By Alex Tresniowski
Updated May 15, 2000 12:00 PM

It ranks right up there with Liberace’s buying his first candelabra and Siegfried’s bumping into Roy—the day Leo Gallagher first smashed a watermelon. A fledgling, longhaired stand-up comic, Gallagher had been pounding small fruit with a prop called the Sledge-O-Matic when, on New Year’s Eve 1976, he upped the ante and took his hammer to a watermelon at Mitzi Shore’s Comedy Store in West-wood, Calif. “I didn’t plan to do it,” says Gallagher, 53. “The next day, Mitzi called and said, ‘You’d better do it again tonight; we’re sold out.’ ” Thus was born one of the messiest and most enduring acts in showbiz.

Or so says Leo. In fact, argues his younger brother Ron Gallagher, 48, the two of them cooked up the idea together back in 1969, when they attached an ax handle to a log and took turns smashing apples and cottage cheese containers at their parents’ home in Lakeland, Fla. Who hit what first might have made for a typically zany Gallagher sketch—were it not for the nasty legal battle being waged between Leo, the original comic known as Gallagher, and Ron, who since 1990 has staged a shorter but nearly identical act while billing himself as Gallagher II. The sibling squabble is tearing apart the Gallagher clan, alienating Leo not only from his brother but also from their parents, who side with Ron. “I’m hurt and confused,” says Ron, who has been sued for trademark infringement by Leo. “I can’t understand why he’s being this mean.”

For years there was plenty of produce to go around. Leo played the big venues and taped 14 TV specials in 20 years. Ron stuck to smaller clubs and steered clear of towns where Leo was booked. But the fruit hit the fan last November, when Ron—who normally plays to crowds of around 400—took a Millennium Eve gig at Detroit’s 2,000-seat Fisher Theatre. Leo filed suit, demanding that he stop performing as Gallagher II. “He’s decided that he’s Gallagher as much as I am,” says Leo. “Because you let somebody borrow your car doesn’t mean it’s their car.”

The lawsuit is damaging what was once a close bond—or wasn’t, depending on whom you believe. “Leo pretty much raised me, since both my parents worked,” says Ron. (Their father, Leo Sr., owned a roller rink in Tampa and later ran a mobile-home park in Lakeland, and their mother, Garnett, was a hospital clerk and doctor’s assistant.) Leo, the oldest of four children, remembers it differently. “I was never around my brother at all,” he says. “He wasn’t a part of my life.”

While the more extroverted Leo hit it big as Gallagher in the early ’80s, Ron worked as a heavy-equipment salesman. “Then he came to me in 1990 and told me his business was falling apart and he needed something to do,” says Leo. “I told him he could do an imitation show.” Ron, who claims his business was always successful, recalls donning a wig and his brother’s trademark Kangol hat and showing up backstage at a 1988 show as a joke. “He laughed and said, ‘We got something here,’ ” says Ron, “and so at my brother’s persuading I got into comedy.”

At first the arrangement worked just fine, with Leo averaging 100 shows a year and Ron about 175. They even did a dueling Gallaghers gig at Madison Square Garden in 1993. Still, “Ron’s show doesn’t compare to what his brother does,” says Jeff Macke, a Celina, Ohio, club owner who hired Ron several times before recently booking Leo. “Ron does the old material. Leo has new props; he’s always changing.”

Then came the Fisher Theatre date. “It was never one of our stipulations that I couldn’t do large venues,” Ron explains. “I told him I was doing it, and he didn’t say, ‘I’d rather you not.’ ” But Leo claims that Ron misleadingly billed the gig as a Gallagher show and also suggests that Ron’s camp spread rumors that he had retired and was in drug rehab. Indeed, Leo Gallagher Sr., 74, says in an affidavit that Ron was considered an emergency stand-in for his brother because of Leo’s “volatile temper and drug abuse.” Leo denies having a drug problem and says, “Ron has never appeared at a show because I was unable to make it.”

Ron has offered to de-Gallagherize his act somewhat but says that giving up the fruit-smashing would end his career and cost him the five-bedroom house in Venice, Fla., he shares with wife Pamela, 34, and their three young children. The twice-divorced Leo (who has two kids of his own) replies, “All he has to do [to stop this] is do his own act.” Tensions are running so high that the former partners in slime haven’t spoken in months—a messy situation even by Sledge-O-Matic standards. “I’ve always idolized him,” says Ron. “After this is over, even if I win, I’ll have lost my brother.”

Alex Tresniowski

Don Sider in Venice and Champ Clark in Chicago