LOS ANGELES, July 1 (UPI) -- Buddy Hackett, the rubber-faced comic, died Monday at his Malibu home at the age of 78.
The cause of death was not immediately clear. Hackett had been suffering from a chest cold although he had been in "robust good health" until a few days ago, according to a family spokesperson.
Hackett -- one of the most popular nightclub and TV comedians of his generation -- also achieved success as an actor, in movies such as "The Music Man" and "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."
He had cut back on live performing in 1996 after experiencing dizziness and shortness of breath onstage, the Los Angeles Times reported. But Hackett continued to act in movies and TV.
Hackett was born Leonard Hacker in 1924 in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of an upholsterer. It was during the summers that a teenage Hackett first went to work as a waiter-performer in New York's Catskill Mountains, the resort training ground for countless "borscht belt" comedians. He met his wife, the former Sherry Dubois, while he was working in the Catskills.
After a three-year stretch in the Army in the 1940s, Hackett mainly worked at clubs in New York. Eventually he started working in Broadway musicals -- including "Lunatics and Lovers" in 1954.
In 1956, he starred in the TV series "Stanley," as the operator of a newsstand at an upscale New York hotel. Carol Burnett co-starred as Stanley's girlfriend. Hackett replaced Art Carney as a member of the cast of "The Jackie Gleason Show" in 1957.
Hackett's look set him apart from other comedians. Combining manic energy with his short, round body, cross-eyed gaze and a tendency to speak out of the side of his mouth, he became a comedy icon through countless appearances on TV shows, including most of the latenight comedy-talk shows, where fans knew him simply as "Hackett."
He guest-starred on dozens of hit TV series -- including "Boy Meets World," "L.A. Law," "The Love Boat," "Murder, She Wrote," "Quincy" and "The Rifleman." He also appeared frequently as a guest on top variety shows -- including "The "Andy Williams Show" and "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In."
Hackett's movie resume included the 1961 comedy "All Hands on Deck" and the 1958 drama "God's Little Acre."
Hackett played Marcellus Washburn in the Oscar-nominated 1962 movie musical "The Music Man." The following year, he joined Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Spencer Tracy in an all-star lineup for Stanley Kramer's comedy "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World." Kramer's widow, Karen Sharpe Kramer, told United Press International that Hackett was a "really strong" actor.
"He was very good in 'God's Little Acre,'" she said. "Stanley took three of the 'Mad World' comics and did a TV show where he directed them in serious drama. He had Buddy play Cyrano (de Bergerac) and he was very good."
Hackett also co-starred with Dean Jones in Disney's 1968 hit "The Love Bug." More recently, audiences knew him as the voice of Scuttle in the Disney animated feature "The Little Mermaid."
In 1995, to help promote the release of "The Little Mermaid" on DVD, Hackett was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He used the occasion to joke about the mercenary side of show business.
"I got offered this a long time ago," he said. "I waited to tie it in with something worthy, the re-release of 'Little Mermaid' in digital sound.... So, if you're really crazy about Buddy Hackett, buy one of them things. Fact is, after two weeks, I'll sell you the star."
Then Hackett turned serious for a moment.
"I thank you all for a wonderful, wonderful life that you've given us," he told the crowd at the ceremony dedicating his star. "And all I had to do was go out and tell jokes which I would have done free."
Hackett's stage act challenged contemporary standards of taste, with indelicate references to sexual topics and over-the-top portrayals of ethnic stereotypes -- including routines where he would use a rubber band to create slanted eyes and speak with a broad Chinese dialect.
Singer Steve Lawrence told the Times that Hackett was "a groundbreaker with a lot of taboos we grew up with. But he always did it in a way that was hysterical. Buddy was an innovator. In his time, he was the most creative comic that I've ever seen."
Hackett's earthy comedy was a big hits at the Friars Club, where he frequently joined other members in the now-legendary celebrity roasts that helped popularize crude comedy.
"He is a legend and he will be sorely missed," said Kramer.
Hackett is survived by his wife, Sherry; his son, Sandy; two daughters, Lisa and Ivy; and two grandchildren.