He Hurt Till He Laughed

updated 07/11/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/11/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

EVERY PERFORMER KNOWS THE OLD saying about comic acting: "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." Garrett Morris, however, is one of the very few who can make the comparison based on painful personal experience. On this Thursday night in late June, the Saturday Night Live veteran, who currently appears on Fox's Martin, will do 5 minutes of stand-up at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood. It will mark his first public performance since a devastating attack in South Central Los Angeles on Feb. 24. That was when two men he had never seen before approached him from behind. One of them grabbed him and, without warning, fired a 9-mm handgun. The bullet tore through his left forearm and abdomen, lodging in his spine.

Crumpled on the sidewalk, Morris, 57, thought, " 'I'm going to die.' I was only mad because somebody else had chosen the time." His friend Bobby Lee Rhodden, whose auto detailing shop Morris had been visiting, rushed out, scooped up the actor and sped him to the hospital. In the back seat of Rhodden's car, Morris heard Rhodden shout, "Talk to me, buddy, talk to me!" It was then, he says, "I knew I had not died. That's when I knew I was going to live."

The trauma team at Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood wasn't so sure. When Morris arrived, he had no discernible blood pressure. After an initial operation to stabilize his condition, surgeons went back in to remove the bullet. They were amazed when, a week later, Morris, who had jogged three to eight miles daily before the shooting, was able to move about his room with the aid of a walker. Although he would remain hospitalized for another month, he even agreed to tape a scene for Martin—in which his character awaits plastic surgery—using his own hospital bed.

Doing stand-up comedy, however, is another threshold entirely, especially given the difficulty Morris has these days standing up at all. In a dressing room at the Comedy Store, he reveals he's wearing a body cast underneath his dashiki. It's the grim souvenir of an operation performed in late May—his eighth since the shooting—in which doctors grafted a piece of bone from Morris's hip onto his lower spine, part of which had been eaten away by an infection caused by the original bullet wound. "I've never had this kind of pain in my life," Morris says. "The place where they took the bone from actually hurts more than the site they grafted it onto."

Freda Morris, 53, a former dancer and Morris's wife of 13 years, became his rehab partner at their L.A. apartment in the months after the shooting. Two or three times a day, she helps him through an exercise regimen designed to strengthen his legs and lower back. Each session lasts 20 minutes, or as much as Morris can stand. Afterward, exhausted, he sleeps.

Morris's dreams as a youth in New Orleans centered on music. His education included New York City's prestigious Juilliard School, and among his stage credits in the '60s were roles in Porgy and Bess and Show Boat. He was later a soloist and arranger for the Harry Belafonte Singers. The leap from there to the Not Ready for Prime Time Players came about after Morris was hired as a writer for Saturday Night Live in 1975. Soon he was appearing in sketches, most memorably as Chico Escuela, an aging New York Mets second baseman whose cheerful mantra—"Bazbol's bin berry, berry good to me"—became a TV catchphrase.

Morris won't talk about his days on SNL or discuss why he quit in 1980, but he does admit that he had a serious drug problem at about that time. "I don't want to go into it," he says. "But I was smoking a lot of cocaine, which I ceased around 1981, '82. I just stopped." He worked steadily, however, in guest spots on shows like The Jeffersons and in recurring roles on Hunter and Roc. His current stint on Fox's Martin, as star Martin Lawrence's womanizing, polyester-clad boss Stan, is his meatiest in years. Still, he says, "I have never felt that my life was unsuccessful or unhappy."

Tonight at the Comedy Store, Morris positively glows. Buoyed by a standing ovation, he hobbles with a jerky swagger onto the stage for his part in a benefit for Kids Against Guns, a fledgling L.A.-based charity. In his monologue, Morris talks about press reports that the gunman, who fled empty-handed, had been attempting to rob him. "Don't you believe those stories," he says. "If a guy points a gun at me and says he wants some bread, he's getting some bread."

Morris gets his first laugh of the night. Next he proceeds to joke about the bowel surgery in February that required him (for the following three months) to wear a plastic colostomy bag at his side to collect wastes. "Anybody out there know the word colostomy?" Morris asks. He waits a beat. "Well," he says, "it's a very neat way to keep your s—t under control." The crowd roars.

"One thing that the shooting has taught me is that humor is what it's really about," Morris said earlier. "From the second night on, Freda and I were laughing about this thing. It's like something else inside me was causing me to see the bright side in everything."

Of course, the dark side has never disappeared completely. Morris is still coping with "the pain of why that young black man did this to him," says Freda. Adds Morris: "I have cried tears just thinking about it." Though he later identified his assailant from a mugshot, the man was not arrested, since police couldn't find a corroborating witness. (The suspect has since been jailed on an unrelated charge.) Morris appears resigned. "He's moved on," says Freda.

She is wary of her husband's newfound optimism. Before the shooting "every little thing just bugged him," she says. "I was really afraid for him and how he was going. He had a very basic dissatisfaction with what he was doing with his life. I told him, 'Maybe this will help you refocus.' We've both stepped back a bit and tried to see the big picture."

At the Comedy Store, Morris seems exhilarated after the gig. "He was more up than I've seen him in a very, very long time," says his friend and spokesperson Rita Tateel. Even his resentment toward the man who nearly ended his life cannot spoil the moment. "Those feelings, the rage, the desire to kill"—he catches himself—"well, to see someone suffer, have all subsided. Comedy," he says, "is taking over."

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
KAREN BRAILSFORD and LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles

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