Whatever Happen to Tommy Michaels?byJdk44©
It was a foul-mouthed, drug addicted nightclub comic who said it best. He was the one who summed up the comedic career of Tommy Michaels whose career in show business effectively came to an end on a Friday in November in Dallas, Texas.
The dirty-mouthed comic walked on stage two weeks after that horrific day in '63 and when he did it was the first time he had appeared before a nightclub crowd since that tragic event. Since the innocence of America was taken away by an assassin's bullet.
The comic took the stage wearing a sweat-stained dark blue silk shirt that was open at the collar. The comic was sweating because one sweats when one is addicted to drugs. One sweats when his heart is beating ten times faster than it should.
But as always the mind of the comic was sharp. The mind of the comic was lucid and when he stepped on stage the audience inside the nightclub all became quiet because they wanted to hear what he had to say. Specifically they wanted to know what he would have to say regarding the events in Dallas. The events that over a four day period shook the world to its core. Made everyone see that life could be a dangerous place and anything and everything could happen in a blink of an eye and there was nothing anyone could do about it. You surely couldn't stop it.
"Good evening ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Hungry I," the comic began that night as he walked on stage and grabbed the microphone and took it off the stand. Started pacing around the stage and looking past the stage lights to try to make out the faces in the crowd. As he did this the audience waited for whatever he had to say. They collectively moved forward in their seats and the waitresses who were serving drinks all stopped as well. Even the cooks and busboys came out of the kitchen. Everyone wanted to hear what was said. Good or bad they needed to hear. They needed to move on with their lives and whatever the foul-mouthed, drug addicted comic would say would be their gateway to that new moment in their lives. When they could forget the nightmare they had just experienced as a nation. To try to at least put it behind them.
"Well, it looks like Tommy Michaels is pretty much fucked," the comic finally said. At first the audience was silent. They all looked at each other. Then slowly it began to dawn on them who the comic was talking about. They began to realize what he was trying to say about what had happen to all of them. What had happen to the nation. How it indeed had changed. It had really fucked things up.
The comic tried to tell another joke after the first one but couldn't. He had to wait a few beats. The laughter was too much. It was breaking his rhythm.
***** ***** *****
In the beginning of November in '63, Tommy Michaels, who had just appeared on both the covers of "LIFE" and "Time Magazine and had been named one of the most influential Americans by the editors of "Newsweek", flew to Hollywood in order to iron out the details of the contract which would allow him to star in his first major motion picture.
On that first day he was in Hollywood after checking into his suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel he went down and sat at the bar and ordered a scotch and soda and reflected on the past few years.
He reflected on the fact that right after the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 he had no intention of imitating him on stage. In fact he wasn't a guy who even did political humor but instead did Henny Youngman-type one liners which if the truth be known were not as good as the real Henny Youngman one liners.
As a result, the kind of bookings that Tommy got in those days were the kind of bookings that made him wonder if he was even in the right profession. Made him wonder if maybe his decision to be a stand-up comic was really a good one.
It was around this time that Tommy was visiting his agent in Times Square and that agent named Sammy Flowers suggested to Michaels that he put his JFK impression in his act. Sammy did this after he heard Tommy do his impression of the new President as they chatted in his office.
"But I'm not a political comic," Tommy said after hearing this suggestion. He said he wasn't like Lenny Bruce or Mort Sahl and really did not see himself making fun of the President. Talking about politics which he wasn't even interest in.
"So spend your whole life working dives, huh," Sammy Flowers told his client who wasn't earning himself nor his agent that much money. Before Tommy could answer Sammy, the agent insisted that the next time Michaels perform he at least try the JFK impression out and see how the audience reacted. He said he guaranteed that the audience would love hearing the impression and if they didn't the two of them could forget they ever had this conversation.
"The audience is the final barometer," Sammy reminded his client. Tommy agreed with this and said that the next time he performed in front of an audience he would do Kennedy walking into a deli and trying to order a sandwich for him and the Russian Premiere. Michaels said he had thought up this bit of comedy and was doing it for his friends at the Carnegie Deli.
"So you have been using the JFK imitation!" Sammy told Tommy. The comic replied that he had done it only for his buddies----- but never an audience.
"Well, do it for an audience," the agent said. As he lit up another cigarette. The fourth cigarette that he had lit up since he had began his conversation with his client.
***** ***** *****
On March 23rd of 1961, Tommy Michaels got up on stage at the Timmy Tan Nightclub out on Long Island and during his ten minute act between strippers and a magician he did a routine on JFK. He imitated the way Kennedy talked and even jabbed his index finger in the air when he spoke the way the President did. He did jokes about Cuba and the missile crisis and Richard Nixon. The audience loved what he did and in an instant Tommy realize he had hit upon something good.
On that night Tommy did two shows at the Timmy Tan Nightclub and even though he was only going to do the JFK imitation during the first show at 8 pm, he did it again in the second show at midnight and in both instances the JFK routine scored well with the crowd. When he started talking with the Boston accent the nightclub audience knew who Tommy was imitating and they approved. They approved what he was doing and they laughed uproariously when the comic got to the punch lines.
When Tommy Michaels was through for the night he knew he had struck comedy gold and after the last show as he stood in the kitchen of the Timmy Tan Club he tracked down Sammy Flowers at the Copacabana where the agent was watching Bobby Darin. After getting Sammy on the phone, Tommy told him that he was right. He told him he had killed the audience with his Kennedy impersonation. Had them in his corner the moment he open his mouth.
"It was incredible, Sammy!" Tommy shouted out into the pay phone as a staff of Asian cooks looked on and wondered what the white man in the tuxedo was so happy about.
"Just like you said, Sammy," Michaels reminded him. "Just like you said."
To all of this the agent nodded his head as he took the call from the private booth in the Copacabana where he was sitting with a guy who worked at CBS. After Sammy ended his call with the happy client he turned to the executive from CBS and told him he represented a comic who did an impression of the President of the United States.
"No kidding?" the executive asked. The agent replied 'no kidding' and soon the two men were making arrangements for Tommy Michaels to audition for the "Ed Sullivan Show."
The next day Sammy Flowers met with his client and told him that he had arranged for him to meet with Ed Sullivan and his son-in-law and if Sullivan liked him he would be on the show. The most popular TV show on the air on Sunday nights.
By the time of this conversation Tommy had no more aversions to doing the JFK impressions in front of an audience. In fact in the time between that last performance at midnight at the Timmy Tan Club and his meeting with his agent, Tommy had even come up with new material. When Tommy met with Sammy most of the meeting was spent with the comic trying out the new jokes he had come up with. All of the jokes revolved around JFK and every one of them made Sammy Flowers laugh out loud.
"You're good, kid," Sammy said in that agent-kind-of-tone. He said he had the feeling Tommy was on to something big. Very big.
The "audition" with Ed Sullivan and his son-in-law took place a few days later in the afternoon and it took place in Sullivan's office with Ed not even looking up at Tommy as he performed. But the TV host was indeed listening to what he heard because he laughed at all of the punch lines Michaels was using and when Tommy was finished doing his routines Ed Sullivan turned to his son-in-law and told him to book him on the show. It was then and only then that the iconic figure of American broadcasting finally looked up at Tommy and when he did he shook Tommy's hand and told him he was going to be a big star.
"Mark my word," Sullivan said. Speaking in a more relaxed and natural voice than he did on television. Not looking so stiff and formal. Smoking his cigarette and taking a long drag then slowly letting the smoke into the air as he studied the young comic before him through a haze of smoke.
"Thank you, Mr. Sullivan," Tommy Michaels said. With that the meeting came to an end and everyone stood and shook hands and as they all walked out of the office it was as if they were all close friends. Buddies who were going to share the good life together in the years ahead.
It was now over two years since that first appearance on Ed Sullivan and Tommy did indeed become a big star as both his agent and Sullivan predicted.
He would end up appearing on Sullivan a total of five times in the year of 1961 and another fourteen times between 1962 and 1963. He was on so much that on one appearance after he did his 5-minute routine and the host came on to chat with him, Tommy announced to the audience that he was glad to have Mr. Sullivan on The Tommy Michaels Show and hoped that he would come back real soon. The audience ate this up and so did Ed, himself. He let out a genuine laugh and played along with Tommy by asking him who his next guest was.
"I'm going to have that guy with the hand-puppets," Tommy Michaels said alluding to a popular guest on the Sullivan Show. Once again the host laughed at this and he even laughed when Tommy said he was lucky to get Senor Wences on the show since "that Sullivan guy" was being a hard-nose about sharing his talent.
***** ***** *****
On his second day in California, Tommy was picked up by a limousine at the Beverly Hills hotel and driven to the movie studio and while at the studio he signed a contract which would make him a very wealthy man once filming commenced on the comedy which would cast him as a U.S. President named Zack Bennedy; a politician from Boston who of course was inspired by President Kennedy.
In the proposed movie the chief of staff for the President would be Frank Sinatra and the two of them along with a care-free super spy played by Dean Martin would set about saving the world after the Russian premier; played by Peter Sellers, decides that he wants to rule the world from Moscow.
Of course the good guys win in the end, and even though there was no one cast as the President's wife, Tommy heard at the meeting at the movie studio that it would be Audrey Hepburn who would play the role of the First Lady.
"Would you feel comfortable in doing love scenes with Miss Hepburn?" Tommy was asked at one point by the studio head who Michaels found out later was homosexual, and thus thought that playing love scenes with Audrey Hepburn would be difficult.
"Not at all," Tommy replied with a broad smile on his face. In fact he said he would do as many love scenes with Audrey Hepburn as was necessary. All for the good of the film, of course.
Once the business of filmmaking was completed in Hollywood, Tommy flew back to the east coast where he once again took up residence at a Manhattan hotel which had become his home once he started appearing around the country and performing at the hottest nightclubs and also appearing in Las Vegas where he made big money headlining in the main ballrooms.
The revenue he received because of his nightclub appearances insured that he could stay at the fanciest hotel in New York City and his many appearances on Sullivan also made him one of the more well known occupants of the hotel he lived in. The hotel of course had a doorman outside the lobby of the building and when Tommy either arrived or departed the doorman made sure the door was open for his guest and when there were fans loitering in the lobby and out on the sidewalk in front of the entrance waiting for Tommy, the doorman also made sure that the fans were kept back. Needless to say Tommy appreciated all that the doorman did for him. Every week he would tip the guy a C-note. The doorman would take the money as if he deserved it.
When Tommy checked in with his agent when he got back into the city he learn that Sammy Flowers had big plans for him as the year drew to a close and especially in the beginning of 1964.
By the time Tommy got back to New York, Sammy was already aware that his client had sign the contract to do the motion picture at the beginning of '64 and he also learned that most of the filming for the picture would be done in Las Vegas which Sammy Flowers was ecstatic about since he was planning on booking Tommy for three weeks in January at the Flamingo Hotel. After that he was in discussions with Val Parnell in London who wanted Tommy to come to England and be on his very popular "Sunday Night At The London Palladium" which was the British version of the Ed Sullivan Show.
In the conversation that Tommy had with Sammy after coming back from Hollywood they spoke at length about how Tommy could expand his act in the months and years ahead.
"You gotta be ready for everything, Tommy," Flowers told him. Tommy understood this and this was why, he informed Sammy, that he was already working on new impressions. He said he was working on a real good one of the actor Walter Brennan.
"You keep that up, Tommy," Sammy told him. He said that the way he saw it an act like Tommy Michaels could go on forever.
"Besides," Sammy said. "We got three brothers in politics. These Kennedy's are gonna live forever. And look at Bobby; he's got sons, and the President has little John-John. That little guy will grow up to be the President. Mark my word."
Tommy loved hearing talk like this. It made him excited for the future.
***** ***** *****
November 22nd started out as a good day for Tommy. He awoke in his Manhattan hotel and ordered room service. When room service arrived the bellhop brought up not only his breakfast but copies of all of the morning papers including the daily Variety.
After he finished eating his breakfast and reading the papers, Tommy decided he would go to Brooklyn and visit with an old friend who use to work the nightclubs with him but who was now running a restaurant.
When Tommy left his hotel suite around 11 am he was intent on getting a cab that would take him to Brooklyn. But after walking out of his hotel he decided to buy a magazine for the cab ride to his friend's house and it was while walking up the block to the newsstand that he saw something that caught his eye. Saw something that stopped him dead in his tracks.
What Tommy saw was the sight of a small group of people running towards a parked taxi cab and gathering around the open window on the passenger side in order to hear something that was going on inside. At first Tommy thought the cab driver was telling them something, but then he realize that what the people were listening to was coming from the car radio.
Tommy forgot about walking to the newsstand at this point and instead walked towards the cab with the people crowding around it. As Tommy did this he saw a woman who was closest to the cab suddenly jerk her head back and let out a scream. He then saw a man begin to cry as he shook his head and dropped his briefcase. At that point Tommy started to hear what was coming from inside the cab. He heard the voice of a radio announcer say that something had happen to the motorcade in Dallas. What motorcade? What Dallas? These were the questions that Tommy was asking as he stepped towards the cab and stuck his head inside to look at the driver.
"The President's been shot," the cabbie told Tommy as Tommy peered inside.
"What President?" Michaels then asked. But the cabbie did not answer. Instead, he began to cry. It was someone else who told Tommy the news. Another passerby who was standing behind him looking into the cab.
"President Kennedy's been shot," the stranger said. "He was shot in Dallas, Texas. Shot dead in the street."
Upon hearing this and realizing what it all meant, Tommy could feel his heart sink. It was the most sickening feeling.
***** ***** *****
Tommy Michaels went back to his hotel suite instead of going to Brooklyn to see his old friend.
Tommy went back to his suite and immediately turned on the television and sat there the rest of the afternoon. At 5 pm he called up room service and ordered dinner, and as he waited he called up his agent Sammy Flowers. When Sammy's secretary answered the phone she told Tommy that the agent had gone home.
When Tommy finally got Sammy at his home he discovered that the agent had been doing what he had been doing for hours. Sammy said he couldn't believe what had happen. From the sound of Sammy's voice Tommy could tell that Sammy had been crying most of the day. Michaels was not surprised by this. In Sammy's office he had hung a campaign poster of JFK on his wall and had even met the man when he was running for President.
In the conversation that Tommy had with Flowers they discussed everything except the obvious. They discussed everything except the question of how all of this would affect Tommy. Now that the unthinkable had happen one couldn't help but wonder if a comic who did Kennedy impressions would still be in demand. Would people still want to be entertained by him.
That night as the clock struck midnight in Manhattan, Tommy was still up and looking out of his window. He was looking at the bright lights of the Manhattan skyline and as he did tears were streaming down his face.
What was the future for the country he asked himself. What was the future for him as well?
What did he do now?
After a few minutes Tommy moved way from the window and lit up a cigar and tried to smoke it. Ever since he started to become a success in show business he had gotten into a habit of smoking cigars. For Tommy this was a sign that he had made it. He felt as if he could smoke a cigar the same way the big shots in the nightclubs smoked them. The big shots who sat in the private booths and seemed to know everyone who came in. From afar Tommy Michaels had always admired such men and envied them.
One night at the Copacabana after ending his successful two week engagement there Tommy Michaels fulfilled his ambition by sitting in one of those private booths and lighting up a cigar. He had heard that a basketball coach in Boston lit up a cigar after winning games and he felt he was entitled to do the same thing.
On this night though just hours after the tragedy in Dallas, Tommy found he was not in the mood to smoke a cigar. He found that he couldn't do it.
After a few moments he put the cigar out in the ashtray and once again looked out the window.
He imagined to himself what a new day would look like in a few hours.
He wondered, too, if that new day would mean a future for him.