Manic Comic Gilbert Gottfried Cops a Scene—and a Career Boost—in Beverly Hills Cop II

updated 07/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Onstage, Gilbert Gottfried isn't afraid to name names. "I'd like to have a kid," he says, "but I'd probably get a Frank Sinatra Jr. instead of a Gilbert Gottfried Jr. I'd totally screw up like that." He can be complimentary; he admires Donny and Marie Osmond, he says, "because they aren't afraid to take chances." Sometimes he not only flirts with tastelessness, he takes it out to dinner, buys it a couple of drinks and embraces it passionately. "I went up to Jackie O, and I wanted to break the ice," he says during a bit about cocktail party faux pas. "So I said, 'Do you remember where you were when you heard JFK was shot?' " Yet for all his verbal chutzpah, Gottfried, after almost 17 years as a comedian, is still so scared of audiences that he performs with his eyes closed. Says his friend Robin Williams: "I told him he'd get a lot more exposure if he kept them open, but he wouldn't listen."

He may not have to. In the past few months Gottfried, 32, has walked blindly into a memorable guest spot on The Cosby Show (he played a former patient's husband who recognizes Bill Cosby in an auto showroom at an inopportune moment), a job as a manic pitchman for MTV and a scene-stealing cameo in Beverly Hills Cop II. In Cop, Gottfried portrays Sidney Bernstein, a neurotic accountant who is menaced by Eddie Murphy. Jokes Gilbert: "I play a loud, obnoxious Jew—it's a real stretch for me."

He's really a little nervous about all the attention he's getting. He says his big fear is that someday a magazine will run a picture of him diving into a swimming pool, accompanied by the caption "Gilbert makes a big splash in the '80s."

Gottfried had two earlier chances to make a splash, though each proved more of a dive. He was in the Saturday Night Live lineup in 1980-81 but didn't get much airtime. Next came a regular spot on Thicke of the Night two years later. "I think of Alan Thicke as Perry Como without the excitement," Gottfried says. Neither show did much to help his career, at least in part because of Gottfried's shyness. Says his friend Joe Lauer, who manages comics: "You always had to fight for position on those shows, and Gilbert's not like that. He needs to be nurtured."

Gottfried, who until recently lived with his mother, Jackie, will not talk about his personal life. When he is asked a question about a subject he regards as private—such as his family—his face clouds over, and he either throws out a joke to mask his discomfort ("Are my parents religious? Yes, my father's a Muslim; my mother's a Hare Krishna") or scrunches his face and says, "Gee, I don't know." As his friend David Brenner once said, "Have you ever had a weird dream, and in the morning you can't remember all of it? Well, that's what talking to Gilbert is like."

Gottfried explains his evasiveness this way: "Every time I give a straight answer and read it in a magazine, I say, 'Ouch.' One day I'd like to talk to a psychoanalyst about why celebrities reveal so much of themselves in interviews." Ironically he's a big fan of such tell-all tales. "I love to read it when actors say that they approach their characters from the core, or actresses from sitcoms refer to themselves as survivors. Like they've been through the Titanic."

Maybe he just doesn't have much to talk about. "King Tut had more of a life after he died than I have," he claims. He is not known to date, and if he never allows anyone to see his home, it may be because, he says, his place in Manhattan's SoHo district "looks like the type of apartment they find when they finally track down a serial killer."

Raised in Brooklyn, the youngest of three children, Gottfried says he "aspired to be a nonentity." He was 15 when he started hanging around comedy clubs and trying out material during "open mike" nights. One early gambit was to come up onto the stage in the middle of another comedian's routine, pretend to be an agent and demonstrate how the jokes should be told. Other comedians heard about his outrageous behavior and began flocking to see Gilbert perform in New York and L.A. "Gilbert is the anti-comic," says Robin Williams. "He was predicted by Nostradamus." As for his trademark—the tightly shut eyes—Gottfried says, "It's a gimmick I got from Helen Keller. She said, 'Look, it works for me. If you like it, you can use it too.' "

In the early '80s Gilbert made a couple of TV pilots, including one in which he played opposite three orangutans. He says the exposure did more for the apes' careers than for his. Then last year Gottfried landed the part in Cop. On the set, according to the film's publicist, "He constantly cracked Eddie up. And it's very hard to get Eddie to laugh." (Complains Gilbert: "Now I'll have to say something nice about him.") Gottfried augmented his role with improvisations. "It was written much shorter and absolutely straight," he remembers. He is unfazed by complaints that his exaggerated portrayal of the accountant is anti-Semitic. Indeed, rather than appeasing his critics, Gottfried provokes them: "Jesse Jackson once said of me, 'He puts the "Hi" in Hymietown.' Louis Farrakhan said, 'I generally don't like Jews, but I could watch this guy forever.' Josef Mengele gets the giggles whenever he watches me." A little more gravely, he says of his critics: "I don't know. I guess it's the best publicity you could ask for."

Gottfried has already done another cameo, in Bob Goldthwait's Hot to Trot, and he has an as-yet-untitled album coming out later this year. "We wanted to call it Abbey Road, but there were legal problems," he says.

As to his next career move, Gottfried allows that "to be perfectly honest, I don't know where I'm going. I wouldn't rule out doing TV." But TV or movies would mean staying in L.A., and perhaps buying a car. And that, he says, is "too scary for me to think about. I always try to avoid anything that has to do with my life."

That, of course, has become second nature, and the foundation of a career. Quick, Gilbert: Close your eyes and tell a joke.

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