1912 - 2001
By Dennis McLellan, LA Times Staff Writer
Comedian Foster Brooks was a one-time television newscaster who became an "overnight success" at 59 after creating a comic drunk act that made him a favorite in Las Vegas showrooms and on television variety shows. Brooks, at the age of 89, died December 20, 2001 of natural causes at home in Encino.
The comedian—who played the guy who knows he's had one cocktail too many but is trying hard not to let anybody else know it—is best remembered for his frequent appearances on "Dean Martin's Celebrity Roasts," where he would be introduced as a "friend" of the celebrity honoree. When Brooks appeared on the Bill Cosby variety show in 1972 as a CBS vice president who had had one too many, Times reviewer Cecil Smith reported that Brooks was the talk of the town. "It was the funniest drunk act I ever saw, maybe the funniest anyone ever saw," Smith wrote.
The silver-haired, bearded Brooks was so good at acting inebriated on stage that few fans and interviewers could resist asking him if personal experience had contributed to his getting the character down so well. "He'd tell them it did," said Brooks' daughter, Teri Elmendorf of Villa Park.
When he was a younger man, she said, he was a weekend drinker. But in the early 1960s, she said, "he just one day cold-turkey stopped drinking and smoking. He always said if he hadn't done that, he wouldn't have made it” in show business.
As Brooks told The Times in 1972, "I never drew a sober breath from Friday night to Monday. Eight years ago, I quit. Fellow made me a $10 bet I couldn’t quit, and I haven't had a drink since. At the time I needed the $10."
Elmendorf said recovering alcoholics often approached her father and told him that his drunk portrayal "gave them the laughter they needed to get through their recovery." And, she said, "he actually became national spokesperson for Mothers Against Drunk Driving and did public service announcements in many states."
Born in Louisville, Ky., in 1912, Brooks was one of eight sons whose father was a civil engineer for the city and later county sheriff.
Blessed with an operatic voice, Brooks began singing at weddings and on local radio at 12. He dropped out of school after completing the sixth grade, and held a variety of odd jobs until he was 21 and began a career in radio.
He worked as a newscaster and disc jockey first in Louisville and then in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y. In the early 1950s he switched from radio to television, serving as a newscaster and hosting a 15-minute program on which he interviewed professional bowlers who came to town.
In 1960, Brooks moved his family to Los Angeles to become an actor. It was tough going. Between bit parts on TV shows such as "Bewitched" and "The Munsters," he got odd jobs delivering phone books or picking up packages at the post office at Christmas. He also worked as a guard at Dodger Stadium.
About 1969, Brooks attended a charity golf tournament with friend and game show host Dennis James, who told him he would pay Brooks $50 if he would tell a few jokes to the crowd.
" He had no thought of doing it as a drunk until he was on his way up to the stage," said Elmendorf. Brooks later recalled that, while walking to the stage, he remembered the times his father entertained him and his seven brothers in the kitchen by playing a lush.
" I thought to myself, 'I wonder what these people would think if I'd make 'em think I'd been drinking?' " The improvised drunk act went over so well, Elmendorf said, that "he never told a joke without acting like he was drunk after that."
Later, singer Perry Como saw Brooks perform at a celebrity golf tournament and asked him to be his opening act at the debut of the new Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas.
When hotel management balked at having the unknown Brooks open for Como, the singer said that if Brooks didn't appear, neither would he.
The Hilton engagement opened the doors for Brooks, who made his national debut on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson."
In addition to Elmendorf, Brooks is survived by Teri Brooks, his wife of 51 years; daughter Scotti Brooks of Encino; and three grandchildren.