Monday, August 17, 2009

So Long, Sammy

I haven't seen an obit yet, but it's going around the Internet that Sammy Petrillo has died of cancer at age 75.

Sammy's main--and only, as far as I know--claim to fame is that he was a spot-on Jerry Lewis impersonator who teamed up with a Dean Martin imitator in the mid-1950s to do nightclub performances, TV gigs, and even one film, the stunning BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA.

Duke Mitchell didn’t really look a lot like Dino, but he was a good-looking Italian guy who could sing a bit. On the other hand, Petrillo’s resemblance to Jerry was uncanny. He wasn’t very funny, but he looked and sounded almost exactly like Lewis, and, even though he was still just a teenager, he was able to present a reasonable facsimile of Jerry’s spastic screen persona. So Duke and Sammy didn’t exactly come out and say, “We’re ripping off Martin and Lewis,” but anyone who caught their nightclub act would realize that’s exactly what they were doing.

Realart Pictures, run by a Detroit theater owner named Jack Broder, made its name re-releasing classic Universal horror films, like DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN. In 1952, Broder and Mitchell & Petrillo’s manager, Maurice Duke, got the idea to put the team in a movie that would be produced in nine days on a budget no higher than $50,000. The result is one of cinema’s strangest comedies, one goofy enough to actually earn its ridiculous title: BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA.

Lugosi had once been a great stage and screen star, most famous for portraying Count Dracula in Universal’s 1931 classic, but by 1952, he had already become the broken-down heroin addict played by Martin Landau in 1994’s ED WOOD. It’s unlikely Lugosi’s name in the title had much cachet then, but perhaps Broder was remembering the grosses from Realart’s DRACULA re-release when it came time to release his new picture. At least it plays fair, since Lugosi does indeed “meet” a Brooklyn gorilla. Sort of.

Don’t expect Tim Ryan’s screenplay to make much sense, but here we go. Duke and Sammy play Duke and Sammy, a pair of nightclub entertainers who accidentally fall out of an airplane (while luckily wearing parachutes) and happen to drop onto a South Seas island populated by a native chief with a Brooklyn accent (Al Kikume) and his daughter Nona (played by a Mexican actress billed as Charlita). Also on the island is Dr. Zabor (Lugosi), a mad scientist who is in love with Nona, who works as his assistant in his laboratory. Ryan and director William Beaudine--notoriously nicknamed One-Shot because of his reputation for filming only one take of each scene, even if an actor blew a line or the set fell down--establish Nona as having an American college education, yet she fails to recognize simple English idioms and has no idea what a clothing label is.

Duke and Nona fall for each other, while Nona’s fat “baby sister” Saloma (Muriel Landers) chases Sammy all over the island. Zabor decides the best way to get Duke out from between him and Nona is to turn the crooner into a gorilla. The good doc is working on experiments in evolution, y’see, although there doesn’t appear to be much of a market for a man-into-monkey potion. And if you’re an animal lover, there’s no need to fret. No simians were harmed during the production; stuntman Steve Calvert, who specialized in this type of part, donned his own gorilla suit to play the transformed Duke.

Sure, the story is as asinine as its setup, but who cares? Mitchell gets to perform his signature tune, Fred Rose and Walter Hirsch’s “’Deed I Do”, several times, Sammy screams and runs around a lot, and Bela gets to be Bela. It even appears that Lugosi is having a good time, not that he would have any reason not to enjoy spending four days mugging for a movie with his name in the title.

While I doubt either ever saw BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA, Dean Martin reportedly got a kick out of Mitchell & Petrillo’s act, but Jerry Lewis didn’t. The two imitators broke up after Lewis threatened to sue them. Both more or less fell out of show business after that, although Mitchell later resurrected himself to write, produce, compose, direct and star in a violent mobster movie called THE EXECUTIONER in 1974.

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