Zack Norman, Actor Who Juggled Multiple Professions, Dies at 83

Zack Norman, who made his mark as an actor in films like “Romancing the Stone” and “Cadillac Man” and with appearances on television shows like “The A-Team” and “The Nanny” — and who, as a producer, also became known for a star-crossed movie that was a running punchline on the show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” — died on April 28 in Burbank, Calif. He was 83.

The cause of his death, at a hospital, was bilateral pneumonia related to the coronavirus, his daughter Lori Zuker Briller said.

While best known for scene-stealing appearances as a supporting player, Mr. Norman was always more than a character actor. He was also a painter, a real estate developer and an art collector who in the 1980s mingled with the likes of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Starting in the early 1970s, Mr. Norman tallied nearly 40 movie and television acting credits. He had a memorably menacing turn as Danny DeVito’s crocodile-tending antiquities-smuggler sidekick in “Romancing the Stone,” Robert Zemeckis’s 1984 adventure comedy starring Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas.

He was abundantly familiar to fans of the indie director Henry Jaglom, appearing in many of Mr. Jaglom’s films, including “Sitting Ducks” (1980), a comedy in which he was one of two dimwitted hoods who steal from a gambling syndicate, and “Hollywood Dreams” (2006), in which he played a kindly film producer who looks after a fame-obsessed starlet (Tanna Frederick).

That role was not much of a leap for Mr. Norman, who, under his real name, Howard Zuker, produced or financed more than 40 movies. Among the films he backed was “Hearts and Minds,” Peter Davis’s landmark exploration of the Vietnam War, which took home the Academy Award for best documentary feature in 1975.

A far more obscure film that Mr. Norman helped produce, “Chief Zabu” (1986), entered into pop-culture lore in an unusual way: by disappearing for three decades.

Howard Jerrold Zuker was born on May 27, 1940, in Boston, the elder of two children of Sydney Zuker, a lawyer, and Evelyn (Bloomberg) Zuker, and grew up in nearby Revere, Mass. Inspired by Lenny Bruce, he started doing stand-up comedy in local clubs in his late teens.

He took up acting while attending Vanderbilt University in Nashville. But after leaving Vanderbilt, he discovered that it was hard to pay the bills as a fledgling actor and comedian, so at 23 he went to work at a cousin’s real estate development firm in Boston.

“I became, in a year and a half, a millionaire,” he said in an interview last year on the podcast “Not Real Art.” “I realized that being rich was not the answer,” he said. “That’s how I went back to New York and started in show business again.”

In 1965, he produced his first Off Broadway play, John Arden’s “Live Like Pigs.” A year later, he toured Europe as a stand-up comic. Following a set at the Playboy Club in London, Variety deemed him “one of the funniest men to ever cross these shores.”

Over the years, Mr. Norman continued to finance his career by developing properties in New York and Florida, as well as by unearthing bargains in the art world. In the early 1980s, he purchased several early works by Basquiat for four-figure sums, long before prices of his work came to rival those of private Caribbean islands.

“Chief Zabu,” which Mr. Norman wrote, produced and directed with Neil Cohen, was another bargain, made on a shoestring budget of $200,000. Mr. Norman was also a star of the film: He played Sammy Brooks, a real estate mogul who, with his friend Ben Sydney (Allen Garfield), pursues both financial and political ambitions in a grandiose scheme to take over a fictitious Polynesian island.

The film fizzled in a preview and was never released. For 30 years it was buried, but not forgotten — at least not to fans of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” the Generation X staple of the 1990s that featured a weary space traveler and his robot friends poking fun at bad B-movies on a journey through the cosmos.

On the show, any time a character in one of those achingly bad movies cracked a newspaper, Joel Hodgson, the original host, would wearily intone, “Hey, Zack Norman is Sammy in ‘Chief Zabu.’”

It was a knowing reference to an advertisement for the movie, featuring a stern photo of Mr. Norman, that he continued to run — stubbornly yet playfully — in Weekly Variety every Wednesday for nine years. Why? “Because it gave me great joy,” he said in a 2016 interview with The Sun Sentinel of South Florida.

In addition to his daughter Lori, Mr. Norman is survived by his wife of 40 years, Nancy Zuker; his sister, Janie Krasker; his sons, Stephen and Michael Aron; another daughter, Tracy Aron Brittan; and 14 grandchildren. He was previously married to Norma Blumenthal Sommers.

Mr. Norman’s faith in “Chief Zabu” eventually paid off. He and Mr. Cohen released a new cut of the film in 2016 and then took it on tour, presenting it at comedy clubs. Even so, it took them decades to realize that the Variety ad had become a cultural artifact.

In a 2020 interview with the film website Skewed & Reviewed, Mr. Cohen said that neither of them had heard of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” until one afternoon in the mid-2010s when they were walking down a Los Angeles street and saw a man wearing a “Zack Norman as Sammy in Chief Zabu” T- shirt.

“We stopped the guy and said, ‘Dude, what is up with that?’” he recalled. “And you can imagine his reaction when he saw he was talking to Zack Norman, whose face was on his T-shirt.”

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