Letterman’s (And Our) Longtime ‘Bud’
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 26, 2007; C01
Larry “Bud” Melman is gone. But he was only sort of half-there to begin with.
A frumpy and cherubic little file clerk whose real name was Calvert DeForest, Melman was used as a kind of human prop and punch line during the years that David Letterman starred in “Late Night” on NBC and, less frequently, on Letterman’s subsequent CBS “Late Show” as well.
When Letterman made the move in 1993, NBC lawyers declared the name Larry “Bud” Melman to be that network’s “intellectual property,” so DeForest used his real name from then on. Whether as Melman or DeForest, the genial, open-to-anything fellow would do the daffiest stunts, wear outlandish get-ups (though he was most often seen in a plain black suit) and join in playing pranks on unsuspecting New Yorkers — and on himself.
On March 19, Calvert DeForest died at 85. His fame had begun at 60. Larry “Bud” Melman is his own intellectual property now.
Tonight, Letterman plans to pay tribute on “Late Night” to the show’s former and at one time most popular cast member. Letterman was absent several nights last week because of illness, a 103-degree fever, and NCAA basketball games.
“Everyone always wondered if Calvert was an actor playing a character,” Letterman said in a statement last week, “but in reality, he was just himself — a genuine, modest and nice man. To our staff and to our viewers, he was a beloved and valued part of our show, and we will miss him.”
Ironically, Letterman hosted a mock eulogy to Melman way back on the fifth anniversary of his NBC series. Producers prepared a touching tribute — actually a satire of schmaltzy showbiz eulogies — and the sentimental song “The Way We Were” was played. But then suddenly DeForest burst onto the stage shouting that he wasn’t dead and to stop the memorial service right there.
Then he did his wacky, head-tossed-back laugh, never believable yet always contagious. He wasn’t an actor to say the least, or the most, but he could summon up from nowhere this crazy cackle of fiendish delight. He could also seem dizzily solemn; he appeared at the start of the first Letterman show to deliver a warning to the audience — especially the fainthearted among them — about the show that lay ahead. It was a nearly word-for-word parody of the pre-credit speech from the original “Frankenstein” movie in 1932.
From that auspiciously inauspicious beginning, Melman’s role became larger and larger. He was supposedly president of Melman Bus Lines, and often the show would end with his announcement that “This has been a Melman Production.”
And for some mysterious reason, the audience adored him. “I guess we’ve had more comment on him than on any other single aspect of the show,” Letterman said in 1983, at the height of Melmania.
“What it is, I don’t know,” DeForest said during a visit to Washington. “Maybe I relate to people — as somebody’s father, or uncle, or what have you. I really have no idea.” At the time, DeForest was hanging on to his day job because he wasn’t sure the Letterman gig would last.
Asked why Melman seemed so “strangely appealing,” Letterman said, “Well, I’m surprised to hear you use the word ‘appealing’ and not at all surprised to hear you use the word ‘strangely.’ ” In words similar to last week’s statement, Letterman said, “It’s always sort of quizzical; is he a guy playing a character, or is that really the way he is? He’s an average sort of fellow that people are unsure of.”
Over the years Melman perpetrated many fluffs and goofs on Letterman’s NBC series. For a “Christmas in July” show, Melman was dressed as Santa Claus and told to read a story to a group of children. He was handed a book just before air time, but when it was time for the sketch, he opened the book and looked at it in horror. “This must be Spanish,” he said. Then he just kept repeating “ho ho ho” and “Merry Christmas” over and over, Letterman laughing at how wonderfully wrong things had gone.
It turns out the prop department had assumed Melman would be reading his story to the kids from cue cards and so figured any old book would do as a prop. But there were no cue cards. And DeForest’s book was entirely in French, not Spanish. Yet he pressed gamely on.
“That’s one thing I admire about Larry,” Letterman said later. “He always gives it a shot as opposed to just throwing up his hands.” Melman said, “He loves it when I fluff things,” and Letterman said, “Some nights you can see the first domino go, and after that it’s just chasing a truck downhill. But when that happened to Larry, I knew we were onto something great.”
Asked if he minded that the audience laughed at him rather than with him, DeForest said with a smile, “No, I don’t mind. As long as they get enjoyment from it, I don’t care.” They got tremendous enjoyment, and so did DeForest from his arbitrary and unlikely stardom.
Calvert DeForest was stalwart, undaunted and, in his own way, courageous. He wasn’t unflappable, but watching him flap could be hilarious. His fame seemed to mock the whole idea of pop idols and to represent the triumph of ineptitude — but he was in fact a great success: He increased the amount of laughter in the world.