Shelley and Sarah Berman: 70 Years Later, Their Hollywood Romance Still Shines
Shelley (left) and Sarah (right) Berman
Photo by Star Foreman
When comedian Shelley Berman first met the woman who would become his wife, he was late for a date with actress Geraldine Page because someone had stolen his pants.
That someone turned out to be Sarah Herman, a fellow student at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. It was 1944, and Herman, a talented seamstress, was in charge of costumes and wardrobe for a production of Winterset featuring Berman. While the actor showered backstage after a performance, she mistakenly took his street clothes for pressing.
"I was running around backstage asking, 'Who the hell took my pants?'?" Shelley Berman recalls, smiling at his wife. "I was screaming. I didn't even have a towel. I had a pair of undershorts."
"She was waiting for him," recalls the seamstress, now Sarah Berman, laughing. "And there he was, pantless.
"Today, most would recognize Shelley Berman as Larry David's endearingly ludicrous father, Nat David, on Curb Your Enthusiasm, a part for which he earned an Emmy nomination in 2008. He has appeared on TV series including Boston Legal and CSI: NY, in movies such as Meet the Fockers and The Holiday, even on Hannah Montana during Miley Cyrus' pre-twerking days.
At the Goodman Theatre, Sarah recalls, Shelley was "the star of the school," while she was shy and introverted. But from the moment a contrite Sarah returned with his clothes, the two were inseparable. Shelley found it damn near impossible to remain angry with the classic beauty, whose grace is hypnotic even today. They were married three years later.
Not everyone was a believer. As Sarah walked down the aisle, she overheard her best friend whisper, "This marriage is never gonna last."
Surely to the chagrin of that frenemy, the Bermans will celebrate their 67th anniversary in April. "Without an interruption in all those years," Shelley jokes, as if anticipating the question.
They haven't just remained married for almost seven decades. At 89 and 88, they are still utterly devoted to each other, having endured the uncertainty of show business, the temptations of Hollywood and, most harrowing, the loss of their beloved son, Joshua, to brain cancer just months shy of his 13th birthday.
"No matter where Shelley was, he called me every night, for as long as we're married," Sarah says. "When Josh was ill, he would call me every minute. It was a very difficult time." But, she says, "We were together, we had each other and our daughter," Rachel, who now has two children.
Sitting in their favorite spots in the living room of their panoramic Bell Canyon home, Shelley points to a table where a yahrzeit candle was lit on what would have been Joshua's 49th birthday, on Jan. 1. Raised in an Irish Catholic home, Sarah converted to Judaism before they wed.
A lush Christmas tree, television memorabilia and framed photos of themselves with celebrities, from John F. Kennedy to Larry David, surround the couple. Curio tables display hundreds of intricate pocketknives custom-designed by Stanley Fujisaka. Atop one of the displays sits a copy of Shelley's latest book of poetry, To Laughter With Question: Poetry by Shelley Berman, from which he later reads one of his favorites, "Sarah Still."
In whispers at bedtime we slo-mo the day,
old laughter, new gossip, habits of years,
sworn to one bed and easy kiss-away tears,
in comfort with the nourishing of time.
"How many women have their husbands write poems to them?" she asks.
Once they were married, Sarah assigned a 10-year deadline for Shelley's career to take off. She got "a working job," as Shelley calls it, doing promotional work for a gift-wrapping company, appearing in commercials and taking care of them both, while Shelley hustled for acting roles and failed as a taxi driver. (After three collisions in just four weeks, Shelley's boss decided he should stick to acting.)
"I knew we would make it," Sarah says. "I also knew it would take time."
She adds, "I always say I don't know whether I lost the coin toss or won. Because one of us had to make a living. But we never said, 'Well, this is my money.' You're together. It's both of yours."
By their 10-year deadline, Shelley's signature telephone pantomime routine had gained wide acclaim. His debut comedy album, Inside Shelley Berman, won the first non-musical Grammy in history in 1959, launching his career on Broadway, film, television and variety shows. More chart-topping comedy albums followed.
Still, he was a famously devoted husband. Even the Rat Pack couldn't invite Shelley to a golf match without him asking, "Can I bring my wife?"
Their marriage had other challenges. "When Shelley became famous, it was very difficult to keep my own identity, and I think that's where a lot of couples break up," Sarah says. "Because either they both have careers and go their separate ways, or one has the career and the other sits there, feeling jealous or left out or lost."
Or, as in Sarah's case, become professional volunteers: "You have a cause, I'm available!" For years she volunteered with the L.A. Zoo, eventually serving as co-chair of the docent committee with friend Betty White.
Every Thursday, Shelley joins Sarah as a volunteer at the Motion Picture & Television Fund Home. On Sunday mornings they go to their favorite spot, the IHOP on Fallbrook and Vanowen, where, Shelley jokes, he's a star.
Shelley is lecturer emeritus for USC's soon-to-be-defunct Master of Professional Writing Program, where he has taught comedy writing and improv for 23 years. Sarah takes the harder job of dealing with, as Shelley puts it, "the good four or five men who are utter assholes" at their homeowners association meetings.
"But she's brave, and she puts up with them. She's got guts."
He still gets worked up defending her, to the point that Sarah raises her hand to calm him.
He reminds her not to miss her favorite show, Judge Judy; after that is a boxing match they both want to watch. Shelley will make some bruschetta and they'll drink some wine. Although neither can figure out how to pronounce Sriracha, they agree it's their new favorite condiment. They add it to everything.
One thing they won't be doing is celebrating Valentine's Day. "Shelley always says, 'You know, I don't need someone to remind me to say I love you,'?" Sarah says. "That's so true."
For the record, Shelley did make it to that date with Geraldine Page, but it was too late: It was already Sarah who held his heart - and his pants.
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Twitter:
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Los Angeles.