Originally created 05/10/04

Professor Irwin Corey is back on Broadway at 90



NEW YORK -- It's five minutes to curtain, and the cast of "Sly Fox" is buzzing backstage at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

Eric Stoltz rambles downstairs, adjusting his shirt cuffs. Richard Dreyfuss emerges from a back room in his opening costume, a billowing white nightshirt. Elizabeth Berkley dashes past in sweat pants and stocking cap.

But their co-star, Professor Irwin Corey, is ready for his nap.

"I sleep most of the time," he confides, somewhat sheepishly.

Known as "professor" from his days in stand-up comedy, the wild-haired Corey can be excused a little shuteye - at almost 90, he is surely the oldest actor working on Broadway. Since he doesn't appear in "Sly Fox" until the second act, a cot was brought into his dressing room, and a do-not-disturb "sleeping fox" sign was made for his doorknob.

But before he can nap, there's the huddle.

Corey wanders on stage to join the rest of the cast, dressed in their 19th-century costumes of waistcoats and bustles. They link arms, talk softly among themselves, hum quietly, lean in close - and yell an emphatic, unprintable epithet about Nazis.

"It's actually something that Irwin started," Stoltz says. "It's to unify our company energy and spirit. After we do it everyone always says it's very true."

Corey explains: "It fills us with a sense of vengeance."

Known for improvisational riffs full of double-talk on matters scholarly and not-so, Corey will be recognized to viewers of the old Johnny Carson, Steve Allen or Merv Griffin shows as "The World's Foremost Authority."

It's a reputation he does his best to uphold. On a recent night at the Barrymore Theatre, Corey offers his thoughts on, among other things, Iraq ("They did have mass destruction weapons - Dick Cheney has the receipt") Social Security ("It'll never run out of money!") and the Kennedy assassination ("We call Oswald the lone assassin? It's a lie.")

His dizzying mix of mock-intellectual circumlocutions, earnest political tirades and slapstick one-liners made Corey the king of comedic confusion. Between stints on Broadway and in film, he had a brief tour in the Army and did a write-in campaign for president on Hugh Hefner's Playboy ticket in 1959. His slogan: "He'll run for any party and bring his own bottle."

"That was a lot of fun," he recalls. "We had parades. They put my campaign manager in jail for disturbing the peace."

So who is he endorsing this year?

"One is 90 percent no good, and the other is 91 percent no good," he says. "Republicans and Democrats are both ends of the same string."

Nader, then? "Nah," he says.

In his dressing room at the Barrymore, alongside pictures of his 7-year-old grandson and a stack of books on Shakespeare and World War II, is a picture of Corey hugging Fidel Castro in 1993, when Corey went to Cuba to deliver thousands of dollars worth of medicine.

Corey tried to join the Communist Party back when doing so could mean an appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee. But it was the Communist Party, not the government, that blacklisted him.

"I wanted to join the party, but they wouldn't let me," he says. "They said I was an Anarchist."

Well, is he?

"I think so," he says.

Still, he had a plan if he were ever called before the McCarthy committee.

"They would say to me, you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? My answer would be 'uh, uh, s-s-s-sir, would you mind r-r-r-repeating the question?"'

He moves a little slower now, and his Einstein-like hair is pure white. But lest you confuse him with the doddering court clerk he plays on stage, the still-spry professor comes equipped with zingers.

"Did you hear about the guy who went to the druggist and wanted to get some cyanide?" he asks. "The guy takes a picture of his wife out of his wallet, and the druggist says, 'I'm sorry, I didn't know you had a prescription!"'

He waits for the imagined drum roll, then springs another:

"This guy went to the library, wanted to get a book on suicide. The librarian said, 'Go look under the letter S.' He goes and he can't find it, and he says, 'There's nothing here!' She says, 'I know, they never bring them back."'

On stage, he's still got it. The Daily News said Corey "practically steals his scene," while The New York Times said he "makes a winningly precise art of being addled."

"He gets more laughs per line than any other actor on that stage," Stoltz says.

Born in Brooklyn, Corey lived in an orphanage until age 13. As he tells it, he got his start when he auditioned for a play in the 1930s with the soliloquy from "Hamlet." The casting director laughed so hard, he eventually told him, "You should be a comedian."

He took his advice.

He got his first regular gig at the Village Vanguard, where he earned his nickname after an opening act that began with five minutes of nervous pantomime. The first word out of his mouth was, "However."

Since then, he's had a whirlwind of a career that spanned several stints on Broadway (from "New Faces of 1943" to "Thieves" in 1974); in film (from "How to Commit Marriage" in 1969 to "Curse of the Jade Scorpion" in 2001); and on late-night television and in comedy clubs.

He coined some famous lines for which he hasn't always been credited.

"You know that one - you can get farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word? That was me," he says. Of course, many attribute the line to Al Capone.

Corey first appeared in "Sly Fox" - Larry Gelbart's take on Ben Jonson's "Volpone" - in Chicago in 1978 with Jackie Gleason. Corey played Jethro Crouch, a part now played by the comparatively youthful 63-year-old Rene Auberjonois.

He may have disappeared from Broadway - and television - for the last 30 years, but Corey is far from retired: He's spent the last few decades making appearances at comedy clubs and Friar's club roasts.

"Somebody told me, 'I haven't seen you in 30 years - you haven't changed a bit!"' he says. "I said, you mean to tell me I looked this bad 30 years ago?"

A few months shy of his 90th birthday, Corey has no intention of hanging up his trademark rumpled suits and string tie any time soon. He calls life, at any age, the "one miracle that happened in this galaxy."

"Walking on water is a trick," he says. "But life is a miracle."

And he fully intends to live - and crack wise - for another 10, 20, 30 years.

"Live to 120? Not bad," he says. "Life is so boring. Does it have to be short?"