Even as he entered his hundredth year, Irwin Corey remains an irreconcilable opponent of a Jewish state. Furthermore he doesn’t want you to call him a Jew. He says that’s “pejorative.” He prefers to be called a Hebrew. That sounds more respectful in certain leftist circles.
Corey’s been striving for respect over a lifetime in the socialist trenches. He tried to join the Communist Party but they rejected him. He said they accused him of being an anarchist.
The goofball satirist was a wild one on the comedy circuit, where he was billed as The Professor, renowned as the World’s Foremost Authority. His cutting-edge ramblings and gibberish meanderings won him acclaim among peers and critics alike.
“I never use four-letter words,” he said proudly. “The audience does. They say, ‘What the f– is he talking about?’”
And that’s the way it went at his 100th birthday celebration on July 29, at the Actors Temple on Manhattan’s West Side. Comedian Bob Greenberg, a board member of the temple, along with the rabbi, Jill Hausman, produced a love fest that Corey will remember for the rest of his life.
More than 200 friends and fans, shlepping homemade greeting cards and unique baseball caps, squeezed into the sanctuary to pay tribute to the zany star holding court in a wheelchair. “Life is worth living only if you have friends,” he said. “So many people came out to see a relic like me.”
It was pot luck. Greenberg’s wife Theresa brought a homemade vegetarian pasta salad, the Friars sent cases of Coca-Cola and Sarge’s restaurant donated cheesecake.
You had to talk to Corey close up on his left side. He is stone-deaf in his right ear and blind as a bat in his right eye. “That makes him an authentic lefty,” Greenberg said.
“How do you feel?” I asked.
“I feel like 99,” Corey said.
I reminded the professor of the time he participated in a Purim event by Minyan of the Stars two decades ago. He read a portion of the Scroll of Esther (in English) and concluded with an improbable statement he attributed to Mordechai: “Always remember, wherever you go … there you are.”
The old coot is still quick with the quips: “Ten years ago we had Johnny Cash, Steve Jobs and Bob Hope. Today we have no cash, no jobs and no hope.”
The bold-face names at the comedian’s birthday party included Joe Franklin, 88, the veteran late-night talk show host; Ervin Drake, 95, composer of such famous songs as It Was a Very Good Year and I Believe; and Corey’s son Richard, a painter/actor. Also comedy writer Jeffrey Gurian, radio producer Myra Chanin, and comedians Gilbert Gottfried and Kenny Kramer.
“Life is very short,” Corey said. Fran, his wife for 70 years, died three years ago at age 95. He said he learned that marriage is a three-ring circus. First there’s the engagement ring, next the wedding ring, and then comes the suffering.
Tim Boxer was a columnist at the New York Post for two decades and has been writing a column for The New York Jewish Week for 35 years; he's been a writer-photographer at 15MinutesMagazine.com for 16 years. He is the author of “Jewish Celebrity Hall of Fame,” interviews of Hollywood stars about their Jewish roots.