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The Surprising Story of Famed JFK Impersonator Vaughn Meader (and Why You've Never Heard of Him)

In 1963, the Grammy Award for Album of the Year didn’t go to Elvis, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Johnny Cash, or even The Beach Boys, though they all released albums during the qualifying year. Instead, it went to a comedy album called The First Family by a man you’ve probably never heard of: Vaughn Meader.

It wasn’t just critical acclaim: The album reportedly sold 6.5 million copies in its first six weeks of release, the fastest-selling record of its time. Meader was wildly popular. He appeared on late night shows, made nightclub and radio appearances, gave interviews, performed at Carnegie Hall, rebuffed an invitation from Frank Sinatra to join the Rat Pack, and generally basked in the spotlight all while donning the persona of another man. But within a few years, Meader all but disappeared—because the man he was embodying was President John F. Kennedy.

For years prior, Meader had been a piano-playing nightclub performer in New York with a musical comedy act. After Kennedy was elected, the Maine native found his calling in impersonating the President after tossing out a few lines onstage in Greenwich Village one night. It didn’t take much to tweak his own New England accent and transform into the young politician from Brookline, Mass.

Meader went on to hold mock press conferences, relying partially on plants with setup questions and largely on his own skills as an improviser. While Jacqueline Kennedy was not too amused by the act, JFK himself reportedly played The First Family before a cabinet meeting, bought copies to give as Christmas gifts, and once opened a Democratic National Committee dinner with, “Vaughn Meader was busy tonight, so I came myself.” He was the right person at the right time, and the American people—already infatuated with the Kennedys—devoured the relatively good-humored jokes about the new First Family.

Watching him now (like on this appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show), the voice and gestures seem broad and obvious, but that’s because Meader set the standard by which all other JFK impersonations since have been based. He recorded The First Family the very same night as Kennedy’s Cuban Missile crisis speech (which the studio audience was blissfully unaware of), and he became a household name until November 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated and the country changed forever.

As the story goes, on the day that Kennedy was killed, 27-year-old Meader hopped into a taxi at the Milwaukee airport at 1 p.m., just half an hour after the event.

His driver asked, "Did you hear about Kennedy in Dallas?" Meader, who was oblivious to the news, readied himself for a joke and replied, "No, how does it go?" Then he heard the news on the radio.

“It was character assassination," he later told the Washington Post 40 years later. "My character was assassinated. I got a bum rap."

After that, Meader never did his Kennedy impression again, though people asked. His last television appearance was a painfully ill-received spot on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. No one wanted to see Meader as himself—he said people would approach him after the assassination and offer condolences as if he was a member of the family—and his new material simply didn’t stack up compared to the act that made him a star. In the following decades, Meader bounced around the country, tried out new routines, found alcohol and drugs, and then found God. He taught and played music, managed a pub, and was forever doomed to rely on the cultural phenomenon that brought him fame and fortune, while also distancing himself from it. He even reclaimed his given first name—Abbott (Vaughn was his middle name)—and put Vaughn Meader completely behind him.

Near the end of his life, he sold the movie rights to his story to help with medical expenses—Bill Hader was reported to be playing the lead role, but the movie has yet to be made. A lifelong smoker, Meader died in 2004 at age 68 from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

While inextricable ties to Kennedy ultimately doomed Meader’s career, he told the Los Angeles Times in 1997 that he had found happiness in life outside the limelight: “I'm better off than I've ever been," he said. "When I had the album, all those lowlifes around me who said they were friends, what I didn't realize was they were in it for the business. Now the funny thing is I'm a bum and I find people who really care. I have a wife who cares, friends who care. I look at Elizabeth Taylor at the Academy Awards or wherever, and I say, 'She any better off than me?' and I doubt she is."

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Hey Now! 15 Things You Should Know About The Larry Sanders Show
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In the late 1980s, comedian Garry Shandling was a recurring guest host on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. His work didn’t get him Carson’s chair, but NBC was impressed enough with his hosting abilities to offer him David Letterman’s seat when Letterman left Late Night. Ultimately, Shandling—who passed away unexpectedly in 2016—decided against taking NBC’s reported $5 million a year offer, forcing the network to famously go with a "30-year-old unknown comedy writer" named Conan O'Brien instead.

When CBS offered Shandling its own 12:35 a.m. slot soon after, the comedian realized he wasn’t someone that wanted—or needed—to be on TV every night. Instead, Shandling co-created The Larry Sanders Show with Dennis Klein, an HBO series that deftly parodied late night talk shows. Here are 15 things you might not know about the groundbreaking series, which debuted 25 years ago.

1. GARRY SHANDLING GOT THE IDEA FOR LARRY SANDERS FROM HIS PREVIOUS SHOW.

Concurrently with his guest hosting of The Tonight Show, Shandling starred in Showtime’s It’s Garry Shandling’s Show from 1986 to 1990, where the comedian played himself, often addressing both the studio audience and the camera directly. In an episode where Garry was a guest on a morning talk show (“Take My Girlfriend, for Example”), he realized that there could be a whole other show told from the television personality’s point of view.

2. JEFFREY TAMBOR MADE A DESPERATE MOVE TO GET THE ROLE OF HANK KINGSLEY.

After having what he felt was a good audition, Jeffrey Tambor found himself uncharacteristically calling Shandling hours later, saying that he really wanted to play his sidekick. Shandling told him that calling after an audition is exactly something Hank Kingsley would do.

3. ALBERT BROOKS'S DEFENDING YOUR LIFE GOT RIP TORN THE ROLE OF ARTIE.

Executive producer Peter Tolan thought lawyer Bob Diamond, the character Torn played in Defending Your Life, was similar to what they were looking for with Larry Sanders’ producer character, Artie. When Torn and Shandling first met, Torn wouldn’t read the script until the two first had some idle chatter.

4. THE "HEY NOW" EPISODE WAS ACTUALLY THE FIRST EPISODE WRITTEN AND PRODUCED.

When The Larry Sanders Show was on Netflix, “Hey Now” was correctly listed first. But when it originally aired on HBO, it was the last episode shown in the first season. Shandling credited Dennis Klein as the person who came up with Hank Kingsley’s classic Ed McMahon-ism.

5. THE CINEMATOGRAPHER SHOT ON ROLLER SKATES.

The talk show-within-the-show scenes were shot on four video cameras, and shown once a month to a studio audience. The scenes outside of the talk show were shot on film with three cameras in operation at once, with cinematographer Peter Smokler backpedaling on roller skates to shoot the walk-and-talks up and down the studio hallways.

6. THE ACTORS GOT TIRED OF CLEANING UP THEIR LANGUAGE.

Up until the halfway point of season two, actors would record a second take of finished scenes without cursing, so someday it could be shown in non-cable syndication. But they eventually grew tired of the extra work, leading to messier edits down the line when it was broadcast on IFC and Bravo.

7. EDDIE MURPHY WAS THE FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY THE GUEST ON HANK KINGSLEY’S HOSTING EPISODE.

The part in “Hank’s Night In The Sun” ended up being filled by Cheers star George Wendt.

8. JEREMY PIVEN LEFT THE SHOW TO STAR IN P.C.U.

Jeremy Piven, who played Sanders' head writer Jerry, was written off the show in the early season two episode “Larry’s Birthday.” Piven received Shandling’s blessing to leave. When his movie career didn’t get off the ground, he co-starred on the sitcom Ellen.

9. JANEANE GAROFALO LEFT LARRY SANDERS TO JOIN SNL.

Mary Lou Collins (played by Mary Lynn Rajskub) was promoted to the role of booker when Janeane Garofalo's Paula character was written off the show. Garofalo lasted less than one season on SNL, and later admitted that she regretted leaving Larry Sanders.

10. DAVID DUCHOVNY’S ATTRACTION TO LARRY WAS DUCHOVNY’S IDEA.

The X-Files star pitched the idea of his being sexually attracted to Sanders while the two were playing basketball.

11. SHANDLING WROTE THE JOKES MAKING FUN OF HIMSELF.

In the series finale, “Flip,” Sean Penn rips on Garry Shandling to Larry Sanders—which is the only time Shandling is ever referenced in the series. (Penn and Shandling had just worked together on the film version of Hurlyburly.) Shandling told The New York Times that he is the one who wrote the jokes about himself, as ''Nobody can write better jokes putting me down than me ... I know how to destroy myself."

12. DAVID LETTERMAN THOUGHT IT WAS VERY REALISTIC.

Letterman once told Shandling, “This show is like every day of my life.”

13. JOHNNY CARSON WAS SHANDLING'S DREAM GUEST.

While Shandling wasn't able to make a Carson cameo happen, he was told that Carson was a fan of The Larry Sanders Show.

14. BEFORE AGREEING TO PLAY BRIAN, SCOTT THOMPSON MADE SHANDLING AGREE TO THREE CONDITIONS.

The Kids in the Hall star said he wanted Hank Kingsley’s new assistant to actually like his boss (unlike everyone else), to not be flamboyant in his homosexuality, and to be Canadian.

15. IT FEATURED JUDD APATOW’S DIRECTORIAL DEBUT.

Judd Apatow was a writer and producer on The Larry Sanders Show when he directed the episode “Putting the ‘Gay’ Back in Litigation.”

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15 Surprising Facts About Steve Carell
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From the seven seasons he spent as the star of NBC’s The Office to leading man roles in comedy classics like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carell has become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand funnymen. But he has proven his dramatic chops, too, particularly with his role as John du Pont in Foxcatcher, which earned Carell an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in 2015. Even if you’ve seen all of his movies, there’s probably a lot you don’t know about the Massachusetts native, who turns 55 years old today.

1. HE THOUGHT HE WANTED TO BE A LAWYER.

Steve Carell attended Ohio’s Denison University, where he received a history degree in 1984, and had planned to move on to law school. But when it came time to apply, he found himself stumped by the first question on the application: Why do you want to be a lawyer?

“I had never considered acting as a career choice, although I’d always enjoyed it,” Carell told NJ.com in 2011. “I enjoyed hockey and singing in the choir, and I didn’t think of them as potential careers, either … But I began to realize I really loved acting, and telling stories. Reading a book, watching a movie, going to a play, it’s transporting, and very, very exciting. And to be a part of that, creating things with your imagination, whoa."

2. HE WORKED AS A MAILMAN.

Shortly before he moved to Chicago and performed with The Second City, Carell worked as a postal carrier in the tiny town of Littleton, Massachusetts. Because the post office didn’t have its own mail vehicles, Carell had to use his own car. He kept the gig for just four months, then took off for the Windy City. “And months later, I found mail under the seat of my car,” he admitted. Carell also said it was the hardest job he has ever had.

3. HE WAS HIS WIFE’S TEACHER.

No, it’s not as risqué as it sounds. Carell met his wife, Nancy Walls, through an improv class at Second City; he was the teacher, she was one of his students. “I beat around the bush [before asking her out] and said something stupid like, ‘Well, you know, if I were to ever ask someone out, it would be someone like you,’” Carell told Details of his earliest attempts at flirting. “It’s so stupid, but it was all self-protection. She was the same way: ‘If somebody like you were to ask me out, I would definitely go out with him. If there was a person like you.’” The couple married in 1995 and have appeared in several projects together.

4. THE COUPLE HAD TO BREAK UP (ON CAMERA) ON THEIR 17TH ANNIVERSARY.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

For Lorene Scafaria’s underrated 2012 end-of-the-world dramedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Steve and Nancy played a married couple who split up when it’s announced that an asteroid heading toward Earth will obliterate the planet in three weeks. Their break-up scene happens very early on in the movie, and they ended up filming it on their 17th wedding anniversary.

“She gets to leave me right at the beginning,” Carell told Parade. “They used the take where her shoe came off in the car, and she bolted across that field with one shoe on. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her run that fast. We shot the scene on our 17th anniversary. [The director] got us a cake and the crew sang ‘Happy Anniversary’ to us. It was very sweet, a very special night."

5. HE AND HIS WIFE AUDITIONED FOR SNL TOGETHER; ONLY ONE OF THEM MADE IT.

In 1995, the same year they married, both Carell and Walls auditioned for Saturday Night Live. Walls made it but Carell didn’t, which must have made for one awkward celebratory dinner. But it all turned out well in the end; Carell went on to become a household name and has hosted the show on two occasions.

6. HE WAS ONE HALF OF “THE AMBIGUOUSLY GAY DUO.”

Though he missed out on the chance to become a regular SNL cast member, there was a silver lining: He was free to say “yes” to taking a role on The Dana Carvey Show, a sketch show that SNL alum Dana Carvey created for ABC. Though it was short-lived, the show was full of amazing comedic talent; in addition to Carvey and Carell, the show featured Stephen Colbert, Bob Odenkirk, and Robert Smigel and a writers room that included Louis C.K., Charlie Kaufman, and Robert Carlock. The show marked the debut of Smigel’s recurring animated sketch, “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” which followed the adventures of Gary and Ace, who were voiced by Carell and Colbert, respectively. After the show was cancelled, Smigel brought the “Duo” over to Saturday Night Live.

7. HE OWNS A GENERAL STORE IN MASSACHUSETTS.

While many A-list stars run side businesses—restaurants, wine companies, clothing lines, etc.—the Carells' second gig is a little less glamorous. In 2009, they bought the Marshfield Hills General Store in Marshfield, Massachusetts—where they spend their summers—in order to preserve it as a local landmark. 

“The main impetus to keep it going is that not many of those places exist and I wanted this one to stay afloat,” Carell told The Patriot Ledger. “Just generally speaking, there are not that many local sort of communal places as there used to be ... I think it’s nice for people to actually go and talk and have a cup of coffee and communicate with one another."

8. HE PLAYS THE FIFE.

Yes, Carell has got some musical talent and can actually play the fife. It’s a skill he acquired early in life, and shares with several of his family members. And it came in handy when he joined a reenactment group that portrayed the 10th (North Lincoln) Regiment of Foot, a line infantry regiment with the British Army.

9. HE WAS NOT THE FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MICHAEL SCOTT IN THE OFFICE.

Though Michael Scott, the clueless manager of paper company Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton, Pennsylvania branch in The Office, is still probably Carell's best-known role, he wasn’t the first choice for the part. Paul Giamatti was reportedly the first choice, but he declined. Hank Azaria and Martin Short were also in the running. Bob Odenkirk was actually cast in the role because Carell was committed to another series, Come to Papa. But when that show was cancelled after just a few episodes, the role of Michael Scott was recast with Carell. (Odenkirk appeared in one of the series’s later episodes, playing a boss who was eerily similar to Carell’s Scott.)

10. WHEN CARELL LEFT THE OFFICE, THE CAST AND CREW “RETIRED” HIS NUMBER ON THE CALL SHEET.

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When Carell left The Office after seven seasons to focus on his film career, the cast and crew continued one tradition in his honor. “Steve was No. 1 on the call sheet because he was the lead of the show,” co-star Jenna Fischer told TV Guide. “And when he left, we retired his number. No one, ever since he left, was allowed to be No. 1."

11. HE WAS IN TALKS TO PLAY RON DONALD ON PARTY DOWN.

Before Party Down made its premiere on Starz with Adam Scott playing failed actor Henry Pollard, it was supposed to be an HBO series with Paul Rudd in the lead. And Rudd was pushing for Carell to play bumbling catering manager Ron Donald, as The Office didn’t get off to a great start and looked to be in danger of getting cancelled. Ultimately, HBO ended up abandoning the project, which Starz scooped up—with Scott as Pollard and Ken Marino as Ron Donald.

12. JAMES SPADER REALLY WANTED TO PLAY BRICK TAMLAND IN ANCHORMAN.

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Though it was The 40-Year-Old Virgin that turned Carell into a leading man on the big screen, his role as oddball meteorologist Brick Tamland in Anchorman brought him a lot of attention. But if James Spader had his way, Carell would never have appeared in the role at all. In a 2013 interview with Baller Status, director Adam McKay shared that before the film was even cast:

“I get a phone call and I hear that James Spader is obsessed with Brick's character. I say ‘James Spader? That is insane, will he come in and read?’ They say, ‘No, he's not going to come in and read; he's James Spader!’ James Spader and I end up talking and he called it about the Brick character. He thought it was one of the funniest character he ever read and we weren't even sure if it was going to work. He literally said, ‘I will do anything to get this role.’ Eventually, we were just like, ‘This is James Spader; he is too good for this role.’ But, he was right about how funny it was. The movie studio even questioned us and said how bizarre Brick is, and it wouldn't work. I felt bad we didn't cast James, but Carell was so good.”

Spader proved his comedic chops in 2011, when he was cast as Robert California, Michael Scott’s replacement on The Office (who quickly manages to convince the company owner to appoint him as CEO).

13. UNIVERSAL STUDIOS' EXECUTIVES WERE CONCERNED THAT CARELL WAS COMING OFF AS A SERIAL KILLER IN THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN.

Though it turned out to be one of 2005’s biggest hits, getting the tone right on Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin proved to be a fairly difficult task. At one point, executives at Universal Studios expressed their concern to Apatow that Carell might come off as a serial killer to viewers.

"There is a fine line," producer Mary Parent told the Los Angeles Times. "Men and women alike could look at him and if he's too much of a sad sack, they will think, 'Dude, get a life.’” Apatow ended up adding several lines about the fact that Carell’s character could be a serial killer.

14. HE LEARNED MAGIC FROM DAVID COPPERFIELD.

In 2013, Carell played a magician in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. In order to get the role just right, he went straight to the top: David Copperfield. The famed illusionist taught Carell and co-star Steve Buscemi a trick called “The Hangman,” and they were both sworn to secrecy. “I actually had to sign something that I would not divulge,” Carell told The Hollywood Reporter. “So that was kind of cool.”

15. HE OFFERED PRINCETON'S 2012 CLASS SOME TIPS FOR SUCCESS.

In 2012, Carell delivered a speech to Princeton University graduates—which included his niece—during Class Day. He ended his talk by offering some tips to the grads:

“I would like to leave you with a few random thoughts. Not advice per se, but some helpful hints: Show up on time. Because to be late is to show disrespect. Remember that the words 'regime' and 'regimen' are not interchangeable. Get a dog, because cats are lame. Only use a 'That's what she said' joke if you absolutely cannot resist. Never try to explain a 'That's what she said' joke to your parents. When out to eat, tip on the entire check. Do not subtract the tax first. And every once in a while, put something positive into the world. We have become so cynical these days. And by we I mean us. So do something kind, make someone laugh, and don't take yourself too seriously.”

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