Jackie Gayle Shows His Mettle as An Actor in Tin Men

updated 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

There's a kind of recognition that comes late in a career that is especially sweet. It comes after years of steady work, of being good, respected, but never quite making it to household-name status. At 57, Jackie Gayle has found that recognition. "Naturally, I'm not a star," says Gayle, "but after a long while busting my butt in saloons, I'm riding some heat now."

In Tin Men, the comedy hit about aluminum-siding salesmen starring Danny DeVito and Richard Dreyfuss, Gayle stands out. "Every movie should have a Jackie Gayle," raves DeVito. Adds writer-director Barry Levinson, "Jackie is one of the real machine-gun stand-ups. Onstage, he just explodes. He hasn't worked much in film. This film gave him a chance to shine." Gayle plays DeVito's sales partner, a panama hat-wearing lug obsessed with Bonanza. Why, he asks, does a 50-year-old father have three 47-year-old sons? And why do these four healthy single guys never ever seem to express an interest in sex? Audiences love Gayle. They wait through the end credits to find out who he is, and then ask, haven't we seen him before?

They well may have. For the past 30 years, Gayle has been working steadily as a stand-up comic. He made it as far as TV talk shows and "tons of cable" specials, and he regularly worked the Playboy Club circuit when the bunnies were still hopping. "Faster, wackier and saltier than Jack Carter," says a 1966 review typical of his notices. By the late 1970s and early '80s, he was opening for Frank Sinatra. He even had bit parts in movies, including Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose.

But Gayle never quite broke through to the top rank of comics from his generation that includes Don Rickles, Joey Bishop and Rodney Dangerfield. Maybe there were just too many Jackies cracking jokes, what with Jackie Mason, Jackie Vernon and Jack E. Leonard. In any case, this Jackie says he has been around too long now to kid himself that his good notices in Tin Men have suddenly made him the living remake of A Star Is Born. "You've seen those movies where the girl starts to dance and the cleaning ladies stop sweeping to stare," he says. "Well it's not that. I'm just fortunate that they seemed to like me in this picture."

He's sitting in the kitchen of his three-bedroom house in Van Nuys, Calif. The kitchen is oversize. Gayle's ex-wife, a belly dancer named Joanna (who has since moved on to painting and opera singing), was hooked on cooking, and she used to make good use of the kitchen. The marriage, Gayle's only bout with wedlock, lasted from 1972 to 1980. Gayle's ample waistline indicates an appreciation of good food. "I think what broke up the marriage was when she stopped cooking," he says. "When we weren't eating dinner, we were fighting." Then, ever the professional, he cracks, "I figured I'd call my autobiography In Between Meals."

Born Jack Potovsky in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, Gayle says he learned about humor early. "We were one of those families who were always starving and always laughing," he says. His father was a milkman and his mother a housewife. He says he always had his dad's support, first when he became a professional drummer at 16 and then later when he moved into comedy. "My father wasn't one of those be-a-doctor guys. I know so many people, their fathers told them what to do, and they hate their fathers, even after they're dead. But my father loved it. When I performed, he laughed harder than anybody."

Unlike many comedians who don't know how to be funny offstage, Gayle is a compulsive joke teller. "Between takes, sitting around, Jackie would tell jokes that would put you on the floor. I mean, out on the floor," says Barry Levinson. The jokes, unfortunately, are not the sort you'd tell at Sunday dinner. Gayle's idol was his pal Lenny Bruce. But Lenny's mother and Gayle booster Sally Marr says neither Jackie nor his humor is crude. "When people tell me Jackie's nasty," says Sally, 80, "I tell them, no, he's real."

Thanks to Tin Men, Gayle has been offered a TV series and a movie. He says a producer is considering a screenplay he has written. In an age when every young comedian who can say "But seriously, folks" seems to get his own cable special, this may not seem like much, but Gayle is both happy and grateful. "It never happened to me this way before," he recalls. "Anything that happens now, I know I was in a hit."

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