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

Irwin Corey performing in 1966. An admirer, the critic Kenneth Tynan, called him “Chaplin’s clown with a college education.” CreditABC Photo Archives, via Getty Images

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.”

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Mr. Corey in 2004.CreditJim Cooper/Associated Press

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. Pynchon.

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.

A Life in Comedy

Irwin Corey still likes the spotlight after eight decades in comedy.

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.

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.

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.”

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Mr. Corey panhandling in 2011 for money to donate to Cuban charities. CreditFred R. Conrad/The New York Times

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.”



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