Hothead Comedy Genius Pat Cooper Outlasts All Those Show-Biz Phonies

In the lull between lunch and dinner, Pat Cooper sat in the second-floor bar room of the Friars Club. He wore an understated gray turtleneck, a black baseball cap with an embroidered Fox Movietone News logo, and gold-rimmed aviator-style glasses that evoked an earlier era of Bryl-Creem and Harvey Wallbangers. On the back of his chair hung a lush, black motorcycle-style leather jacket that Mr. Cooper had removed about 20 minutes earlier.

As a waiter delivered the glass of red wine the comedian had ordered, the interviewer asked Mr. Cooper how long he had belonged to the Friars Club. “I am an honorary member. I don’t pay dues,” he replied. “I pay back with my talent.” Mr. Cooper closed his mouth around the word talent like he was sealing it in a vault. “If they need me for a roast, if they’ve got special shows, I’m here. They’re nice people. They’ve always been nice to me.”

Then, without pause or caveat, his eyes narrowed and his voice took on volume and heat. “There’s a lot of politics here that I don’t like. There’s a lot of phoniness in this place,” he said. “We got people who belong to this club who’ve got no right being in this club. No right !” He was staring straight at his interviewer. “I want this place to be a hundred, hundred, hundred percent talent. I don’t want a lawyer or a butcher coming in to tell me who’s good and who’s not funny. Do I come to your office and tell you I don’t like your fucking meat!” The busboys and waiters were laughing into their uniforms. “And you’re coming here judging me! Fuck you! How’s that grab you? And they turn around and look at me like, Oh he’s a time bomb, … because they can’t-handle-my-truth.” There is nothing quite as exhilarating as the sight and sound of Pat Cooper going off on the phonies and hypocrites who darken his show business world. For decades now, they have besieged him from all sides, threatening his dignity, his sense of self-worth. In that way, Mr. Cooper’s comedy is the diametrical opposite of Rodney Dangerfield’s. Mr. Dangerfield made a career telling the world that he doesn’t get any respect. Mr. Cooper took a more challenging route. On stage and off, he demands our respect. He deserves it, most certainly, for Mr. Cooper is one funny guy, but he demands it, too. And if he doesn’t get it, well, as he has said on occasion, “I’ll knock you on yer ass!”

Mr. Cooper has been cultivating this image for quite some time, but his reputation as a time bomb (his words, not ours) became official on March 2, 1981. That is the day Mr. Cooper went on national TV and exploded. There, on NBC’s Tomorrow Coast to Coast , Mr. Cooper, a small gold medallion hanging from a choker chain around his neck, complained to host Tom Snyder about the entertainers who, he said, were mistreating him or killing his Las Vegas business, by bumping him as an opening act, even though he had a contract with the hotel.

“Do you know what I’m doing?” Mr. Cooper asked at one point in the segment.

“No I don’t, but do you know what you’re doing?” replied Mr. Snyder, looking incredulous.

“Yes,” said Mr. Cooper. “I’m not afraid. If tonight they tell me you’re blackballed from show business, I’ll go on. I got character.”

Cher, Tom Jones, Tony Bennett, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, Jack Jones, Lola Falana, Dionne Warwick, Tony Orlando. Mr. Cooper strafed them all, and told a funny story about the singer Jerry Vale (“Another bargain,” Mr. Cooper said of the crooner) appropriating a fruit basket that Mr. Cooper’s wife had sent her husband. (Mr. Cooper claimed that because the card had fallen off, Mr. Vale had assumed it was for him, because he was the headliner.) “Take the fruit basket. Choke on it,” Mr. Cooper said, finally, into the camera. “Who cares?”

In those few minutes on Tomorrow , Mr. Cooper had shown that beneath all that makeup and hairspray, the real face of show business was misshapen with ego, anger, vanity and petty jealousy. Some of it had to be his own, but Mr. Cooper would certainly never cop to that.

The prognosis was professional suicide. The pre- Tonight Show Jay Leno even had a bit where he mimicked Mr. Cooper while pretending to slit his wrists and his throat.

Yet even as Ms. Falana, Mr. Orlando and Jack Jones have slipped from the radar screen of our popular culture, Mr. Cooper is still very much among the living. Three months shy of 70, he has garnered a new, younger audience from his sometimes explosive appearances on Howard Stern’s radio show, where Mr. Cooper has faced off against his estranged children from his first marriage, his mother and even Mr. Stern, who once tried to take credit for reviving Mr. Cooper’s career. “Howard, I am a genius of myself,” Mr. Cooper roared in his own defense.

Mr. Cooper currently can be seen playing a mafioso and holding his own against Robert De Niro in Analyze This . He closed last year’s Friars Roast of sitcom star Drew Carey. And shortly he will be the host of the Fox News Channel’s Colossal Movietone News quiz show. That is, when and if the Kosovo crisis dies down. “I’m being pre-empted by a war,” he said, “which goes to show you how important I am.” (A spokesman for the network said the show will eventually run Saturdays at 2 P.M.)

Mr. Cooper seems to have no illusions about his place in the comedy food chain. “I am a semi name,” he explained. “I am not a Rodney Dangerfield. I am not a Bob Hope. I am a consistent performer. I’m packing rooms. But I’m happier than Rodney will ever be.”

“I came from $35 a night in comedy,” Mr. Cooper said. “You know, my father [who was also a bricklayer] made $140 a week.” Today, Mr. Cooper said he’s making $80,000 to $90,000 a week in Atlantic City. “Look at me. No education, I make more than the President of the United States. Only in America does such a wonderful thing happen to a guy with no education.”

Fixing his stare on his interviewer, Mr. Cooper asserted: “I have no complaints. Except for you.”

“He’s got some hostilities,” said Mr. Cooper’s friend, New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams. “Probably the fact that he didn’t become Bob Hope. I’ve got the same hostilities, that I didn’t become Farrah Fawcett. We all have certain envies and jealousies. Sometimes we can suppress them. Sometimes we can’t. But Pat is a genuine, great good human being. He’s been married all these years to one lady. He has stayed with all of his friends.”

And, Mrs. Adams added, he’s funny. She remembered Mr. Cooper’s remark years ago at one of the star-studded birthday parties she throws for her comic husband, Joey Adams. Meatloaf was served and, Ms. Adams said, Mr. Cooper got up and told the crowd, which included everyone from George Steinbrenner to Barbara Walters: “You know the Jews are in trouble when they’re serving meatloaf.”

“I yell and scream, but I’m a gentleman. I respect and care and that’s the important thing,” Mr. Cooper said. “I present my gentleness my way. If I walked in and said”-he started whispering-“‘Good morning,’ people would say, ‘The fuckin’ guy’s dying. Fucking Cooper’s dying. Get an ambulance.'”

“Some of his anger may be real,” Ms. Adams said. “But when he really vented his spleen a few times and he found that it worked, he got repeated and reported, then I think he knew he could use it.”

Sitting in the Friars barroom, Mr. Cooper appeared thinner than he did during his Tomorrow appearance, although he claims he weighs more. His salt-and-pepper hair has given way to a uniform brown.

“I’m very flattered that they would think of me,” Mr. Cooper said of his Fox gig, “because I’m considered a raving maniac.”

“He is so professional. He knows the ropes,” said Chet Collier, senior vice president of the Fox News Channel. “He knows when to go for something and when to lay back.”

Mr. Cooper’s unrepentant political incorrectness would also seem perfect for a Fox project, and the comedian said he had high regard for the Fox News Channel’s chairman Roger Ailes and not just because Mr. Ailes had booked him on The Mike Douglas Show when he was producing it. What impressed him, Mr. Cooper explained, was Mr. Ailes’ handling of Richard Nixon’s 1968 Presidential ad campaign. “That’s a guy with balls,” Mr. Cooper said of Mr. Ailes. “Man [Nixon] was dead. He made him President.”

Mr. Cooper said that for the last half-hour of the Fox program, he is on his own before the cameras, “which means, you know, Screw the Italian, let’s see him sweat. ” But, he said, “I am not afraid. If I get stuck, I say whatever’s on my mind and if they want to edit it, let them edit it.”

Years of live performances before cameras and tough crowds have made him nimble. He is never at a loss for words, even if the words are of the nonsensical vaudevillian variety. In Mr. Cooper’s hands, Ginkgo biloba becomes “Ginga ginga-ga-ga” and vitamins in general are a health hazard because “all that plastic is in your ass.”

Then there was the first time that Mr. Cooper played the Copacabana as an opener for the Four Seasons. As he was about to take the stage, he recalled, his wife from his failed first marriage handed him a summons. “She goes, ‘This is for you.’ I run the three steps to the stage and I read the fucking summons.”

Mr. Cooper’s live-wire act yielded an important lesson. “Years ago, when television was live, if you made a mistake, people said the next day, ‘Wow, did you hear what happened?’ They love it. You’re not going to go out there like you’re a piece of paper. I fall down. Boom. Let me fall.”

Mr. Cooper has been dispensing his truth on stage for almost 40 years. A native of Red Hook, Brooklyn, he was born Pasquale Caputo (a former agent gave him his stage name), the son of parents who hailed from Bari and Naples. Mr. Cooper said his show business and comedy aspirations were scorned by his parents. “I was the big buffoon-a,” he said. So, he first worked as a bricklayer and then a taxi driver. He got a break opening for strippers. He worked the Copacabana, among other places, and then in 1963, he said, Jackie Gleason “gave me my shot” on his eponymous show.

“That was the big year. That opened a lot of doors,” he said.

At a time when the ethnic groups that had immigrated to this country and raised families were getting down to the tense business of assimilating as Americans , Mr. Cooper, along with the black, Jewish and other ethnic comics of his generation, was defusing the anxieties of our melting-pot culture with acts that both sent up and celebrated one’s respective heritage. At his best, Mr. Cooper was not just delivering punch lines, he was re-creating on stage the Italian culture that had molded his life.

He was also exhibiting some Italian behavior offstage.

During a series of gigs opening for Bobby Darin, Mr. Cooper recounted that the singer told him to keep his act to 12 minutes. But one night the crooner told Mr. Cooper he was going to the airport to pick up his wife, Sandra Dee. “Stay on until I come back,” Mr. Darin said. Mr. Cooper did his 12 minutes, then walked off. “They were playing dance music for an hour, because the plane was late,” he said with a smile. “Darin comes back and says, ‘What are you doin’?'” Mr. Cooper said that he told the singer, “If you had any brains, you would have sent somebody to pick up your wife.” Mr. Darin vowed that Mr. Cooper would never open for him again. “I worked with him 10 times after that,” Mr. Cooper said.

The same result did not occur during a series of mid-1960’s engagements opening for Frank Sinatra. One night, he said, he was visited by Sinatra’s right-hand man, Jilly Rizzo, who told him that the singer wanted him to excise a joke in which Mr. Cooper asks his mother why her statue of St. Anthony is turned upside down. (“If he don’t answer my novena, he’s going to stay that way!” she replies.) Mr. Cooper said that he confronted Mr. Sinatra and told him, “Frank, do I tell you what songs to sing?” Mr. Cooper said he never toured with Mr. Sinatra again.

“But you know something. I give a shit. You take my character, my dignity? That’s my living.”

Following his appearance on Tomorrow, Mr. Cooper said he was told, “Your career is over.” “I said, ‘I just raised my price a thousand dollars. Tomorrow morning, they’re going to say, Get me that guy who called everybody a rat bastard.’ I said, ‘That’s the name of the game.’

“You know that old saying, Mind your own business?” Mr. Cooper said. “I can’t. I can’t sleep at night.”

Ask him about comedy’s current alpha male, Jerry Seinfeld, and Mr. Cooper will tell you, “Jerry was wonderful in the show,” but “I just think Jerry’s not a great stand-up comic … He’s funny, but he’s like mechanical more than he’s naturally funny. But you know something, I admire him.”

Howard Stern? “Stern’s my friend,” said Mr. Cooper. “I had arguments with Stern. I stood up to Stern. But you know something, I really respect him. He’s a very bright man. Very intelligent.”

There are others, closer to Mr. Cooper’s age bracket, who don’t fare so well in his opinion. Of Alan King, the current abbot of the New York Friars, Mr. Cooper said: “They look at Alan King like he’s the maven. He’s the maven of my cock.”

“Look at Bob Hope,” Mr. Cooper said at another point in the conversation. “Ninety-something. They put him in one of those K-Mart commercials. Guy couldn’t say da-da.” Mr. Cooper’s voice went into turbine mode. “He’s worth half a billion dollars if he’s worth a quarter. He had to do that?”

“Bobby, it’s over!” Mr. Cooper was yelling now, as if hoping Mr. Hope could hear him. “And I’ve got news for you, wait until the expose comes out about him.” Mr. Cooper moved closer to the tape recorder and began to rub his earlobe, an old Italian gesture. “Wait till the exposaaaaaay comes. I’m going to say it again. Big exposé on Mr. Hope. Trust what I tell you.”

“It’s over” is a big phrase in Mr. Cooper’s verbal arsenal. A phrase that he often applies to older comics, who he feels put ego before dignity by not knowing when its time to leave the stage for good. “I loved Henny Youngman. I loved him,” Mr. Cooper said. “He was working in a wheelchair. I said, ‘Henny, how the fuck can you do this?’ I shocked him. He says, ‘I’m a sick man, you shouldn’t say that.’ If he’s a sick man, what’s he doing on stage … reading [cue] cards at 90 years old. You’re telling me that’s not a disgrace to my fuckin’ business?”

Mr. Cooper insisted that he will know when “it’s over” for him. “In two seconds,” he said. The minute he knows he is not putting asses in seats, he said, “I would never go back and I want no one to honor me. It’s over. Goodbye.” He will then divide his time between his apartment in the Village and his 15-room home in Vegas with his wife of 35 years, the singer Patti Prince, whom he met when they performed together in the Bronx. He said he will also spend time with his daughter Patti Jo and his two granddaughters, Hannah and Eva Josephine.

He will not be retiring soon, judging from his April 21 performance at Harrah’s in Atlantic City, the second night of a six-night run as headliner. It was standing room only in the 820-seat theater. (Mr. Cooper’s agent said his client holds the attendance record at Harrah’s, breaking Bill Cosby’s record. A spokeswoman for the casino said that while Harrah’s keeps “no official records,” Mr. Cooper would be an “unofficial contender” for top attraction honors.)

There was a lot of white hair in the crowd, but they ate up Mr. Cooper’s act, which, like them, predated political correctness, and was heavy on family and generational matters. “These kids got their own language!” he said at one point.

Dressed elegantly in a double breasted blue suit, red pocket square and what looked like a gray turtleneck, Mr. Cooper paced the stage, his tongue darting in and out of his mouth. He did St. Anthony upside down, and a bit about ethnic groups “cross-breeding” food. “If my father ate a taco his ass would lock!” Mr. Cooper said to big laughs. He even sent up himself, screaming, “I’m sick and tired of the cliché, ‘You’re always yelling!”

Barely 10 minutes after his show, Mr. Cooper emerged from his dressing room, dressed in a gray Members Only jacket and a black ball cap. He was with his agent, Stan Seidenberg, and a sad-eyed white-haired friend from his Brooklyn days, whom he jokingly identified only as his bodyguard Petey. The three men headed toward the casino’s Italian restaurant.

As the men surveyed their menus, Mr. Cooper told his agent that he had turned down a $20,000 offer to work “the millennium,” meaning New Year’s Eve. “I turned it down,” he said.

“I don’t blame you,” said Mr. Seidenberg.

Mr. Cooper ordered a breaded veal cutlet with, as he pronounced it, “muzzarell” and tomato. “I know I’m gonna sign for this because I only sign for the big ones,” he told the waiter. Then he nodded in the direction of Mr. Seidenberg, who was wearing a suit and a dress shirt with a collar that was bordered in blue piping. “When he dresses in two-tone, I know I’m gonna get burned again.”

Mr. Seidenberg laughed one of those big, wet, boisterous laughs that could motivate a hundred comedians.

“You know who I worked with six months ago?” Mr. Cooper asked his interviewer. “The Mill Brother. The Mill Brother!”

“You sick bastard. Pay attention!” he said when his interviewer did not laugh.

“He came out. He sang ‘Paper Doll,’ he sang ‘Taxi,’ and he’s got a guy behind the curtain going, ‘Boop, boop, boop.’ I can’t fucking believe it.”

Mr. Seidenberg was laughing again and egging his client on. “Tell him the story of [singer] Sergio Franchi’s wife,” he said.

“Sergio Franchi and I worked all over the country,” Mr. Cooper said. “He passed away unfortunately. A wonderful man. I loved Sergio. So his wife turns around and says, ‘I got a great idea, Pat.’ I said, ‘Yes, Eva, what is it?’ ‘Here’s what we’re gonna do. It’ll be Sergio Franchi and Pat Cooper.’ I said, ‘I didn’t mean to upset you. Maybe nobody told you. He’s fucking dead!'”

Mr. Cooper waited for the screams to die down. “She goes, ‘No, no, you’re missing the point. You’re gonna go out and do the first hour.'” She explained that Franchi’s performance, a filmed concert, would follow. “I said, ‘I got to open for the dead? Are you fucking crazy? It’s over. Finito. Basta.'”

Mr. Cooper paused. “I got to tell this story on television,” he said.

A flashbulb went off. Someone had taken a picture of the comic. “Hey, make sure I’m not in that picture,” Mr. Cooper yelled. “I get paid for that goddamned shit. Where’s my lawyer!”

The adjacent table cracked up. When one man explained that it was his birthday, Mr. Cooper yelled: “Hurry up! Take the fucking picture!” When the flashbulb went off again, he added: “That’s $30!”

Mr. Cooper got up to meet the people at the other table. “Now what did that cost?” he said when he returned. By then, Mr. Seidenberg had brought over a hulking man who looked to be in his 30’s.

“This guy would like to speak to you. He’s a big fan of yours,” said Mr. Seidenberg.

“My lost brother!” Mr. Cooper said to the man, who was clearly relishing this moment. “Mama’s been lookin’ for how many years. How many years, you sonofabitch. I love you.”

“He’s a professional wrestler,” said Mr. Seidenberg, his voice serious.

Mr. Cooper’s voice rose. “Like I’m scared! I’ll kill that sonofabitch.”

The crowd in the restaurant has been sucked into the moment. As Mr. Cooper sat back down, it was clear they were waiting for him to continue.

“I’m working with Paul Anka at the Flamingo,” Mr. Cooper said. “In those days, I used to do 56 shows in 28 days.” During his stint with Mr. Anka, Mr. Cooper claimed, “The man never spoke to me. Never talked to me. So at the 56th show, he’s singing one of those stupid songs he’s singing.” Mr. Cooper started writhing in his seat and sang, “Havin’ your baby, havin’ my baby.”

“I walk out on stage in my robe,” he continued. “I go, ‘Paul, excuse me, I didn’t mean to be rude, but I’m the guy who was working for you. My name is Pat Cooper. How are you?’ He’s standing there, going, huh?

“‘How are you, Paul? I didn’t wanna say nothing, but can you say hello? So I can tell people that you knew I was fucking working for you.’ And then I walked off the floor.”

At one of the other tables, someone was pounding his fist in appreciation. There were people in the restaurant wiping tears from their eyes. For the second time that night, Pat Cooper had them where he wanted them. He was smiling, and the look in his eyes said he knew, it ain’t over.