Thrilling and charming in a way that very few American comedies ever are.
It was the opening day of the Disney-MGM studios in Orlando. The stars were there with their children. There was an official luncheon at the Brown Derby, modeled after the legendary Hollywood eatery. I was beside myself. I was in a booth sitting next to Jack Brickhouse, the voice of the Chicago Cubs. A man walked over and introduced himself. "Bob Elliott." Oh. My. God. Bob, of Bob and Ray.
For me he was the biggest star in the room. Who, after all, compared to even one half of Bob and Ray, was Tom Hanks? Whoopi Goldberg? Art Linkletter? "Gosh all whillikers, Mr. Science!" I said, "What's that long brown object???" Bob didn't miss a beat: "That's known as a board, Roger."
Another man was steaming toward us through the throng. A middle-aged man, well-dressed, tanned, with a pleasant smile. "Hi, Jack!" he said. "Say, I hear Ernie Banks is invited. Yeah, I was just talking to Michael and that's what he said." Jack turned to me and said, "Roger, this is a man I want you to meet. You're going to be seeing him again many times over the years. Say hello Jerry Berliant."
"Hi, Roger," Jerry Berliant said, reaching across Brickhouse to shake my hand. "I just saw Gene. Yeah, he was with Marlene. She looks pregnant, right?"
Jack Brickhouse told him, "I'm sure you'll be the first person she tells."He turned to me. "Jerry is the World's Greatest Gate Crasher. I see him everywhere. Just last week, at the Cubs games, up in the press box. Who invited you today, Jerry? Michael Eisner?"
Jerry nodded affably. "He was on the list," he said.
Gene and Marlene arrived to sit in our booth.
Jerry Berliant at Cannes 2003 (Photo by Roger Ebert)
"Hello, Jerry," Gene said.
"Hi, Gene. Hey, I heard you were out in Vegas. Yeah, over at the Mirage. Jack Entratter told me Steve Winn hired you guys to judge the Employee of the Year video contest. You have any luck at the tables?"
"Oh, about the same as always. I won five bucks under the taxable limit."
Brickhouse was right. I was to see Jerry Berliant many times over the years. "This isn't an A-list party," Marlene told me one night back in Chicago. "Jerry Berliant hasn't crashed it."
The enigma of Jerry Berliant has fascinated Chicagoans for years. The Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet, listing the stars at a premiere, would add: "...and Jerry Berliant, America's Guest." I think the next time I saw him was down in New Orleans, at the annual NATPE event. This was the annual convention and sales meeting of the syndicated television industry. Such as King World, Merv Griffin, Disney, Viacom and Universal had big pavilions in the convention center. Buyers for television stations marched through the aisles, filling their free bags with free gifts. The Nielsen ratings people gave away the best T-Ball Rolling Writers.
Joe Antelo, our producer at Tribune Entertainment, told us, "Boys, I'll let you walk around on the floor for half an hour. But always side by side. Together, you're stars. Separately, you don't mean shit."
Walking the floor, we met Soupy Sales, Regis Philbin, and Hulk Hogan, promoting a new show named Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.
An older man told us, "Boys, I wish you all the best. I hope you have half the success in syndication that I've had over the years."
"Thank you very much," I said.
He smiled at us, a big smile. Almost too big. "You don't recognize me, do you? Bozo the Clown." It was Larry Harmon.
Gene and I had been foisted on the organizers as the emcees of their annual awards, the Oscars of syndication. ("And the winner is... Fishin' Fever!"). The headliner of the show was Joan Rivers. We were taken by a publicist and a security guard through the bowels of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, to the Green Room backstage. There was a lot of money in the room. Security was tight. The guard ushered us into the Green Room. The bartender was Jerry Berliant.
How did he do it? How does he do anything? Reporters over the years have hurled themselves at his barricades and lost. He does it. There he is. He must have done it. All right then, how does he afford to do it? It's one thing to infiltrate the grand opening of MGM-Disney, or the Green Room of NATPE. It's another thing to fly there.
If Berliant has a means of income, no one has ever identified it. He was a practicing attorney until he was disbarred during the Operation Greylord sting into traffic court fixing. Siskel speculated, "He's a spy for either the CIA or the IRS." Yeah, like they're trying to infiltrate the Stanley Paul Orchestra's opening night at the Pump Room. Stanley is a nice guy, he knows everybody, and he's a helluva of a piano player. But as far as the feds are concerned, he's is not a security risk or a bank embezzler.
When you fly somewhere, you're supposed to have an airline ticket. I know from Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can" that it's possible to impersonate an airline pilot. But to impersonate a passenger with a valid ticket and a reserved seat? You've flown. Tell me how you'd do it. He has been thrown out of restricted areas at All Star Game, Super Bowls, the Indy 500 and the Kentucky Derby, Don King's party after a championship boxing match in Las Vegas, and White Sox spring training in Sarasota.
Berliant at Cannes 1998 (Ebert)
At the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, security was unusually tight. 9/11 was on everybody minds. A terrorist strike at Cannes would be a blow against Western decadence. Outside of town at the Hotel du Cap 'Antibes, a high security obstacle course had been set up. That's the hotel so exclusive that it has a policy of not accepting credit cards or checks. Payment was by cash only. Moguls checked in with briefcases stuffed with Benjamin Franklins.
Chaz and I went to dinner with our friends Anant and Vanashree Singh from South Africa. We motored along the coast, following a route known to Scott Fitzgerald's Dick and Nicole Diver, and dined on the shore overlooking the sea. The moon lay fair upon the sea as the rented Mercedes hummed along.
"There was a stickup along here last night," Anant told us as we returned. "Robbers stopped a sheik and took a fortune in large bills." We pulled up to the gate of the hotel grounds. Two men in uniforms asked for our identification. "I'm a guest," Anant said. He gave his room number. Oui, au, peut etre, mais... Anant produced his passport and a guard checked it with the hotel desk. "I've never seen it this tight," Anant said.
We mounted the steps and crossed the lobby. Narrow-eyed men held German shepherds on chains. At the entrance to the bar, Jerry Berliant greeted us. He looked resplendent in evening dress.
"Come in, have a drink! Clint was just asking about you." he said. He called across the room, "Clint! Look who's here for you!"
"I heard you were just asking about us," I said to Eastwood.
"I was?" said Eastwood. "Is that your friend? He just told me you were asking about me."
Jerry knew that we knew each other. That's how he enters the conversation. He is the emissary from the absent party. This is not the same as name-dropping. It is doing a favor for one person who didn't request it for a second one who doesn't desire it. He isn't precisely lying. He's passing along an unsent message. He can put two and two together and get Jerry Berliant.
He never overstays his lack of welcome. Already as he's greeting you, he's looking over your shoulder, scanning the room. Like a concupiscent Casanova in the act of passion, already searching for his next conquest. He's not looking for conversation. He's playing tag.
But still. Assume he got into the Hotel du Cap 'Antibes, as he surely did. Did he have a room there? You can't find one during Cannes anyway, but if you could, it would set you back $2,000 a night. He can't sleep on the hotel grounds; that immaculate tuxedo may be needed every night this week. It's eight miles back to town. A taxi will cost at $50. Did he eat at the hotel, or earlier, at a studio reception? I don't know. I just don't know. He doesn't drink. It is perhaps just as well.
His family for 99 years owned a pharmacy on S. Michigan Avenue. The window still bears the family name in gilt letters on an elegant brass store front. Chicagoans know that at the right season, you might see a hand-lettered sign tapped inside the window: Live leeches. It's hard to find live leeches, and if you need one, nothing else will do.
He knows little fear, certainly none of violating social customs. One weekend my stepdaughter Sonia was staying at our country house with her children. A car pulled into the drive, and Jerry emerged.
"You must be Chaz's daughter," he said. "Are you visiting with your kids? Yeah, I happened to be in the neighborhood and took the chance to stop by."
"Who are you?" Sonia asked.
"I ran into them at the Cubs game. They were there in the Sun-Times box. I was glad to see Roger looking so well. How's he been doing?"
"I very much doubt they asked you to stop by. And I'm real busy now, so I'm afraid you'll just have to leave."
"He bounced right back from that surgery."
"Or I'll have to call the police. Raven! Emil!"
"So I was just on my way over to Berrien Springs to see Ali. Be sure to say hello."
As far as I know, Jerry is unmarried. But then I wouldn't know, would I? I have seen him walking the red carpet into the Academy Awards. On TV, in a ringside seat, at world championship bouts. Next to Michael after Bulls championships, his neatly combed hair plastered with champagne. He is white, middle-aged, presentable and neat. He looks like he belongs. He will crash a party, avoid a scene or two, deferential, glad to be of use, politic, cautious, and meticulous, but a bit obtuse; at times, indeed, almost ridiculous; almost, at times, a fool.
On election night, there he is on TV, standing behind the victorious Mayor Richard M. Daley. "How does he do that?" Chaz and I asked Da Mare one night. "Nobody knows," Daley said. "In Chicago," his wife Maggie said, "it wouldn't be an Election Night. Not that Rich wants him there..."
I didn't see this myself, but a friend said he saw it on TV. One of our current senators from Illinois, Roland Burris, wasn't even elected. He was appointed, to Barack Obama's vacated seat by our colorful Gov. Rod Blagojevich. You may have heard about him on the news. After the Blajivevichp-Burris press conference, my friend said he saw Jerry holding open the door of his limousine, as police held back crowds of cameramen.
"Did he get into the limo, too?" I asked.
"I didn't see."
Makes TV news after being arrested in Denver, 2007
Chaz says I encourage him. I use the theory of good value for money. I confess I am intrigued. When my star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was unveiled in front of the El Capitan theater, it was sort of a thrill to see him among those in the roped-off area for invited guest. I had good reason to know he wasn't an invited guest. I've searched the photographs from that day, hoping to see him smiling at the camera right there between Virginia Madsen and Joe Mantegna. No luck. But he was somewhere just out of camera range. I know, because he told me, "Yeah, Wolfgang Puck was asking about you last night."
Daley, a man who knows how everyone in Chicago does everything, told us he doesn't know how Jerry does it. Nobody does. My mind goes back to the grand opening and ribbon-cutting of Chicago's new Disney Quest, a five-story emporium of video games and virtual rides.
Plans called for the ceremony to begin just after dusk, so that a giant film montage could be projected against the wall of a building across the street. As talent on a program syndicated by Disney, I was behind red velvet ropes in the VIP area, along with Sammy Sosa, Joan Cusack, Jerry Springer, and other local luminaries. As the sun slowly sank down at the end of Ohio Street, suspense mounted. All eyes were focused on the front doors of the Experience. Slowly they opened, a security guard survey the scene and gave the all-clear, and Jerry Berliant ushered Michael Eisner onto the stage.
I guess he did know Michael after all.
A terrific 1986 Chicago Sun-Times column about Jerry by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tom Fitzpatrick, who BTW saved me by yanking me out of the path of a reversing squad car during during the Days of Rage in Chicago's Old Town during the 1968 Democratic Convention.
Jerry's brother Norman leaves the drug store business. Article from the Chicago Sun-Times in 1999 by Dave Hoekstra.
Berliant was cited in 2007 as a scofflaw with $29, 627 in unpaid tickets. You can never find a ticket fixer when you need one. Chicago Sun-Times article by Stefano Esposito and Annie Sweeney
Brother Andy plays the all three: the Host, the hypnotist Dante the Great, and the Woman. As I write, only 128 views. Be among the first to see...and believe!
A movie summarized in its delightful credits: Spielberg's "Catch Me if You Can"
Full 102-minute version streaming legally: "Attack of the Giant Leeches".
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