Shecky Greene, the legendary Las Vegas headliner and stand-up comedian who entertained audiences for years while battling demons that included stage fright, alcoholism, prescription-drug abuse and gambling, died Sunday. He was 97. 

Greene died at his home in Las Vegas of natural causes, his wife of 41 years, Marie Musso Greene, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

He also was known for his dozens of appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, where he served as an occasional guest host.

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Greene’s garrulous act in the 1950s and 60s helped transform the hotel lounge into another place for patrons to be entertained, turning Vegas into a 24-hour party town. His specialty was improvisation, and he could take virtually any situation and make it funny.

The stocky Chicago native sang, did impressions, told stories and often went off on wild tangents, and his brand of comedy was quite physical (he once did his act while hanging from the stage curtains; another time, he suffered a knee injury after doing a back flip).

Yet through it all, Greene dealt with debilitating stage fright that kept him from performing for years at a time.

“I was a manic depressive,” he told the Review-Journal in 2009. “Then I developed panic attacks, and I worked with people who never knew it. I’d get a standing ovation, then I’d burst out crying as soon as I left the stage. I wanted to get out of show business so bad at that time. But when you’re making $100,000 a week and supporting 12 bookies and a wife — it’s difficult.”

Greene also had a drinking problem. In an infamous 1968 episode, he bounced his Oldsmobile convertible off a lamppost and into the famous fountains outside Caesars Palace. With water spraying everywhere, he rolled down his car window, turned on the windshield wipers and said he told the cops, “What, no spray wax?” He also pointed out that he didn’t even get a ticket (times were different then).

Erratic behavior and a bad attitude would get him fired, but because his act brought in so much money, the Vegas hotels kept bringing him back. When he stopped drinking, he became addicted to prescription drugs, but he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994 that he was able to overcome that.

He once lost his voice because of throat surgery and couldn’t perform for a year.

Greene starred as the resident hustler Pvt. Braddock on the first season of Combat! but quit the 1962-67 ABC war drama after eight episodes. He also appeared in such films as Tony Rome (1968), The Love Machine (1971), Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976), as Marcus Vindictus in History of the World: Part One (1981) and as supermarket owner Mr. Buyrite in Splash (1984).

Greene performed many times on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace, though it was hard to contain his act to just a few minutes. He also showed up on The Love Boat, Laverne & Shirley, The Fall Guy, The A-Team, Roseanne and as Paul Reiser’s great-uncle on Mad About You.

Fred Sheldon Greenfield was born on April 8, 1926, on the North Side of Chicago. During World War II, he spent three years aboard an aircraft carrier in the U.S. Navy and at times was in charge of an ice-cream stand on the ship. When asked what was the toughest thing about the service, he often replied, “Butter pecan.”

In 1944, he enrolled back home at Wright Junior College with the goal of becoming a gym teacher. One summer, he took a job for $20 a week at a resort outside Milwaukee, where he became one-half of a comedy act with Sammy Shore, future co-founder of The Comedy Store in Los Angeles.

That led to a three-year gig in New Orleans at the Prevue Lounge, where trumpet legend Al Hirt served as his bandleader. Greene purchased a share of the Prevue, but after the place burned down, he returned to school at Wright.

Greene, though, quickly got back in show business when he accepted at offer from comic Martha Raye to perform at her Miami nightclub for six weeks at $500 a week. He later opened for Ann Sothern at the Chez Paree in Chicago before heading to the Golden Hotel in Reno, Nevada, to headline for more than twice that amount.

He arrived in Las Vegas in 1953 to open for Dorothy Shay, the recording star known as The Park Avenue Hillbillie, at the Last Frontier, and wound up being extended for 18 weeks.

“This was the making of my career,” he recalled in a 1996 interview. “They held me over with Patty Andrews after she left her sisters, then they put me up with [bandleader] Xavier Cugat.” He introduced Elvis Presley, the opening act who was making his Vegas debut, in April 1956.

Greene signed with the Riviera, but it didn’t have a place in its showroom for him to perform, so he suggested he work in the lounge near the bar. At the Tropicana, the new owner did not want to put a stage in that area, but the comic asked the owner, “What if I put a plywood board over the bar, that section. Would that satisfy you?’” Greene said. He agreed, and Greene stayed with the hotel for five years.

“I started to get very hot. The place was getting crowded, and the people started coming in, because they never had comedy like that in the lounge,” he said. He paved the way for other lounge acts like Don Rickles.

When the MGM Grand Hotel opened in 1975, its second headline act (after Dean Martin) was Greene. Back then, he was making a reported $150,000 a week.

In the 1980s, he married for a third time and, after his long stretches of inactivity, was doing stand-up until recently.

Greene loved to play the ponies, and a speedy thoroughbred named for him led the 1973 Kentucky Derby until Secretariat ran away to win that race en route to a Triple Crown victory. At one time, the Arlington Park racetrack had a Shecky Greene Handicap.

In addition to his wife, survivors include his adopted daughters, Dorian and Alison. Donations in his memory can be made to St. Jude’s Children’s Ranch of Las Vegas.

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