LA JOLLA, Calif. -- Comedian-actor Dick Shawn suffered a heart attack on stage in what his audience initially believed was part of his routine and died later at a hospital.
Witnesses said Shawn, 58, was lying on the stage for several minutes before the Friday night audience at the University of California in San Diego realized something was wrong.
'He literally was probably on for stage five minutes until it was realized that it was serious,' said Tom Wartelle of San Diego, one of about 500 people attending the performance.
Shawn had been on stage about 20 minutes and was in the midst of a fast-paced comic routine about life after a nuclear disaster when he told the audience to imagine everyone else outside the room was dead and, 'I would be your leader.'
'He was right in the middle, and all of a sudden he fell down,' Wartelle said.
'After a while, people began talking and a few hollered, 'How long is this going to go on?'' said Ralph Trembley of La Jolla.
A stagehand was the first to approach Shawn and then a doctor rushed out from the wings and began administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation, Trembley said.
Shawn died a short time later at Scripps Memorial Hospital of an apparent heart attack, hospital spokeswoman Diane Yohe said. He was accompanied by his son, Adam.
Yohe said hospital records listed his age at 58.
Shawn combined comedic elements with drama and personal perspectives that brought an extra dimension to his stage and film roles. He had appeared in 10 films including 'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,' 'The Producers' and 'Love at First Bite.'
'Dick Shawn was a one and only,' Milton Berle said. 'He was brilliant. He was a genius.'
Bob Hope described Shawn as 'one of my favorite buffoons.'
'He was so crazy and nutty and funny,' Hope said. 'I lose a good friend and the world loses a very good comic brain.'
Zsa Zsa Gabor, who performed with Shawn in Las Vegas, called him 'one of the biggest talents in this town.'
'The fact that he died doing what he loved doing is poetic,' comedian Marty Ingels said. 'He was the world's most insane performer. He never used any formulas or jokes per se. He had no routines. He'd just get up with a stream of consciousness and sometimes he was brilliant or off the wall and they'd just carry him off stage.'
Comedian Carl Reiner said, 'There was no comedian that I know that didn't have respect for Dick Shawn.'
Born in Buffalo, N.Y., Richard Schulefand grew up in the steel-mining town of Lackawanna, living with his parents and a brother in a single room in the back of his father's clothing store.
He began his career in comedy near the end of World War II while assigned to an Army tank repair unit. To get out of the unit, Shawn auditioned for a part in a military entertainment group and was reassigned to the traveling show 'Operation USA.'
Success in a college talent show won him a trip to New York and an appearance on the 'Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts' show. He did not win but decided to stay in New York.
Director Harry Wagstaff Gribble saw him on Godfrey's show and gave him his first professional job, a part in the play 'For Heaven's Sake, Mother!' with Nancy Carroll and Molly Picon.
In the fall of 1953, Shawn co-starred with Betty Hutton for a two-a-day schedule of vaudeville at the Palace Theatre.
His vaudeville performances made him a star. He sang, danced and cracked jokes, appearing on 'The Ed Sullivan Show' and making televised appearances with Steve Allen, Eddie Fisher and Dinah Shore.
Shawn rocked the entertainment boat when he spoofed Frank Sinatra and his 'clan' against the advice of friends who warned him against it. He went around the country cracking jokes about Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and saved his harshest jokes for Peter Lawford.
'People thought I was offending them,' Shawn said. 'If I had to worry about offending somebody, I'd be in trouble after I said 'Hello.''
The comedian leaves a brother and four grown children. Funeral services are pending.