Obituary: Steve Rossi / Singing half of comedy duo

May 25, 1932 - June 22, 2014

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Steve Rossi, a suave crooner who rose to fame as the straight man to Marty Allen in one of the most successful comedy teams of the 1960s, died Sunday at a hospice near his home in Las Vegas. He was 82.

The cause was cancer, a friend, Michael Flores, said.

Mr. Rossi was working as a singer in Las Vegas when, at the suggestion of Nat King Cole, he joined forces in the late 1950s with the bug-eyed Mr. Allen, a Pittsburgh native who had recently broken up with his longtime comedy partner.

Mr. Rossi was the good-looking one who sang and Mr. Allen was the zany, childlike one who got the laughs.

Most of their routines took the form of interviews, with Mr. Allen (whose goofy but memorable catchphrase was “Hello dere!”) portraying a variety of sweetly befuddled characters — a boxer, an astronaut, even political figures — and Mr. Rossi asking the questions.

But the duo sold the jokes with gusto, and Mr. Rossi’s good-natured charm was a big part of their appeal.

By the early 1960s, they had become regular guests on television’s top variety shows and were working at major nightclubs. They shared the bill with the Beatles twice on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, working hard to capture the attention of an audience dominated by teenage girls.

Steve Rossi was born Joseph Charles Michael Tafarella on May 25, 1932, in New York City. He moved to Los Angeles with his family in 1943 and attended Loyola University (now Loyola Marymount University) there.

In 1953, while with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, he was hired by the 1930s movie star turned nightclub entertainer Mae West as a singer and her straight man. It was West, he said, who gave him his stage name, explaining that his real one took up too much space on the marquee. (The first name was taken from Steve Cochrane, an actor West was dating at the time; the last name was a variation on that of her manager, Bernie Ross.)

In 1966, after almost a decade together, Allen and Rossi signed with Paramount Pictures and made their big-screen debut in the spy spoof “The Last of the Secret Agents?” But the movie met with critical derision and public indifference. They soldiered on but broke up — amicably, they insisted — in 1968.

Mr. Rossi then teamed with the veteran comedian Joe E. Ross, best known for his co-starring role on the sitcom “Car 54, Where Are You?” That partnership was short-lived, and Mr. Rossi briefly worked on his own before trying something daring in 1969: He and the African-American comedian Slappy White formed one of the world’s first interracial comedy teams.

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