Mug-faced comedian Joe E. Ross was best known as Officer Gunther Toody in the 1960s TV sitcom Car 54, Where Are You? Before that, he was a legend in another—lower—world, and if not for his fateful casting as a maladroit member of the NYPD, we wouldn't be having this conversation.
Ross had been a raunchy stand-up comic with an arcane act that sustained him for decades. After years of cow town obscurity, he was cast as the co-star of Nat Hiken's Car 54, which propelled him to superstardom. As befits an A-lister, Ross made the primetime rounds on The Ed Sullivan Show, Batman and Sing Along with Mitch. He flew first-class to marquee dates, especially police functions. Funny thing, though—once Ross did a guest turn on a TV show or at a social event, he was rarely invited back. His behavior shocked those who only knew him as a lovable lug from TV Land.
Ross had been weaned in show biz dumps. The strip clubs, Bowery bars, and Florida burlesque circuit of the late 1940s left an indelible imprint on his psyche. He was lowbrow and embodied everything about it. Much to the chagrin of fellow actors, he'd never change.
Ross and his Damon Runyon-esque lifestyle meant constant company with mobsters, hucksters, and prostitutes (he married at least eight hookers). He was unreliable on TV and film sets, often distracted by cocktail glasses and D-cups. His sitcom co-stars on Sgt. Bilko, It's About Time, and Car 54 complained that he never bothered to learn his lines, which added hours to the work day and ballooned production costs. Truth is, Ross could barely read and relied solely on his memory, which after years of hard living was a faulty fallback.
Although he performed stand-up for decades, he did little between the 1940s and 1970s to alter the content of his act. The unintentional melancholy that shadows his 1973 Laff Records comedy LP, Should Lesbians Be Allowed to Play Pro-Football, starts with a familiar, worn-out gag: "It's a pleasure to be working here tonight. In fact, it's a pleasure to be working anyplace." The joke, as old as vaudeville itself, never rang so true … or more tragically.
In a show biz vignette that may or may not be apocryphal, Ross reportedly died in the midst of a 1982 stand-up gig. Hank Garrett, a fellow cast member on Car 54, recounted: "Joe E. was living in some housing complex and they hired him to do a show. Horrendous. They were paying him a hundred dollars. Joe E. was working, suddenly felt ill, sat on the edge of the stage and keeled over. His widow went to collect the hundred dollars. They gave her fifty." Pausing a moment, Garret explained the fifty percent pay cut. "They claimed he never finished the show."
— Kliph Nesteroff and Irwin Chusid
Read Kliph's "King of Slobs: The Life of Joe E. Ross" at WFMU's Beware of the Blog