Comedian Freddie Roman, former head of The Friars Club and a staple of the Catskills comedy scene, has died. He was 85.
Roman died Saturday afternoon at Bethesda Hospital in Boynton Beach, Florida, his booking agent and friend Alison Chaplin said Sunday. His daughter told entertainment business Deadline that he suffered a heart attack that morning.
Roman made his name performing at hotels and resorts in the Catskill Mountains, also known as the Borscht Strip for the large crowds of Jewish vacationers there and comedians such as Mel Brooks and Don Rickles who entertained them. He later performed at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and Bally’s Grand in Atlantic City, and grilled artists such as Rob Reiner, Chevy Chase, Jerry Stiller and Hugh Hefner. He also created “Catskills on Broadway,” where he and friends Dick Capri, Marilyn Michaels and Mal Z. Lawrence brought their nostalgic, Catskills-flavored vibe to New York. He has also appeared in various television shows and movies over the years, including “Red Oaks” on Amazon.
“A huge loss to the world of comics,” Paul Reiser wrote on Twitter. “He was a great helper and mentor when I was starting out. GREAT GAME, the ultimate professional with a big heart. I’ll miss our phone calls and his beautiful big laugh.”
Born Fred Kirschenbaum on May 28, 1937 in Newark, New Jersey, and raised in Jamaica, Queens, Roman got an early taste of stand-up comedy thanks to his family. His uncle and grandfather owned the Crystal Spring Hotel in the Catskills, where Roman married at age 15.
In “Catskills on Broadway,” Roman commented on everything from his childhood in Queens to his “retirement life” in Florida.
“I took a cholesterol test,” Roman laughed. “My number went back to 911.”
The New York Times, in its review of the show in 1991, wrote, “Catskill resorts may be battling the recession, but Catskill comedy hasn’t lost its edge.”
The show, he later said, changed his life. It went to Broadway and then toured the country, and Roman would continue to perform for years to come. He was also made Head of the Brothers Club of New York City, where he mentored many aspiring comedians and infused the private club with young talent.
One of those young comedians was Jeffrey Ross, who said about Roman in 2003 that, “When I was a member, there weren’t many of us who were young. … But Freddie would always come and spend time with me and my friends and be loved.”
Capri, in the same interview, said Roman was the perfect ambassador for comedy.
“He’s the social director of the world,” Capri said. “And he loves every second of it.”
The action lasted longer than he expected. Roman joked in his time that, “Eleven years ago I became president for two years. I’m like the Fidel Castro of comedians. I am president for life.” In 2014, he was succeeded by Larry King.
But, he told Atlantic City Weekly in 2011, the biggest job he ever had was opening for Frank Sinatra, when his regular comedian Tom Dreesen was unavailable. Roman found out about the opportunity while on vacation in Chicago, got off the plane and got on another plane to Philadelphia to do a show in Atlantic City with only a few hours left.
He left the stage to see Sinatra laughing. The singer even called him back for another bow.
“Frank hugged me, and I saw my wife and my daughter and they were crying,” Roman said. “It was unbelievable. … Nothing ever worked with Sinatra.”
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