St. Elsewhere's Howie Mandel Plumbs His Wacky Comedy and Emerges Flushed with Success

updated 03/11/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/11/1985 01:00AM

Mature men do not place surgical gloves over their heads and blow them up on The Merv Griffin Show. They do not make prank phone calls trying to book gigs for their troupe of acrobatic hamsters. And they do not sport gigantic hand bags, five-fingered plastic monstrosities that hang on shoulders—see, it's a hand bag. Get it? Mature men do not do these things, but Howie Mandel does, and in his mind he has never left the sixth grade. "My greatest fear is growing up," Howie says.

The truth is, Mandel, 29, can act like a grown-up; he does that every week on St. Elsewhere. As the alert emergency room medic, Dr. Fiscus, Mandel portrays the son his parents always wanted. The real Howie appears on the current Cinemax special Howie Mandel: Live From Carnegie Mall. In 26 minutes he performs 52 skits in a California shopping mall. Here's Howie plunging his hand into a goldfish bowl—sushi on the cheap. And here's Howie putting one of those anti-shoplifting devices in an old lady's purse. The alarm buzzes! Now she's under arrest!

People pay big bucks to see Howie. He performs three times a week at Hollywood's The Comedy Store, and he's a sellout on the college circuit. Using no written material and a lot of props, Mandel gets up and free-associates. Oinking, screaming, rolling around onstage, he feels "like a kid up there," he says, "with a playground for doing whatever I feel like." St. Elsewhere co-star Stephen (Dr. Axelrod) Furst says, "Why grow up if you can hang around Howie Mandel?"

Howie knows he's not a well man. "Stand-up comedy is a sickness," he says. "Who wouldn't want a room full of people laughing and screaming at you just because of who you are? Nothing is as good, except maybe having a baby." Being bad is good as far as Howie is concerned. At 16, he turned on a fire extinguisher under a lady's dress in a Howard Johnson's. Growing up, Howie got expelled from three high schools because of similar stunts. Says wife Terry, 27, who was his girlfriend in those days: "People used to come from all over just to see what Howie would do." He was far from the average idle-minded adolescent. "What got me thrown out of schools weren't simple wisecracks," he says. "They were extravaganzas. They took lots of work and planning. That's why my parents didn't worry about me." His mother, Evey, agrees. "He was always more of an annoyance than destructive," she says. "Most kids who get thrown out of school don't want to go back. Howie always wanted to."

As the cherished firstborn son of a Toronto lighting manufacturer and realtor, Howie had the best of everything middle-class: trips to Florida, Hebrew school, the works. Then, at his birthday party when he was 11 years old, he got his first yuks. "I began choking on a piece of birthday cake," he remembers. "My baby voice came out. People laughed. I was dying." For weeks after, he practiced making that voice until cake was unnecessary as part of the act. As Howie explains, "I have an insatiable desire to be the center of attention." (Years later he used the same sound to create the voice of Gizmo in Gremlins.) Says Evey: "Whatever you see him do onstage, that's what I had to put up with all the years I had him. He did all the characters and antics with me first."

After getting a high school equivalency diploma, Mandel became a door-to-door rug salesman. "Since I was color-blind, I figured I was a natural for the carpet business," he says. Soon Terry had a couple of carats on her ring finger, and Howie owned two stores, thanks to such dubious tactics as selling a woman rubber underpadding as a rug. When the customer complained that a large section of her new "rug" had been eaten up by the vacuum, Howie cried, "You don't vacuum rubber carpeting, you erase it!" For a carpet salesman, Mandel wasn't a bad comic.

Then on a business trip to L.A. in 1979, Howie went to Hollywood, where no one has to grow up. He visited The Comedy Store on amateur night and, prompted by some pals, went onstage, ad-libbed and returned a semi-star. Producer George Foster marched over and booked Howie for 15 segments of the syndicated show Make Me Laugh, all of which he filmed in three days. Returning to Toronto, Howie just thought it was "a neat story about how I spent my vacation."

Soon the phone call came. A big shot in Los Angeles was talking a network development deal, and 45 days before his wedding to Terry, Howie, cut out of the carpet business. "Her parents were worried," he says.

Since then Mandel's career hasn't slowed down for a minute, thanks to his talent and some luck. Like the spot on Merv Griffin, where he did his surgical glove number, which prompted a phone call from Diana Ross' agent. The lady wanted him to open for her in Las Vegas. He landed the job on St. Elsewhere by reading one page of medical terminology—straight. This month he starts filming his feature debut as a co-star of Blake Edwards' The Music Box, with Ted (Cheers) Danson.

The years have made him a little less strange, but not much. After fixing the toilet at their Studio City apartment recently, Howie emerged—dripping wet, wearing a scuba mask—to kiss his wife. "Life with Howie is scary," says Terry. "When I first met him, he was nuts. Not funny, destructive." For instance on their first date, Howie took Terry to see The Exorcist at a drive-in during a blizzard and accidently locked the keys in the car. Rather than admit his mistake, he insisted they watch the film sitting on top of the car. After stunts like that, scuba missions are comic relief.

Howie now enjoys a new little playmate. He and Terry have an 11-week-old daughter, Jackelyn, whom Howie helped to deliver. Lately, Howie admits, "Most of my life is lived in malls, buying toys and getting into trouble," and those are family traditions he might pass on to his daughter. Howie might even show her his hand bag or his goldfish joke or maybe the fire extinguisher trick. The new father does know some things are serious. "I think being a dad is scary," says Howie. "I mean, I'm not that grown-up myself."

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