“All my life, my ambition was to be a star,” Jackie Mason once said, but few stars had a slower or more circuitous path to stardom. He didn’t become a stand-up comedian until he was around 30 years old, after abandoning his original name, Yacov Maza, and his original profession as a rabbi.
Mr. Mason’s brash edge of chutzpah was always present — his first comedy album was titled “I’m the Greatest Comedian in the World Only Nobody Knows It Yet” — but he was as surprised as anyone when his astringent jokes about modern life and Jewish cultural identity finally struck a chord with the larger culture. When his one-man show, “Jackie Mason’s The World According to Me!” made its Broadway debut in 1986, he was in his 50s — his exact age was always a matter of conjecture.
Mr. Mason, a Tony and Emmy Award winner, best-selling author, and Broadway regular, died on July 24 at a Manhattan hospital. He was 93 years old.
Raoul Felder, a longtime friend and lawyer, confirmed the death. He made no mention of a specific cause.
Mr. Mason worked on the Borscht Circuit of Jewish hotels in New York’s Catskill Mountains before becoming a regular on TV variety shows. During an appearance on the popular variety show “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, his career was almost derailed. Due to the tight time constraints, Sullivan had held up two fingers, then one, to indicate to Mr. Mason the number of minutes remaining for his act.
Sullivan reportedly told him, “I will destroy you in show business,” because he thought he was making an obscene gesture with a different finger.
Mr. Mason’s $45,000 contract with Sullivan had been canceled, and he was having difficulty finding work in clubs. Before reconciling with Sullivan and returning to his show after two years, he filed a $3 million libel lawsuit. Even so, the stigma lingered. Mr. Mason became the target of violence after making a joke about Frank Sinatra’s marriage to the much younger actress Mia Farrow. Shots were fired into his hotel room, and an unknown assailant approached him while he sat in a car, punching him through an open window, breaking his nose, and warning him to stop mocking Sinatra.
He continued to look for a spotlight in the aftermath of the Sullivan fiasco. Mr. Mason’s manager suggested a similar format after seeing comedian Dick Shawn perform in a theater. Like Don Rickles, he would toss insults at his audience and make sex jokes that were just shy of crude. In a skit about the absurdity of TV weather forecasters predicting an 80 percent chance of rain, he asked, “Did anyone ever buy an umbrella for 80 percent of the price?”
Above all, Mr. Mason kept returning to a lifelong obsession: an investigation into what it meant to be Jewish in America.
Mr. Mason was born Yacov Moshe Maza on June 9, 1928, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. (Feller and census records confirmed his birth date.) His parents were recent immigrants from Belarus who spoke Yiddish at home. They moved into a crowded tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side a few years later, during the Great Depression.
At least four generations of men in his family had been Orthodox rabbis, including his father. Mr. Mason and his three brothers all followed in their father’s footsteps. He graduated from City College of New York and went on to study for the rabbinate at Yeshiva University in New York, where he was ordained by his mid-twenties. He pastored churches in Latrobe, Pa., and Weldon, N.C., often joking during his sermons before realizing his true calling was on the comedy circuit.
He worked as a recreation director at a Jewish hotel in the Catskills during the day and performed a comedy routine at night. He only became a full-time comedian after his father died in the late 1950s. Mr. Mason attributed much of his wit to his studies of the Talmud and other Jewish religious texts.
Despite his difficulties along the way, Mr. Mason became the person he had aspired to be all along. He was finally a star, complete with awards, Broadway accolades, and the wealth that comes with it.