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Fine & Sandy
Tireless Hackett keeps busy
with a variety of projects
By Jerry Fink
Sandy Hackett is the ironman of Las Vegas entertainment.
The stand-up comedian created, co-produces and stars in "A Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey and Dean" at the Greek Isles, a production that also is finding a home on the road.
He co-produces, along with Dick Feeney, "The World's Greatest Magic Show," also at the Greek Isles.
And he does a stand-up comedy act in a tiny 70-seat theater at the Greek Isles.
When he isn't working on a project at the Greek Isles, he performs comedy at corporate events.
Or he tours with his wife, vocalist Lisa Dawn Miller, the daughter of legendary Motown songwriter Ron Miller, who penned "For Once in My life," "Touch Me in the Morning," and "Yester-me ... Yester-you ... Yesterday."
Hackett recently completed a tour with Deana Martin, daughter of the late Dean Martin. He has also acted in two motion pictures recently, one of which ("Down and Derby") is in limited release and another ("The Indie Pendant") that is expected to be released in June.
And he is trying to develop a television series for himself.
Yet the 48-year-old son of the late legendary comedian Buddy Hackett says he isn't a workaholic.
"I just love what I do," Hackett said. "I love performing and I love all the elements of it: the writing, the producing, the organizing."
Performing is in his genetic makeup.
Hackett's first national exposure was when he was 11 and appeared on the popular "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In." Hackett may be remembered as the child whose response to a joke was, "I'm just a kid, but I thought it was funny."
At age 15 he won the humorous interpretation division of a statewide debate and public speaking competition in California by performing his father's classic routine, "The Chinese Waiter," a bit that launched the elder Hackett's career.
After winning the competition, Hackett was with his father at the Westbury Music Fair in Long Island, N.Y. The elder Hackett invited his son to perform "The Chinese Waiter" routine in front of 3,000 fans.
"I'm sure I was nervous," Hackett said. "The walk to the stage was terrifyin -- but if you're a performer, you go on anyway."
His father gave him more than an opportunity to perform. He taught him the ropes.
"I hung out with him my entire life," Hackett said. "He was my best friend we were super close. When I turned 18 he said to me, 'You're a man now and I'm not going to tell you what to do anymore.'
"The next day, he told me what to do."
Hackett says his father was a great teacher, one who shared his knowledge not only with his son but with countless aspiring comedians.
"He understood comedy," he said. "He analyzed it, digested it. He would have luncheons with other comics and talk about how telling a joke was like peeling an onion, going through layers of skin to get to the joke inside."
Hackett said his father talked about comedy, but he also talked about life.
"He was very well read," Hackett said. "He was the brightest human I ever met -- not just because he was my dad, but just because he was. People loved him. He was like the Pillsbury Doughboy. People would come up and touch him. They would pinch his face like he was a child."
When Hackett was growing up he frequently came to Vegas with his father and worked at a variety of jobs -- as a lifeguard, and then as a cook's helper at the Sahara, then as a front desk clerk at Caesars Palace.
Thus, he saw the legends of entertainment.
"The town was incredible," he said. "I saw all the old entertainers, who would perform cabaret style, getting up onstage to sing and dance and do jokes. I saw the Jackson Five and the Osmonds and every great comedian of the day -- my dad, Johnny Carson, Shecky Greene, Flip Wilson.
"I not only saw them, I saw everybody dozens of times."
Hackett moved to Las Vegas in 1974 at age 18, the day after graduating from high school in Los Angeles. He enrolled in UNLV's hotel and restaurant management program and got a job as a trainee in hotel management at the Sahara.
"I did everything there was to do at the Sahara, except run the hotel, which I could do if they needed me to," he said.
He was a cook's helper, bellman, telephone operator, buffet worker, and an assistant in the employee dining room. He dealt cards, worked in the counting cage, waited and bused tables, did housekeeping, worked in the showroom, was a pool manager and worked in advertising, public relations and entertainment.
"You name it, and I've done it," Hackett said.
He ended up working at the Sahara for 10 years. While there he launched the "Sahara Talent Showcase" -- showcasing acts in the lounge who wanted to audition for the casino.
On Monday night 25 or 30 entertainers gave free performances just for a chance to be discovered.
"The performers brought their friends and they packed the place," Hackett said.
The musicians' union complained that the showcase was taking jobs away from union members, so a trio was hired to appease them.
"Over the years it was very successful," Hackett said. "A lot of acts appeared there their first time in Vegas."
They included Howie Mandel and Andrew Dice Clay.
"Before he was the Diceman," Hackett said. "He was still doing impersonations."
Also, female impersonator Kenny Kerr performed at the Sahara.
"He did the showcase and got a booking at the Silver Slipper," Hackett said.
He hosted showcases for 12 years -- Monday nights at the Sahara in Las Vegas, and eventually Sunday nights at the Sahara in Reno or the Sahara at Tahoe.
"Without exaggeration, I introduced more than 10,000 acts," Hackett said.
When he was 28 he began touring with his father, a gig that lasted 10 years.
But Hackett's biggest success has been with his tribute to the Rat Pack. The production has three companies, one in Vegas and two that tour.
"We were in Boston at the beginning of year," Hackett said. "We sold out every night."
They also sold out in Biloxi, Miss., Easton, Pa., and several other engagements.
The "Pack" has been on the move in recent months. It will be in Detroit and San Francisco later this year.
With the increased demand for the show comes an increase in demand for talent.
"We're accepting applications for every position," Hackett said.
There was another "Rat Pack" tribute show that preceded Hackett's -- "The Rat Pack is Back," produced by David Cassidy, which opened in 2000 and closed in 2002.
There is no connection between the two productions, according to Hackett.
"The Cassidy show isn't even close to this show," he said. "It's a very different show, and ours was endorsed by Joey Bishop."
Hackett said his show was inspired by Bishop.
"He called me when HBO was filming a Rat Pack movie and he said he thought I would be perfect to play him in the movie," Hackett said. "I said, 'Great, who do I call?' He said, 'I don't know. Nobody called me.' "
Hackett's agents tracked down the casting director, but the Bishop part was already taken.
Hackett auditioned for the Cassidy show but said they weren't interested.
So he decided to create his own show.
The voice of God that opens the show, sending the Rat Pack to earth for one final performance, is that of Buddy Hackett.
"Some people think it's me doing my father," Hackett said. "But I got him to record it. It was terrific."
His father died June 30, 2003.
The week after his father died, Hackett met his future wife's then-2-year-old son, Oliver.
"It's like I lost a father, but I gained a son," Hackett said.
The first-time father is proud of his new son, now 4, and already is teaching him the tricks of the trade, as his own father taught him.
"Oliver is remarkably bright," Hackett said. "I have him doing some jokes now.
"I teach him some stuff and try to find the right setup. Like when his grandmother strapped him into a car seat, she asks him if he's comfortable and he goes, 'I make a living.' "
The ironman has an ironson in training.
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