[Marxism] Irwin Corey, Comedian and ‘Foremost Authority,’ Dies at 102

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Feb 7 16:55:54 MST 2017

NY Times, Feb. 7 2017
Irwin Corey, Comedian and ‘Foremost Authority,’ Dies at 102

Irwin Corey, the cunningly befuddled comedian who spent more than 70 
years perfecting his portrayal of “the world’s foremost authority,” died 
on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 102.

His death was confirmed by his son, Richard Corey.

Although he inhabited other characters in stage and film roles, Mr. 
Corey was best known as his alter ego, the professor of some unspecified 
discipline who could foment clouds of inspired nonsense.

Dressed in his trademark outfit — black swallowtail coat, string tie and 
sneakers — with his hair marching in several directions at once, Mr. 
Corey was a caricature of every windbag who ever emptied his lungs. He 
was also taking aim at everyone who did not share his unrepentant 
leftist’s view of the world.

Still, when he declared, “If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end 
up where we’re going,” who could disagree?

“What I do is deflate the coat of righteousness that people wrap 
themselves in,” he once said offstage, adding that his target was “the 
guy who gives his opinions as if they were handed down from the Mount.”

No question was too simple that Mr. Corey couldn’t complicate it. His 
response to “Why do you wear tennis shoes?” was a classic example: 
“Actually, that is two questions. The first is ‘Why?’ This is a question 
that philosophers have been pondering for centuries. As for the second 
question, ‘Do you wear tennis shoes?,’ the answer is yes.”

Among his admirers was the critic Kenneth Tynan, who called Mr. Corey 
“Chaplin’s clown with a college education.”

Mr. Corey never wavered in his left-leaning political views. He was 
outspoken in his admiration for Fidel Castro, although he was glad to 
find a joke in United States tensions with Cuba. “What you have to do to 
prevent conflict with Cuba,” he said in 1970, “is to shove Florida up 
the Mississippi, where she’ll be 500 miles away.”

One of Mr. Corey’s best-remembered routines was staged not in a club or 
broadcast studio but at Alice Tully Hall in Manhattan, at the National 
Book Awards ceremony in 1974. That year the fiction prize was shared by 
Isaac Bashevis Singer and Thomas Pynchon. No one in the crowd had any 
idea what the reclusive Mr. Pynchon looked like, and when Mr. Corey 
arrived to accept the award for him (the novelist had approved the 
stunt), many people thought they were getting their first look at Mr. 

They soon learned otherwise. Beginning his remarks, as he often did, 
“However,” Mr. Corey referred to the author as “Richard Python” and 
said, “Today we must all be aware that protocol takes precedence over 
procedure.” He continued: “Marx, Groucho Marx, once said that religion 
is the opiate of the people. I say that when religion outlives its 
usefulness, then opium will be the opiate. Ah, that’s not a bad idea.”

The Times reported the next morning that Mr. Corey’s “series of bad 
jokes and mangled syntax” left “some people roaring with laughter and 
others perplexed.”

Irwin Corey was born Irwin Eli Cohen on July 29, 1914, in Brooklyn. 
Along with five of his siblings, he became a ward of the Brooklyn Hebrew 
Orphan Asylum, which released him to his own devices when he was 13. The 
future “professor” had one year of high school.

Before drifting into performing in the late 1930s, he worked for the 
Civilian Conservation Corps, becoming its boxing champion in the 
112-pound class, then hanging up his gloves after he knocked an opponent 
out cold. He was also a button maker and an enthusiastic member of the 
International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

In 1938 he was hired to help write and appear in the union’s musical 
show “Pins and Needles,” and he soon began to develop his signature 
comedy style of zany improvisation. (“I ad-lib it,” he explained. “I 
don’t need new material.”)

He appeared in the revue “New Faces of 1943” and in nightclubs like the 
Village Vanguard. The folk singer Richard Dyer-Bennet awarded Mr. Corey 
the rank of professor after hearing his fractured lecture on Shakespeare.

Mr. Corey and his wife, the former Frances Berman, lived for many years 
in Great Neck, on Long Island, and later in the East 30s in Manhattan. 
Frances Corey died in 2011. In addition to their son, Mr. Corey is 
survived by two grandsons and two great-grandchildren. His daughter, 
Margaret, died in 1997.

During World War II, Mr. Corey served briefly in the Army. He later said 
he had been discharged after about six months when an Army psychiatrist 
asked him if he was homosexual and he replied, “That’s none of your 
business.” He immediately resumed his civilian career.

Mr. Corey appeared in stage productions, including works by Molière and 
Chekhov, a U.S.O. tour of “Oklahoma!” (as the Persian peddler) and seven 
Broadway shows. He said he once played Jesus in Boston: “It was a piece 
of typecasting for a short Jewish atheist.”

In 1974 he played Marlo Thomas’s father in Herb Gardner’s Broadway 
comedy “Thieves.” In his review in The New York Times, Clive Barnes 
called Mr. Corey “a clown of shining absurdity” and said he had “manic 
moments of near genius.” Reviewing Mr. Corey’s performance in a 2004 
revival of “Sly Fox,” Ben Brantley wrote in The Times, “The nonagenarian 
Professor Irwin Corey makes a winningly precise art of being addled.”

His feature films included “How to Commit Marriage” (1969), starring Bob 
Hope and Jackie Gleason; the hit comedy “Car Wash” (1976), whose cast 
also included Richard Pryor and George Carlin; and Woody Allen’s “Curse 
of the Jade Scorpion” (2001).

Mr. Corey perfected his portrayal of the professor in clubs like the 
hungry i in San Francisco and Le Ruban Bleu, Upstairs at the Downstairs 
and the Playboy Club in New York. On radio, his professor was a tutor to 
Edgar Bergen’s dummy Charlie McCarthy. He then made the transition to 
television, becoming a familiar figure alongside talk-show hosts from 
Steve Allen to David Letterman, even though some network executives were 
leery of his political views.

He kept performing into his 90s and beyond, and not always in typical 
show-business locales. As The Times reported in 2011, for many years he 
would stand in traffic on East 35th Street, near the Manhattan exit of 
the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and a short walk from his home, almost every 
day, soliciting change from drivers. Some recognized him, but most 
apparently assumed he was just another homeless panhandler.

He said he donated whatever money he was given to a charity that buys 
medical supplies for children in Cuba. But that was not really the point.

“This is not about money,” Mr. Corey’s longtime agent, Irvin Arthur, 
told The Times. “For Irwin, this is an extension of his performing.”

He eventually became too frail to continue panhandling, but he remained 
in the public eye a while longer. In April 2014 he spoke at a screening 
of “Irwin & Fran,” a documentary feature about him and his wife, at the 
Anthology Film Archives in the East Village. That summer he spoke at a 
party for his 100th birthday at the Actors Temple in Midtown, where the 
festivities included a statement from the Manhattan borough president, 
Gale Brewer, declaring July 29 Irwin Corey Day.

Even as his health declined, Mr. Corey’s spirit remained strong. As he 
himself put it more than once, “I feel more like I do now than when I 
first got here.”

Peter Keepnews and Jaclyn Peiser contributed reporting.

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