There are some performers who become masters of a particular, single art form. There are others who become a jack of all trades…accomplished in many. Jack Carter was one of those types…a flexible, multi-talented comic, actor, dancer, and singer. He may not have ever become an icon like some of his contemporaries (who had great respect and reverence for him), but reached one of his most important goals…to survive, something the 93 year old did personally as well as professionally.
Working until the very end, Carter started his career acting in plays (not in vaudeville or the Catskills), before finding his comedy skills. His skills in musical theater and comedy made him particularly well suited to the military’s entertainment outfit, and like many who performed in SRO shows during World War II, almost immediately made the move to the new TV industry. In early TV he was a guest host for Milton Berle, which led to him replacing Jackie Gleeson on Cavalcade of Stars. He was also one of the rotating guest hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour. Carter and Jerry Lewis were the last surviving hosts of that TV experiment which included personalities such as Ed Wynn, Jimmy Durante, Dean Martin, and Donald O’Connor. Like Carter. These early TV performers were obligated to have a handful of skills to make such variety shows run smoothly…they were literally the variety on their shows. Carter’s style was to be fast, slick, and cool.
Like many, creating his own personality on such variety shows and showing the singing, dancing, sketch, and stand up he could do made his a perfect choice fill the airwaves in the early days of TV. His own variety show, The Jack Carter Show, aired as the lead in to Your Show of Shows as part of the Saturday Night Revue. Although the show wouldn’t become one of the Golden Age of TV’s classics (to hear his explanation why, watch Norm MacDonald’s interview below), it had a loyal following and successful run. The experience also introduced him to Sid Caesar…the lifelong friend whose eulogy he delivered just last year.
He went on to become one of the first comics to find regular work in Vegas (when it was just become a city for comedy revues), and appeared in movies (often playing versions on his own personality). And a multitude of musical-comedies on Broadway (including Call Me Mister and Mr. Wonderfuljerry lewis, jackie gleason, milton berle, ed wynn, jimmy durante, dean martin, donald o’connor, norm mcdonald, sid caesar, ed sullivan), hosted the first Tony Awards, and starred in a multitude of regional theater musicals. But TV is arguably where he made his lasting impression on audiences (along with an Emmy nomination). Not only did he host variety shows, but he also made numerous TV guest appearances, including a recurring role on Shameless (his last appearance was in 2014). In the 70s, he was a frequent celebrity guest on game shows. And throughout his run, one of Ed Sullivan’s favorite (and most frequent) guests.
One of the talents which made him a Sullivan favorite was his abilities as an impressionist, which included his impersonation of Ed himself. While you may not know him because of age and the number of lost TV shows which established his career, a quick look at some of his comedy gives you an appreciation for the value of the variety, energy, and commitment he brought to his work. He was faster than most comics at the time and had a certain swagger which made him seem like he could have easily fit into the Rat Pack. He was also quick to comment on political and news stories (later used on Late Night TV) which added spontaneity to his routines (as did his response to hecklers). And with a 7 decade career behind him, working until the very end (even after breaking both legs), he more than accomplished his early career goal that he would “like to last.”