: Red Buttons, Sid Caesar, Lucille Ball, Rodney Dangerfield, and Steve Allen, and his comedic style reflects that.
Scene from the divorce comedy Ira & Abby (Above)
His latest HBO special starts out with an ode to Viagra and includes riffs on male pattern baldness and other inconveniences of aging. “The older I get, the more Jewish I get,” he notes. “Not in the religious sense—just more ‘oys’ and ‘oohs.’”
In the current crop of funny guys, Klein thinks Chris Rock is a cut above most, but wishes he wasn’t so profane. He likes Jerry Seinfeld, too, believing him to be a “true stand-up comedian.” Klein thinks Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart “have terrific political shows, with jokes superior to those of Letterman’s and Leno’s writers.” He also is a fan of George Carlin, but feels his humor has grown too dark. “I don’t understand Dane Cook’s popularity at all. His jokes are mediocre.”
“The New York Times has made fun of me for being too clean,” Klein continues, looking slightly wounded. “I’m not a prude. Vulgarity can have a purpose, but, if every second word is a swear word or the joke is all about bodily functions, it’s boring. The idea behind The Aristocrats [the dirtiest joke ever told] is funny, but I was bored after twenty-five minutes.”
But Klein has stayed true to his own ideals—even when it has been detrimental to his career. Indeed, he readily concedes that staying in New York, rather than moving to California, wasn’t a great career choice. “Actors are like migrant workers, they have to go where the work is,” he says. “But when I’m away from my home, I get a pit in my stomach.”
“He’s a New York guy and proud of his roots,” says his manager, Rory Rosegarten, who describes his client as an “articulate, bright, extremely well-read, erudite guy. If he was at a party,” Rosegarten says, “he’d rather be in a corner discussing economics with Felix Rohatyn than pop culture with Britney Spears.”
It’s true: Klein watched a total of four minutes of American Idol. “I thought the first person they should kick off the island was the announcer,” he says “What gets my interest is maybe a show on the Battle of the Bulge on the History Channel, sports—Yankees, Mets, Knicks—or a special on how toothpaste is made.”
What also captivates him: his son. “After Allie was born, there were times when I couldn’t get him on the phone to discuss a deal because he was busy reading to his son,” Rosegarten recalls. “One time he was offered a six-figure deal to do a beer commercial, but he didn’t think it was appropriate for him, as a father, to do it.”
Klein is not just a devoted dad, but apparently a friend who can deliver in a pinch. “In the early days, my mom ran my office and over the years, she and Klein became fast friends,” Rosegarten says. “When she died, there were one- thousand people at her funeral. I was too overcome to give a eulogy and, at the last minute, I asked Robert if he could do it for me. ‘Of course,’ he said, and then went up and delivered a funny, touching tribute to Mom—totally off the cuff.”
A real mensch—even if he never became a doctor. But then again, laughter, as they say, is the best medicine. So perhaps, our funnyman, family man, actor, and author has done okay after all (knock on wood).