Peter Lee didn’t think he had a book in him, though there’s no denying he’s had a storied life.
During the 1960s, as part of a comic trio called the Pickle Brothers, Lee appeared on some of the biggest television shows of the day, toured with top musical acts and starred in a sitcom pilot he had hoped would lead to fame.
“We were on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ we toured with the Beach Boys, we were on ‘Johnny Carson,’ ‘Merv Griffin’ — it was our dream come true. How could it be anything but fantastic?” says Lee, 77, who lives in East Northport.
Now, nearly five decades later, he’s reliving that showbiz chapter of his life in his self-published, 126-page memoir, “Leave ’em Laughing: A Brief History of the Pickle Brothers Comedy Team,” which covers the troupe’s glory days as well as the clashing of egos that strained friendships and ultimately led to the disbanding of the act.
The impetus for the book, available on Amazon, came from an assignment Lee was given at a writing class he takes at Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton. Students had 10 minutes to write a story or essay based on the theme “You can’t always get what you want.” When Lee read his story, tied to the comedy threesome’s appearance on Sullivan’s show, everyone told him he had to expand it. Over the course of about three months, he read chapters to the class, continually incorporating classmates’ suggestions. He also had an editor friend look at the book, then engaged someone to design it, and did more editing.
“They say it takes a village to write book,” he says. “This took an entire metropolitan area.”
He also contacted his fellow Pickle Brothers — Michael Mislove, who runs a production company with his wife in Los Angeles, and Ron Prince, a self-employed cabinet maker and ordained Christian minister living in Spicewood, Texas — to look it over and share any memories, even though they’d barely spoken to Lee since the act broke up in 1968.
“Michael surprised me with a list of all the shows we did with the Beach Boys. Where it was, when it was and how the performance went,” Lee says.
Prince, 76, who grew up in New Hyde Park, offered some anecdotes. Though their temperaments didn’t often mesh, he says he has no ill will toward Lee. “His free spirit, which sometimes was a plus, was also detrimental when it came to not rehearsing and changing things we’d set during performances,” Prince says. “He was talented, no taking that away from him, but he was irksome at the same time. We were young, so our egos got in the way every now and then.” His opinion of the book? “It’s OK, no ‘Catcher in the Rye.’ ”
Lee, who grew up in Woodside before his family moved to Jamaica Estates, got his first real taste of show business at Gateway Playhouse in Bellport; he was 15. During his summer vacation, he studied acting there and landed roles in Gateway’s productions of “The Corn Is Green,” a Welsh schoolroom drama, and “Mrs. McThing,” by Mary Chase, which also featured Robert Duvall. Lee continued honing his craft at the American Academy of Performing Arts in Manhattan, and after graduating from Jamaica High School, studied drama at Bard College in upstate New York.
He transferred to Hofstra in 1958, where he first met Mislove at an audition for a campus musical called “Inertia,” written by an up-and-comer named Francis Ford Coppola. Lee beat out Mislove for the lead, but they soon became part of a talented circle of friends at the school, including Madeline Kahn, Lainie Kazan, Susan Sullivan and Coppola, aka “Franny.”
“You can’t avoid making contact with Peter if he wants to make contact with you,” says Mislove, who didn’t want to give his age. “Peter could sing, dance, play musical instruments, and all I was was funny.”
Soon after, as part of an acting ensemble at Hofstra called the Gadfly Players, they met Prince and with another classmate formed a comic quartet called the Uncalled Four. When their fourth member dropped out, the Pickle Brothers came into place, taking their inspiration from classic comedy teams — Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.
After graduating, the three were all drafted. Prince was stationed in Korea, Mislove was in the Army reserves in Oklahoma and Lee was a “subway soldier” who was stationed at the Army Pictorial Center in Astoria, where he worked on training and recruiting videos. They reunited in the early 1960s for a show at the Golden Slipper nightclub in Glen Cove, and then, in 1964, Prince got them an audition with Max Liebman, who had produced Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.” Unimpressed, Liebman told them to get out of show business.
Fred Weintraub, owner of The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, disagreed and put them under contract. “We performed all over. We got hired as the house act at The Bitter End and Madeline Kahn was in it at the beginning, but then she dropped out,” Lee says.
Their success at the club led to college concerts, television spots and touring with the Beach Boys. In 1967, they thought their break had finally come when they were asked to shoot a pilot for their own sitcom, the brainchild of “Monkees” writers Gerald Gardner and Dee Caruso. The director was William Friedkin, whose credits included the Oscar-winning films “The French Connection” (1971) and “The Exorcist” (1973).
The pilot, a pastiche of zany gags that had the boys hitting on girls and wreaking havoc in a swanky hotel, bore more than a passing resemblance to the wackiness of the Marx Brothers, with Lee channeling Harpo in both his look and demeanor.
“It was this close” to getting picked up, Lee says putting his fingers together like a golfer who just missed sinking a putt. “It was real network cowardice. Supposedly they were afraid we couldn’t keep it up, but I think they thought it was just too out there.”
It also marked the end of the act, as tensions flared particularly between Lee and Prince. “Mike and I wanted to move with the times and do more cutting-edge stuff, and Ron didn’t,” Lee says. Prince also wanted to leave show business and settle down. “He came in one day and said, ‘I’m leaving the act,’ and there was no one to replace him. He was the strength of the act, but also its Achilles heel,” Lee says.
Things came to a head in 1968, when the act played its final date in Connecticut and Prince and Lee got into an argument. “Peter really knew how to push Ron’s buttons like nobody else,” Mislove recalls. “We drove up in Ron’s car. We stopped at a service area on the way back and Ron opened the door and said to Peter, ‘Get out,’ and that we were done. I talked to Ron and said you can’t just leave him here.”
They did go back for Lee, but by then the act and their friendships had reached their limits. Lee sums up what ultimately went sour for the Pickle Brothers: “Fred Weintraub said we were funny, but we had too many internal squabbles and we didn’t want it badly enough.”
Life after Pickles
After the breakup, Lee says he gave show business a shot for a few more years. “I did baaaad things,” he jokes. “All the crappy jobs that unemployed actors do. Waiting tables, driving a cab, bouncing around the self-created Bermuda Triangle of New York, San Francisco and L.A.” Those bad things also included numerous tryouts for commercials, plays, television shows and Broadway. By the mid-’70s, he’d had enough. “Maybe I didn’t pursue it as aggressively as I should have,” he says. “But then again, the phone wasn’t ringing off the hook. If the act was so good, and I was so funny, how come nobody ever called?”
He decided to go to graduate school at Stony Brook University on the G.I. Bill and then got a scholarship to New York Institute of Technology, where he majored in communication arts. After earning his degree, he did public relations for Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, sales and marketing for a video-production company and even acted in some local plays. He’s been married to his wife, Rosemarie, a retired teacher, since 1976. They raised three sons and have five grandchildren.
Still, Lee often wonders what might have been if the pilot for the Pickle Brothers show had become a hit. “It’s something I’ve thought about every day since then. The sky was the limit. We could have gone on for years, headlined in Vegas,” he says. “Then again, maybe not. . . . But I have always assumed, gee, if we had only been picked up. It was my Terry Malloy moment,” he says referring to Marlon Brando’s character in “On the Waterfront.”
Then, in his best Brando voice, he jokes, “I coulda been a contender.”