Only in America could a 61 year-old file clerk in a drug rehabilitation center become an icon almost overnight. He wasn’t great at reading cue cards, he was often nervous and seemingly confused by his surroundings, and he spoke with both a lisp and a Brooklyn accent – none of which mattered. He was simply in the right place at the right time and when TV audiences got a glimpse of him, they took Larry “Bud” Melman into their hearts, making him a beloved figure of late night TV.
Calvert DeForest was a simple man with a love for acting. He might have broken into the business years earlier had his mother and uncle not been successful in convincing him that it was a bad career choice. And so, he waited until he was 51 years old and his mother passed away to take a shot at his dream. And, while he made a few films and did some community theater, show business just didn’t seem to pan out. After making a noble effort, he resigned himself back into a regular day job. However, a student film that he once appeared in just happened to get into to the hands of a guy who gained some popularity as a comedian – a frequent guest of The Tonight Show named David Letterman. A short time later, Calvert would receive a phone call at his job, asking him if he would like to appear on a new show called Late Night with David Letterman. Not only did he appear, he opened the show – doing a quirky impression of Boris Karloff.
Billed as Larry “Bud” Melman (a name given to him by Dave), he became one of the most popular recurring characters on the show. He rarely got his lines right, he often missed his cues. And yet, there was something about this man that could get an audience of millions of people, not to mention the host himself, rolling with tears of laughter. Response to Calvert was so overwhelmingly positive that the writers started finding more and more uses for the bespectacled fellow. He impersonated Roy Orbison and Elvis, sang Cher’s part on “I Got You Babe” alongside Sonny Bono, and even made appearances that were announced as impromptu visits from the likes of Johnny Carson, Meatloaf and even Barbra Streisand.
When he was at his best, however, was when he was on location. Particularly funny scenarios were when they dressed him in a bear suit and sent him through the offices of NBC in search of change for a $10 bill or gave him a tray of hot towels to hand out to people getting off the bus at the NY Port Authority bus terminal. They sent him to the Olympics and Woodstock in 1994. They even put him in a car with directions to drive to Tierra del Fuego in South America and he actually made it as far as Guatamala.
Sadly, when Letterman moved from NBC to CBS in 1993, DeForest lost the right to use the Larry “Bud” Melman name. NBC claimed that it was their intellectual property. Still, just as he had done in 1982, Calvert opened the premiere episode of The Late Show with David Letterman, this time as himself, and continued to appear up until 2003. He also became a commercial spokesman for AT&T and Domino’s pizza. After falling ill in 2007 and being hospitalized for pneumonia, Calvert passed away at the age of 85. According to Letterman, “Everyone always wondered if Calvert was an actor playing a character, but in reality he was just himself: a genuine, modest and nice man.”
Calvert DeForest proved that it is never too old to follow a dream. Sometimes you just get lucky. He never could have imagined that, from a simple clerk in an office, he would almost-overnight become not only a familiar face, but a cultural icon – beloved by millions of fans. That we would all be so lucky to see our dreams come to fruition in ways we could never imagine.
If you have memories of watching Larry “Bud” Melman on late night television, maybe even have a favorite skit that you remember fondly, we hope you’ll share your thoughts with us in our comments section, as we tip our hats to a man who made millions laugh without ever really having to try.