Sammy Petrillo, 1934-2009
THE FOLLOWING WAS WRITTEN IN JANUARY, 2007 AFTER COMIC BOOK WRITER/EDITOR PAUL CASTIGLIA MET ACTOR/COMEDIAN SAMMY PETRILLO AT A NEW YORK COMIC CONVENTION:
Over the weekend, Sammy Petrillo, the infamous Jerry Lewis impersonator who co-starred with Dean Martin-esque partner Duke Mitchell and famous film fiend Bela Lugosi in "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" was a guest at the Big Apple Comic Con in NYC.
I was at the con for 2 hours, mostly waiting around for Larry Storch, who never showed up while I was there (but he is supposed to be at a show in March, so I'll try again then). So I kept finding my way back to the "celebrity signings area" to check for Larry Storch, and wound up talking to Sammy Petrillo each time. Here are the highlights of our conversations:
ON BELA LUGOSI: Sammy said Bela was very "grandfatherly" and treated him like what he was - a kid (Sammy was 17 at the time they filmed the movie).
He also said that Bela was the utmost professional, and he never saw him using drugs of any kind. He said when Bela makes the big long speech about evolution and embryonic metamorphosis (which Sammy proceeded to recite a little of for me himself... in Bela's voice!), that Bela did it perfectly and in one take, and everyone on the set applauded afterward.
Sammy also relayed a story about an apartment or annex Bela had built for his son, but I missed the details because there was a lot of surrounding chatter at this point.
ON DIRECTOR WILLIAM BEAUDINE: Sammy asked if I knew what his nickname was, and I said sure, "one-take Beaudine." Sammy said that it wasn't because he was necessarily bad or watching the budget, but that he knew how to set-up stage scenes so well and prep the actors before rolling the cameras that no further takes were necessary.
Sammy also said that "comics loved working with Beaudine" because he would just let the comics go, encouraging ad-libbing. Sammy admitted that they didn't have much of a script on "Brooklyn Gorilla" and most of what you see was ad-libbed. You can see a lot of this ad-libbing in Beaudine's East Side Kids/Bowery Boys films, too.
Speaking of ad-libbing, there is a scene in "Gorilla" where Sammy slaps Bela on the back real hard, and Lugosi looks startled and a bit angry by the slap. I asked Sammy about that, and he said, "I probably ad-libbed that," stating that he was a kid (implying that he hadn't given thought to the fact that it might hurt Lugosi). Of course, the results are on film, because after his initial reaction, Lugosi the pro finishes the scene without missing a beat, so Lugosi probably wrote it off to Petrillo's being an impetuous youth.
ON BEING A NIGHTCLUB COMIC AT AGE 16: Sammy said that kids were allowed in nightclubs as long as they didn't drink. He said that back in those days he was unique because "kid comics" were all but unheard of. In fact, he said most comics were "men," so there weren't even a lot of "young men" comics working the clubs at that point (as opposed to now, where there is a slew of stand-up comics in their '20s). He also said they didn't call it "stand-up comedy" back then... you were just a comic. He said that the men comics were referred to as "funny men," as in "he's a funnyman." He said people would tell him, "You're a funny kid... one day you'll be a 'funnyman!'"
Sammy confessed that he used to steal other comics' jokes and acts (I replied, "Coming from you, that's an understatement," which made his manager laugh heartily). But Sammy went on to say that it backfired a bit, because he'd start telling wife and mother-in-law jokes he'd heard other comics do, until finally someone said to him, "you're 16 - stop with the wife & mother-in-law jokes - it doesn't work!"
ON DVD'S OF "BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA": He kept saying how much he liked the Digiview DVD of his movie, and that he couldn't believe it was only a $1! He was also impressed with the printing on the disc itself (on both Digiview and the Alpha release). He mentioned the Image disc that has the interview with him - "it was $20 when it came out but you can probably get it for less now." He signed the paper insert sleeve of my Alpha DVD but accidentally wrote, "To my Paul," instead of "To my pal, Paul," so he wrote a second autograph on one of the sheets he had there as well.
PAUL CASTIGLIA, AUGUST 17, 2009:
I’ll never forget meeting Sammy – he really was a wonderful fellow, very engaging and open to talking about “the old days” and in a way that was really interesting given that he is more “infamous” than “famous.” Sammy seemed to accept his role as a show business anomaly without a hint of bitterness. In fact, I think he rather enjoyed the irony of it all. Everyone in show business should be as nice as Sammy was to me that weekend. He’ll be missed.