Actor and comedian Gilbert Gottfried’s career had a number of false starts before his unmistakable voice became ubiquitous in pop culture.
“The big breaks ended up not being big breaks—setbacks if anything,” Gottfried says during a recent phone interview.
He was cast in a television pilot, but the show wasn’t picked up. “Then years later I got Saturday Night Live, which turned out to be a really bad experience, because it was right after the original cast,” he says. “You don’t want to be the replacement. … It was like in the middle of Beatlemania to say, ‘We’re getting rid of John, Paul, George and Ringo, and we’ve got four other idiots.’” He spent one season at SNL.
“My next big break was Alan Thicke was coming to America with the show that was going to knock Johnny Carson off the air,” he says. “That was Thicke of the Night—and we all remember what a tremendous hit that was.”
Then in 1987, things started to go Gottfried’s way.
Some folks from MTV saw his stand-up act at Catch a Rising Star in New York and invited him to come in the next day for an audition. “I came there completely unprepared and started improvising,” he says. MTV cut up his audition tape and made promos. “They started running it all day.” People on the street began recognizing him as the guy from MTV. “And then I called them up and said, ‘Should I be getting paid anything for this?’” MTV threw him a few hundred dollars. Though it wasn’t lucrative monetarily, being on MTV paid off.
Bill Cosby liked what he saw on MTV—and he even liked his work on Thicke of the Night—so he gave Gottfried a guest role on The Cosby Show. “That was a tremendous break,” Gottfried says.
He was also cast in Beverly Hills Cop II as a financial manager who Eddie Murphy cons. “Everybody started talking about that scene,” Gottfried says. People called it “a scene stealing cameo.”
It was five years later that he voiced the parrot Iago in Aladdin, cementing his voice acting career.
Gottfried says his distinctive voice isn’t something he worked on. “It’s a funny thing—when people ask about it—because I never consciously thought about it one way or another,” he says. “It just sort of developed over a certain period of time.” He compares the question to asking someone, “‘Hey, you know the way you walk and the way you sip from your cup of coffee? How did you come up with that? It just sort of happened.”
Gottfried is now lending his voice to a new podcast, titled Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast, focused on the Golden Age of Hollywood. Movies from that era inspired him to get into showbiz.
“When I grew up, I remember television didn’t have that many stations,” Gottfried says. “And I always say, ‘Back then the best film school in the country was in your living room.’”
As a kid in Brooklyn, Gottfried found himself enthralled by gangster films, silent movies, musicals and variety shows. “I started imitating people that I saw on television from the old movies and from the TV shows,” he says. Then, when he was just 15 years old, his sister’s friend suggested bringing him to an open mic at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village.
“I don’t know if I did well, or I was just too stupid to know I bombed,” he says.
He’s now 59, living in Manhattan, and still performing stand-up all over, in between acting gigs.
Gottfried is calling from Los Angeles, where he did a one-day shoot for a Penn Jillette movie. “I flew from New York, to Canada to Los Angeles and now I’m heading back to New York,” he says, lamenting his jet lag and sounding drowsy rather than like the excitable guy he is on stage.
Frequent travel is old hat for this veteran comic. It gets hard to keep track of all the places he has been.
“I performed all over Long Island, although I never remember where or when,” Gottfried admits. “There are clubs I swear I’ve never been to, and then I go there and see I’ve signed their walls.”
But he says with confidence that he has never performed on the East End, so October 17 in Riverhead will mark his debut.
“Just come see me,” he advises those looking for something to do that day. “Or, if you want to just buy a ticket and not show up, that’s fine too.”
Gilbert Gottfried performs Friday, October 17, at Suffolk Theater, 118 E Main Street, Riverhead. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. for drinks and dinner. The show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $49 Purchase at suffolktheater.com or call 631-727-4343.