My first exposure to my newest interview subject, Sandy Helberg, came through the movie Spaceballs, where he memorably played the character of Dr. Schlotkin, the plastic surgeon who was going to give Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) her old nose back if King Roland (Dick Van Patten) didn’t turn over the key to the air lock. As I grew older, I came to see that Sandy Helberg was an incredible talent as both an actor and a writer. Through the help of Kim Hopkins, my dear friend and former interview subject who also connected me to Stuart Pankin, I spoke with Sandy on Monday, August 17th, and I hope you all enjoy getting to know this great talent.
Say hello to Sandy Helberg!
Johnny: Hi, Sandy. Johnny Caps here.
Sandy: How are you?
Johnny: I’m doing good. First of all, thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
Sandy: No problem.
Johnny: Alright. I have my questions ready to go, starting with this: You’re one of the original Groundlings. When you and your fellow originals started performing, did you have any idea or hope that it would become the comedy powerhouse it has?
Sandy: No, you never know. It’s like doing a hit TV show. You don’t know until you get feedback from the audience, and we actually thought, “we’re just going to die here”, because when we started out, there were 12 people in the group, we were in a terrible neighborhood, and we couldn’t get people to come. Even if we offered to drive them and told them you didn’t have to pay for tickets, people just didn’t want to come. It really wasn’t until Lily Tomlin and Lorne Michaels came when we were still at the old theater, and Lily was doing a special at the time, that she picked out four or five of us to be on her special. It was me, Laraine Newman, and a couple of other people.
I didn’t get along with Lorne Michaels as he said I was “too Jewish”, but anyway, the hell with him, so when we finally moved to Melrose, which is much more centrally located, we built our own theater. That took a couple of years, and then we were finally back in business, and it started to build once Laraine went to New York. They had Will Ferrell, Phil Hartman, who I worked with a lot, and more who just started coming, and the tone of The Groundlings changed. It was really an ensemble group, but once they started picking people out, it became more competitive, which was too bad, but that’s show business.
Sandy: Well, there were so many of them. I did a scene with Laraine Newman where we were husband and wife. I was a very Jewish guy and she was a Valley Girl, and the scene was we went to a marriage counselot. I liked it. It was a very good scene, and then we did a Godfather scene when that was popular, and a talent show where I was the emcee. We did a variety talk show where Phil Hartman was the host. He was a German host and I played a hostile Israeli stand-up, and we double-talked. He double-talked in German and I double-talked in Hebrew, and we actually got into a fight rolling around on the floor and arguing about the differences. There were so many scenes. I was in and out of there for ten years, so there were a lot of people coming and going, and different scenes. It was exciting.
Johnny: I can definitely imagine. Although I’ve never been to California, I definitely have seen the work of The Groundlings in many movies and TV shows I watched growing up. You definitely are a phenomenal group.
Sandy: Oh, yeah. Other than the performers, we’ve had people go on to producer The Golden Girls and Ellen DeGeneres’ first half-hour. We had a lot of writers in the group, people who grew up to be writers.
Johnny: Yep, and writers are very important…
Johnny: …But to stay with acting, you played Joey Rannis in the miniseries 79 Park Avenue. You’re the third cast member from that miniseries that I’ve interviewed, the first two being Lesley Ann Warren and Sondra Currie. What are your favorite memories of working on that project?
Sandy: I was thrilled. It was Universal, and after I did that, they offered me an exclusive contract. I didn’t take it because the pay was really bad, but it was great to do a period piece and be in three episodes where you get to age from a kid to a married guy to an older guy. I always had a crush on Lesley Ann Warren, and here I am working with her. I had to keep my hands off her. That was before #MeToo (laughing). I met some great actors who were in that, old-timers that I may not have worked with otherwise, and the director, Paul Wendkos, became a good friend. He was a terrific director. He did all the Gidgets in early TV, and then got into doing features and TV miniseries like 79 Park Avenue. You know, they never reran that because they felt it was so scandalous. NBC ran it one time, and then they took it off their list and never reaired it. Now it’s pretty mild stuff, but there was a lot of sexual innuendo.
Johnny: Well, maybe Kino Lorber Studio Classics, who currently have a deal with Universal, might be able to release that on a home entertainment format someday.
Sandy: Right. It could be. It has to be out there somewhere.
Johnny: Well, staying with you: You played an airport attendant in High Anxiety, the first of several collaborations with Mel Brooks. What do you recall the most about that first collaboration?
Sandy: Well, I had never met him before, and a friend of mine who’s an actor had come to see me in The Groundlings. After the show, he asked me, “Do you want to meet Mel Brooks?”. I said, “No. I’m too busy”. (Laughing) I said, “Of course! I can’t wait to go to his house”. He sets up the meeting, and I go to see Mel at his office at Fox. He had an office the size of Madison Square Garden. I just remember coming in, and from the door to his desk seemed like a half-hour walk. I just kept walking and walking, and sat down and was schvitzing. We just started talking, and I made him laugh. After I made him laugh, I got up and said, “I’ve got to go”. Mel said, (taking on a Brookisan voice) “Where are you going?”. I said, “I’ve fulfilled a life dream. I made you laugh”. He said, “Sit down” and we talked some more, and he said, “I like you. I’m going to give you a bigger small part instead of a small part”, so I didn’t have to read or anything. When I went the first day to work, I was nervous, scared to death, and I had worked before, but it was him and Madeline Kahn, and it was just amazing to watch them work and work a little bit with them.
After that, I never had to audition. I’d just get a call from his office. “He wants you to come in on History Of The World”. In History Of The World, I was originally playing Albert Einstein. I had a two-and-a-half-hour makeup with the wig and the mustache, and we were doing an ice-skating scene. It was me, Mel, playing Hitler, of course, and another guy playing Freud, and it didn’t work. He didn’t like the way it looked. The ice-skating didn’t fit in, so he called me back and said, “I’m doing The Last Supper with John Hurt. I want you in it”. I came back, and it was an honor working with John Hurt. There were a lot of people in that scene, but I was at the head of the table. He trusted me. He let me improvise.
The last one I did was Spaceballs, and there was a lot of improvising going on there.
Johnny: Spaceballs was actually the first time I was exposed to your work. That was the first role I can recall seeing you in.
Johnny: I can recall renting it when I was 9 or 10 years old, and the interesting thing about Spaceballs is that it seems that that’s the introduction every kid born from the 80s onward has to Mel Brooks, and that leads me to ask: What do you think younger audiences saw in it that critics and adults didn’t at the time?
Sandy: Well, it was such a takeoff of Star Wars, and the audience was younger people for Star Wars, so it had a lot things they could relate to from that. To them, it was a funny version of Star Wars, which it sort of was, most of the time. Mel let us improvise. I improvised a line where, as my caddy was leaving, I said to Dark Helmet, “I’m gonna go home and work on my putts”. Mel loved the line, so he comes over to me and says, “Look, we’ve got to give that line to Rick. It’s a great line, but he’s the star of the movie. He has to have the last line in the scene”. He said, “If you have any other ideas you want to do, I owe you one”, so I told him, “How about the screen goes black, and then it comes up and I’m in the back, making out with the nurse?”. That was my contribution, and I said, “I need to rehearse this a lot!”. He said, “No, you’re a pro”, so I got to do that, and it was a great atmosphere.
It was a lot of fun, but it was not goofing around. He took his laughs very seriously. He had me keep coming back. He would always call me. When we were doing History Of The World, he had me come back when Richard Pryor was supposed to be in the movie. Richard Pryor came in a day before, and we walked around the set. He showed him all the sets, and then the next day he gets a call. Richard set himself on fire and he couldn’t work, so at the last minute, and it was a great choice, he got Gregory Hines. Mel would have me come on the set and sit around with Shecky Greene and Dom DeLuise and Ron Carey and all these great comics like Madeline Kahn, and just schmooze with them. It was just a great experience. No matter how old I am, I always feel like a kid around Mel. Of course, he’s 94, so I am a kid next to Mel, but these guys were old-timers, and it was great to be in that atmosphere. There were no egos. It was terrific.
Johnny: That’s fantastic to hear, and you definitely did great work in all those movies.
Sandy: Thank you.
Johnny: Oh, no problem. To jump back to the 70s, you appeared in two 70s comedy anthology films, playing a Mailman in Prime Time and a Biker Eulogist in Coming Attractions, which is also known as Loose Shoes.
Johnny: The 70s was a pretty big decade for comedy anthology films. Why do you think that was?
Sandy: Well, I think it was sort of a new format. There was a movie that came out at the beginning of the 70s called TunnelVision, which Chevy Chase was involved with. They used a lot of comedic actors in one scene after another, and then Kentucky Fried Theater, the people who did Airplane!, came out with their own version of it, which was called Kentucky Fried Movie. Again, they had some terrific comedic actors. It was an easy and cheap way to do a film because you didn’t need anybody for more than a couple of days. Loose Shoes was, I think, Bill Murray’s first movie. I knew the directors, and I knew the casting director. She was my wife, so we worked together. I’d help her get jobs and she’d get me jobs, and I helped her get her first movie, which was Carrie.
I had gone in for a meeting with George Lucas and Brian DePalma. They were each doing new movies, and they were seeing people together. George Lucas starts to explain Star Wars to me, and he lost me. I thought, “They’re not going to hire a Jew in space. Let me hear the Italian guy”. He talked about Carrie and high school, and I thought, “That’s more my speed”, so I asked Brian DePalma who was casting it. He said, “Well, we lost our person”. I went home and told my wife. She called Brian DePalma that evening, and he invited her to have dinner with him, Martin Scorcese and a writer, and the next day, she had the job. She used a lot of Groundlings in Carrie. She had a great resource in The Groundlings because they had to get unknown people, and people that looked young and would work for a little money, and she was an expert at that.
Johnny: Very cool. It’s always great when you’re able to collaborate like that, and it really worked out well. To go back to the 1980s, 1980, to be specific, you played Officer Clark in The Hollywood Knights.
Johnny: Had you initially auditioned to play one of the Knights, or was Officer Clark the role you went in for?
Sandy: No, I originally went in for the role of Newbomb Turk, which Robert Wuhl played, and I think he did a terrific job. Bimbeau and Clark were like the Laurel and Hardy of the movie, and it was mainly improvised. We never saw a script.
Johnny: I was rewatching the movie last week via a YouTube rental. It definitely was a great film, and you did great work in it, so that leads me to ask: How true was The Hollywood Knights to your own experiences as a teen in the 1960s?
Sandy: Well, I was a troublemaker in the 60s. I was always the one with the prank. I wasn’t a great student, and I just wanted to get girls, and the only way I could do it was by being funny. I wasn’t an athlete. I wasn’t a scholar. I was pretty funny, but (laughing) I didn’t get girls in high school.
Johnny: I think that The Hollywood Knights is a relatable movie for many people because it deals with the fact that times were changing in the 60s and heading for a very dark time. Things are always changing, and it seems around now that we’re heading into darker times, like, every day, so it’s important to try and keep on the light side of things, and try and approach things with good humor because that’s really the only thing that can get you through it.
Sandy: Right, and also, there were low budget movies, and Hollywood Knights was a low-budget movie. All those other movies like Loose Shoes were very low-budget and, like I said, you didn’t use big names. I think this was Michelle Pfeiffer’s first or second job in Hollywood Knights, so there were no big names to pay. It was a tough job to do because we shot from six in the evening ’til six in the morning, so it just screwed with your head. When you’re ready to sleep, you’ve got to go to work, but by the time you get the hang of it, the movie’s over.
Johnny: Yeah. Stuart Pankin, when I interviewd him recently, talked about the night shoots and their impact on him, but it worked out tremendously and is definitely one of the most underrated movies of the 80s.
Sandy: Yeah, most of the movies I do are very underrated (laughing). I don’t get the big blockbusters.
Johnny: …But you do get the cult classics, and that’s pretty good. To jump back to TV, you spent some time on the musical variety series Solid Gold, playing Morris, the host of Nerd TV. What went into the creation of that character, and what were your favorite sketches to play him in?
Sandy: Well, I did Morris since I first joined The Groundlings. That was a scene that Laraine Newman and I did. I was Morris Potemkin, and she was Sherry. I liked doing Morris Potemkin. He was the first nerd. Nobody was doing nerds, so people related to him because he was a relatable guy. The way Solid Gold came up, again, they saw the show, and called me and asked if I wanted to do my own spot, NTV. I did it when Rick Dees was the host, and again, I got to meet such amazing musicians. It was just a great experience. It was great to have somewhere to go to work every couple of days, and they pretty much let me do whatever I wanted to do. I also did Madame’s Place, and I did a different character, a Jerry Lewis type, very hostile. I did that in The Groundlings for a long time, and I really loved that character. I would bring people up from the audience and insult the hell out of them, and then at the end I’d sing “I’m A Nice Guy”, so The Groundlings were a big part of my life.
When I first joined The Groundlings, I was just about to get married. I was in The Groundlings for a couple of months, and my future wife and I had to go back to New York for our wedding. It was a big wedding at The Plaza Hotel. We were there for a week, and I told my wife I wanted to go back to L.A and not to miss the show over the weekend. She said, “Well, wait. You want to leave the honeymoon suite at The Plaza Hotel to go back to L.A to work in a dumpy little theater for nothing”. I said, “Yeah”, and she knew what she was in for, and that was 45 years of coming and going from The Groundlings. We made some great friends and she met some great people, but she always used The Groundlings as a source of actors. When she was doing Barney Miller or Benson or The Jazz Singer, she always managed to get a Groundling or two in the show that she was doing, and it made me happy. I loved going to do the shows. I looked forward to that. It was a great outlet.
Johnny: I’m glad you had that.
Johnny: To jump back to the big screen, you played Irwin in Up The Creek, one of the better-received teen comedies of the 80s. The film did well with audiences and even critics, including Siskel and Ebert, who gave the movie Two Thumbs Up. What made that movie such a standout for you?
Sandy: Well, again, I got to improvise a lot. When we were there, it was like a bad kids’ summer camp. We all misbehaved. We were gone for three months up in Oregon, and they let me rewrite stuff. They would ask me, and then some of the girls were coming over and asking me to write all this dialogue. I said, (laughing) “I can’t do that, no matter what they offered”. It was just a great bunch of people. Your experience depends on the people you’re working with. Tim Matheson and I became very close, as well as some of the other people, and on the days we had off, it was like a summer camp. We would go hiking. They would go play golf at six in the morning.
At first I was scared to death of the rafting. We went there two weeks before the movie started so they could teach us how to raft, and I was the last one to go down the river. They said, “If you don’t do it now, you’re not in the movie”, so I went down the raft and I just loved it. It was a real kind of feeling of camraderie because of all the physical stuff we had to do. I’d never been rafting but, luckily, Tim was a rafter, and there was just a great sense of fun when I think about the movie. We all got close because we didn’t go home. We were on location, so we saw the same people night and day and, like high school, it breaks up into groups, and that’s who you hung out with. Stephen Furst was one of the first people I became close to. He was so funny, and he is so missed. I was really upset to learn of his passing.
Johnny: Stephen Furst’s passing really was quite sad. I was really disappointed that they didn’t include him in the Oscars In Memoriam when he passed away, but I was glad that he was included when Turner Classic Movies did the TCM Remembers for 2017.
Johnny: I would’ve loved to interview Stephen Furst. He was definitely quite a diverse talent. How lucky you were to work with him, and indeed all the talents you worked with on Up The Creek.
Sandy: Yeah. Like I said, it was a very special thing. We all got to be very close. It was just tough coming home. It was like being in the military for three months. When we came home, we were all kind of out of control, but we all settled back down to our home life.
Johnny: Alright. To jump back to TV, you played Mr. Wormer in the Married…With Children episode “Can’t Dance, Don’t Ask Me”. As I asked my friend Kimmy Robertson when I interviewed her in 2019, was it as much fun to film an episode of Married…With Children as it was to watch it?
Sandy: Yeah. You know, it was a very relaxed atmosphere. They had been doing it for a long time and, again, they were very nice people, and it was fun. They made the work fun. I hate to call it work, but it was. It was a great experience, and I was thrilled. I’m always thrilled (laughing) to get a job and work, and that was one of the jobs I felt blessed to have. It’s fun when it’s not real rigid. When it becomes rigid and the showrunner, who is the boss, has so many notes and things to say to people, it’s more difficult than it is fun, but you get through it any way you can.
Johnny: Alright. Speaking of sitcoms, you played a Waiter in the Charlie Hoover episode “Happy Anniversary”. Do you have any Sam Kinison stories to share?
Sandy: Well, Sam Kinison came in, like, six or seven hours late. He was with a couple of girls, and he went to his dressing room and they couldn’t get him out. He was a very funny guy, but very difficult to work with, especially (laughing) when you wait for somebody for six hours and they finally show up, and he wasn’t in great shape. Tim Matheson was one of the leads in it, and I thank him for the role, I think. It was just a couple of days. I didn’t work too much on it, but I think Sam was so self-destructive, he took the whole show under with him. Sad.
Johnny: That actually leads me to ask about another sitcom with a troubled comedian that you worked on, Richard Jeni’s Platypus Man, where you played a stage manager in the episode “9 1/2 Days”. When working alongside Richard, did he show any of the signs of the issues that would later claim his life?
Sandy: Well, he wasn’t a warm person, and he seemed a little too angry. You know most comics are angry, but he seemed a little too angry. I did, like, three episodes of that because I knew the producers and they just called me up, but I didn’t get to know him very well. He kept to himself and, like I said, like most comics, he was an angry guy.
Johnny: I’m saddened to hear that, but I understand. I’m a fan of Richard Jeni’s comedy and, of course, his passing was another tragic incident. If I may ask about one more collaboration with a legendary comedian, you played a Commercial Director in Meet Wally Sparks which, of course, starred one of my all-time favorite comedians, Rodney Dangerfield. What do you recall the most about working with Rodney?
Sandy: I got to know him a little better after the movie. He was, I use the word again, a fun guy. The director who hired me really wasn’t directing it. It was a cohort of Rodney’s, and we just laughed all the time. He never stopped. He was always on, always going, and I had a very tiny part in it, but I was glad to get to work with him, and talk about a loose set. That was pretty loose, and you didn’t have to memorize the dialogue. You miss a line here and you miss a line there, but I don’t think I ever watched the whole thing. While doing it and watcing them make it, he had a sense that this was not going to work very well, and it didn’t.
Johnny: Well, from what I saw of it, I think it was decent and I certainly enjoyed it, but I can understand how it may not exactly have worked out that well. To go away from collaborations with other comedians and back to you, you’ve worked as a writer for various TV shows. What has writing provided for you that acting has not?
Sandy: Well, you don’t have to get dressed, and we work out of our house. The first writing assignment we got was for The Golden Girls. My wife and I came up with three or four storylines. You go in and pitch them. They picked out the one they liked, and they picked out “Foreign Exchange”. You talk ideas, and you go home and write an outline, and you turn that in. They give you notes on it. You go back and write a first draft. You know, it’s a lot of back-and-forth, and then when your job is done, as this is the way half-hour shows were done, they have a dozen writers and they throw the script in the pit, and everyone takes a shot at it. Everyone adds jokes, does rewrites, changes things, so it becomes a lot different than what you wrote, but that’s why they have a big staff of writers to collaborate and come up with the best stuff.
I think they did a great job doing the rewrite on ours’, and it was the hundredth episode, so as they were taping the show, the showrunners were finished after five years, they were running out with furniture and scripts. They wanted to be out of there by the end of the show, and the other writers didn’t like us because everyone wanted to write the hundredth show, and here they’d brought two pitchers who’d never written anything to write the show. It worked for us and it worked against us, but we’re really proud of that, and then we did other shows, but as a freelance writer, it’s difficult because the union made them give one or two freelance writers an assignment. Otherwise, it was all from staff writers. When we went in and pitched, we were like the outsiders, but we managed to sell a few shows, and that was good.
Johnny: That’s great to hear. To jump to where we are now, things are pretty much at a crawl now everywhere as a result of coronavirus, so what are you doing to keep busy during these times, and what’s next for you once things get better?
Sandy: Well, I do a solo show, and I’d love to get that back up. I love working to an audience. That was what was so great about The Groundlings. I liked to talk to them and include them in what I was doing, so I came up with this solo show called You Can Only Blame So Much On The Holocaust. When I told that title to Mel Brooks, he said, (in a Brooksian voice) “Oh, I would never touch the Holocaust. Hitler was there to be made fun of, but the Holocaust?”. He said, “You’ve got some balls!”. I said, “Well, my parents were Holocaust survivors”.
Growing up as the child of Holocaust survivors was pretty different than, I think, anything else. I mean, I don’t know. This is the only upbringing I had, but my parents were not Americanized. They went into the camps at 13 and came out at 19, so they missed their whole teen years, and I never knew exactly if this is the way my parents were because of the Holocaust, or if it was just who they were. They just didn’t have the child-rearing skills. I was a year old when they came to this country. We came to Ohio, and I had my own little Holocaust. We were in Toledo, Ohio, and they hadn’t seen a lot of Jews. When we came there, as I say in my show, my mother, father and me, we doubled the Jewish population, and so I put up with a lot of anti-Semitism.
They used to call me Hitler, and I was a funny-looking kid, short with a big nose and big ears and big hair, so they gave me crap every day of the year in my high school years. That was difficult, and my parents were not very sympathetic. They figured, “You have a problem? We had the nightmare”. I just had the nightmare as a kid, knowing I wasn’t liked, and I didn’t understand, either.
My father didn’t know American sports. We never played baseball or football or basketball. He was an excellent soccer player, and he was also a workaholic, so we would go out in front of the house. He’d be in his suit and he’d say, “Okay, I’ll kick the ball”, and he would do an amazing feat of business like he’d kick the ball from one foot to another, on his head, on his shoulder, on his elbows, and then he would rear up and kick the ball a block down the street. I would run after the ball, turn around and come back, and I’d see him driving away, and that’s sort of what that was like.
Like I said, my parents were not very sympathetic, and they could not believe that I was funny. They never came to see me in a show until I was in The Groundlings. People used to tell my parents, “Oh, he’s so funny. Did you see the show?”. “No, they didn’t have time”, but they just couldn’t believe I was a funny guy because, at home, I was very quiet. I had two younger brothers, and there was nothing to be funny about at home.
Johnny: Well, even though you did have a very rough childhood, I think you’ve come out wonderfully, and I think you’ve definitely blossomed. I admire you for having prospered the way you have.
Sandy: Well, we all would like to do better with our career, but I think I’ve done better than some and not as well as some others, so that’s the way it works. You know, show business can be hit-and-miss…
Johnny: …And that leads to my final question: What advice would you give to someone who is looking to enter the entertainment industry?
Sandy: Well, you have to have a thick skin, and you really have to love it. You know, I see a lot of younger people. They get off the bus, and they’re here to be a movie star, and that’s not the right thing. You’ve got to love the work because at the beginning, most of the time, you work for free. You do showcases and you do little theaters. I had no backup plan. This was just what I was going to do, and crawl my way up as people saw what I could do. I knew I wasn’t wasting my time, so that was encouraging, but it is a very tough business. You can have five years on a series, and the series is canceled, and the next day nobody knows you, and that really happens. You’ve got to be a glutton for punishment.
With what’s going on today with the country, the kind of shape it’s in, it’s just devastating. It is horrible, but we need to laugh and we need to make fun of what’s going on. Otherwise, we’ll all end up hanging in the basement.
Johnny: Well, I know you’re going to bring the laughs, and we definitely do need humor in this time. I thank you for your great humor, and I thank you for taking the time to do this interview. That does it for me. Thank you again for your time. You’re a great talent.
Sandy: Thank you very much.
Johnny: …And I thank Kim Hopkins for connecting us. I hope you have a great afternoon.
Sandy: You, too. Thank you very much.
Sandy: Bye bye.
I would like to thank Sandy Helberg for taking the time out of his schedule to speak to me, and I would like to thank Kim Hopkins for connecting us.
Coming soon to The Flashback Interview are conversations with actress/musician/health advocate Greta Blackburn, singer/drummer/actress/baker Brie Howard, and Amy Stoch, who plays Missy in the Bill And Ted movies, including the upcoming Bill And Ted Face The Music.