Comedian Freddie Roman, the former Dean of The Friars Club and a fixture of the Catskills comedy scene, has died. He was 85.
Roman died Saturday afternoon at Bethesda Hospital in Boynton Beach, Fla., his booking agent and girlfriend Alison Chaplin said Sunday. His daughter told the entertainment industry Deadline that he suffered a heart attack that morning.
Roman made a name for himself performing at hotels and resorts in the Catskill Mountains, also known as the Borscht Belt for the predominantly Jewish vacationing crowd there and the comics like Mel Brooks and Don Rickles who entertained them. He later performed at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and Bally’s Grand in Atlantic City, roasting the likes of Rob Reiner, Chevy Chase, Jerry Stiller and Hugh Hefner.
He also conceived “Catskills on Broadway,” where he and friends Dick Capri, Marilyn Michaels, and Mal Z. Lawrence brought their nostalgic Catskills-flavored standup to New York. He has also appeared in various television shows and films over the years including Red Oaks on Amazon.
“A great loss to the comedy world,” wrote Paul Reiser on Twitter. “He was such a huge supporter and mentor when I started. A BIG comic, the ultimate pro with the biggest heart. I will miss our phone calls and his big, beautiful laugh.”
Born Fred Kirschenbaum on May 28, 1937 in Newark, New Jersey and raised in Jamaica, Queens, Roman developed a taste for stand-up comedy at an early age thanks to his family. His uncle and grandfather owned the Crystal Spring Hotel in the Catskills, where Roman started as a presenter at the age of 15.
In Catskills on Broadway, Roman commented on everything from his childhood in Queens to his “retired life” in Florida.
“I took a cholesterol test,” Roman quipped. “My number came back 911.”
The New York Times wrote in its 1991 review of the show, “The Catskill resorts may be battling the recession, but the Catskill comedy hasn’t lost its flair.”
The show, he later said, changed his life. It went to Broadway and then toured the country, and Roman would continue to perform for many years to come. He was also appointed dean of the New York City Friars Club, where he mentored many aspiring comedians and enriched the private club with young talent.
One of those young comedians was Jeffrey Ross, who said of Roman in 2003: “When I became a member, there weren’t many of us who were younger. … But Freddie would always come over and hang out with me and my friends and was really lovable.”
Capri said in the same interview that Roman was the perfect comedy ambassador.
“He’s the social leader of the world,” Capri said. “And he loves every second of it.”
The stint lasted a little longer than expected. Roman joked about his tenure: “Eleven years ago, I became president for two years. I’m like Fidel Castro among comedians. I’m president for life.” In 2014 he was succeeded by Larry King.
But, he told Atlantic City Weekly in 2011, the biggest job he’s ever had was opening for Frank Sinatra when his regular opening comedian Tom Dreesen wasn’t available. Roman found out about the opportunity during a layover in Chicago, got off the plane and boarded another to Philadelphia to do the show in Atlantic City, just a few hours to spare.
He left the stage to see Sinatra laugh. The singer even called him back for another bow.
“Frank gave me a hug and I saw my wife and daughter and they were crying,” Roman said. “It was amazing. … Nothing has ever been better than working with Sinatra.”