Comedians die on stage all the time. But not like Dick Shawn did on April 17, 1987 at UC San Diego’s Mandeville Auditorium.
Shawn — best known for playing the actor who starred as as Adolf Hitler in Mel Brooks’ 1967 movie “The Producers” — collapsed mid-routine from what is believed to be a fatal heart attack. (There was no autopsy.)
The 63-year-old was trying out new material with the possibility of taking it to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. At the 25-minute mark, he placed his microphone down and asked if he could be heard without it. Satisfied with the crowd response, he began ruminating about the end of the world. He imagined a nuclear war in which nobody survived.
“Nobody except the 500 people in this theater!” he shouted. “And I would be your leader!”
That’s when he fell forward onto his face.
The audience assumed it was part of the act ... even after a stagehand asked if any doctors were in the house ... even after CPR was performed and the audience was asked to leave.
The audience absolutely cannot be blamed. The show, called “The 2nd Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World,” was an Andy Kaufman-esque jambalaya of stream-of-consciousness monologues, non-sequiturs and singing and dancing. And, among his fans, Shawn was already well-known for pranks such as emerging from a pile of newspapers placed on stage before the show, and lying on his back after the first act and throughout intermission, rising only for the second act.
At the Mandeville, he had just finished portraying a politician who promised: “If elected, I will not lay down on the job.”
Adam Shawn, Dick’s son, was running audio and lighting. He dashed from a booth at the rear of the theater through the lobby, where he encountered his father’s second cousin, a heart surgeon. Adam told him what was happening, and the man ran toward the stage. The comedian was already being administered CPR by some doctors from Scripps Memorial Hospital who occupied the first few rows.
“There was a defibrillator,” Adam recalled in the new book The Show Won’t Go On by Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns. “The defibrillator was out of power. It wasn’t charged. And the whole time he’s lying there, the audience is still there.”
At first, there were laughs. There was even some applause. According to Abraham and Kearns, someone yelled out, “Take his wallet!”
Even after most of the crowd grew tired of waiting and filed out, no one was sure exactly what they witnessed.
Shawn was pronounced dead at 9:55 p.m. in the ambulance by his second cousin, who signed the death certificate. But the performance didn’t come to a conclusive end until the next day, when the San Diego Union published its obit.
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