In the 'Hood With...Calvert Deforest

updated 01/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

Ambling out of the Brooklyn apartment building where he has lived since 1943, Calvert DeForest is ready for his afternoon stroll through the neighborhood where he was born and raised and will probably die. For most of his adult life, DeForest, 71, has taken these walks alone, unencumbered, as he would say, by a significant other. "It's never bothered me that I've remained unattached all these years," he says. "I'm perfectly happy the way I am. I've enjoyed my freedom. I don't like getting lied down."

Getting tied to a wire and sent crashing through a Styrofoam model of the Berlin Wall—typical of the stun Is he has performed on David Letterman's shows over the years—is another matter entirely. Since 1982, DeForest, formerly known by the pseudonym Larry "Bud" Melman, has played resident oddball and fall guy on NBC's Late Night with David Letterman and CBS's Late Show with David Letterman. When Dave defected to CBS last August, NBC refused to let DeForest take the Melman name with him, claiming this Bud was for them alone. "It's ridiculous and such a petty thing," says DeForest. "And it's simply because David decided to leave NBC."

DeForest may have lost his name, but his enthusiasm remains undiminished. For the first 36 years of his life, he obeyed the fervent wish of his mother, Mabelle, that he not go into show business. "My uncle on my mother's side, Jimmy Taylor, was a vaudeville actor who appeared in some silent pictures," says DeForest. "He'd come to our house, and she'd say, 'Tell your nephew about show business and how bad it is.' So Jimmy would tell me about the early days of Hollywood, and the more he 'discouraged' me, the more I wanted to do it."

In the early '50s, when Calvert was still living at home, Mabelle finally relented and let him try acting—"to get it out of his system." But he landed summer-stock parts in places like Litchfield, Conn., and Pine Bush, N.Y., and by the time he returned to Brooklyn he had fallen in love with the theater. Still, his mother was adamant. (Calvert Sr., a physician who was more tolerant of his son's ambitions, had died in 1949.) "I had to give up acting until my mother died [in 1959 ]," says DeForest. "Not that I wished any harm lo her, but I could never act while she was alive. And if she were living today, I wouldn't be on television. She hated it. She'd say, 'You know, the door works both ways. If you want to leave, get out.' And I was at a stage in my life when I wasn't able to fend for myself, so I stayed."

Not able to fend for himself? "I hadn't been out that much in the world," he admits, "and it was like she was there for mc in every aspect. She took care of me."

That responsibility now rests with his neighbors in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, the neighborhood immortalized in that cinematic paean lo disco, Saturday Night Fever. When he enters the Jon Nicole Salon on 86th Street, owner Bobby DelGaudio jokingly asks if he has come for "another bikini wax." Calvert laughs and settles in for a $45 haircut. Later, he stops at Thorner N Davis optometrists. "Calvert, you looked great in drag last night," says owner Lowell Davis of his friend's Mrs. Doubtfire sketch. Davis claims to have "the last 30 pairs" of DeForest's trademark black frames hidden in the basement. "They don't make them anymore," he says. "My father found them in a dusty box years ago, and we've kept them for Cal ever since. He loses four or five pairs a year. The funny thing is that he really needs glasses and can't see without them. It's like coming in and saying you lost your underwear."

One thing DeForest hasn't lost, despite his success, is humility. "He's a gentleman, quiet-spoken," says neighbor Phil Diorio. "You expect to see the character on TV, but he's a regular guy when you talk to him. He doesn't do funny shtick in person. But knowing him has influenced my family and friends. It's won me the head-of-the-table seat at dinners with my family. I know Calvert DeForest, who knows David Letterman. I'm something of a celebrity."

Now that he's famous, DeForest considers the first half of his life as "wasted time." In fact, he can't remember many of the jobs he did then. "I was very unhappy," he says. "But the last 11 years [ since joining Letterman] have been the joy of my life." After his mother died, he threw himself into acting, doing community theater and some Off-Broadway plays. He often had difficulty remembering his lines, though. "That's why I can't do anything without cue cards," he says. "Hell no, I wasn't a successful actor."

He was still struggling in 1981 when he appeared in a New York University student film titled King of the Z's, in which he played a deranged studio mogul. The film's writers submitted the movie as a sample to Letterman, and he gave them jobs. But he was equally taken with the film's white-haired, pixieish star. In fact, Letterman had Calvert open the first Late Night show in 1982—and turned to him again last summer when the show premiered on CBS. "I'm proud as hell of that," says DeForest. Not surprisingly, he has a strong allegiance to his boss, though he admits, "My longest conversation ever with David was less than five minutes." Letterman rescued DeForest from a job as receptionist in a drug rehab facility in Queens, where DeForest had been working part-time since the '60s. At one point, DeForest had even gone on welfare for two years when he lost money on a bad investment.

Letterman's gamble has paid off handsomely. Next to the star himself and bandleader Paul Shaffer, DeForest is the most popular performer on the show, thanks largely to his memorable send-ups of Roy Orbison, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and others. Not that everything he does is pure genius. A recent parody of Meal Loaf proved disastrous, partly because of DeForest's disdain for the rocker's art. "Meat Loaf could be a meal I eat, as far as I know," he says. "His music doesn't mean a damn thing to me."

"Calvert isn't trying to act, and that's his charm," says Robert Morton, a Late Show producer. "There aren't too many people on television where what you see is what you get."

DeForest makes a lunch stop at his favorite restaurant, the neighborhood Taco Bell, which he still patronizes despite a six-figure salary supplemented by commercials for Honda and Domino's Pizza. "Why should I change now and go somewhere else?" he reasons. Over a bean taco and soda, he waxes sentimental about the day in 1987 that he met his idol, Bette Davis, in the Late Night greenroom. "She was a perfect lady," he says. "I should have brought flowers and laid them at her feet, but I was in such a state when I met her. She signed my book, 'To Calvert with best wishes. Bette.' I'll keep that to my dying day. I have all her films and her books, and magazines with her in them. I have a shrine to Bette in my house."

After lunch, DeForest heads to the subway station for his regular ride into Manhattan. Barely audible over the rattle of the R train, he discusses his latest fantasy: having his own talk show. He says most of his guests would be Broadway stars, then he starts ticking off the names of celebs he wouldn't invite. Who tops the list? "Barbra Streisand," he says without hesitation. "I understand she's not very kind to her mother."

From Our Partners