By Stephen M. Silverman
July 01, 2003 03:59 PM

Veteran funnyman Buddy Hackett, one of the scene-stealers from the classic all-star 1963 comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” and a talk-show staple in the ’60s, has died at age 78, his family announced Monday, reports Reuters.

The cause of death was not immediately known. Hackett was found at his Malibu beach house, his son, Sandy, told local Los Angeles news outlets.

With his rubber face and pudgy figure, the Brooklyn-born Hackett was also familiar to movie audiences as the sidekick in 1962’s “The Music Man,” 1968’s “The Love Bug” and as the voice of Scuttle the seagull in the 1989 animated movie “The Little Mermaid.” In “Mad World,” he played the sidekick to Mickey Rooney, as two Vegas lounge entertainers who end up having to pilot a runaway plane as they race toward $350,000 in buried treasure.

The father of three grown children – Hackett and his wife, the former Sherry Cohen, married in 1955 – the comic got his start a stand-up at resorts in New York’s Catskill Mountains. He also made some very early TV appearances, including, in 1945 (when practically no American household had a set), on a show called “Laff Time,” notes Reuters.

In 1947, he made his feature film debut as the voice of a talking camel in “Slave Girl.” In 1956, he starred very briefly in a sitcom called “Stanley,” set in a New York hotel, for which Neil Simon wrote the scripts. A new actress on the scene named Carol Burnett played Hackett’s girlfriend. In spite of the abundant talent, the show bombed.

Jack Paar, the NBC “Tonight” show host who laid the groundwork for Johnny Carson and Jay Leno, adored Hackett, who was a frequent guest on the nightly television program. On it, Hackett ad-libbed with the host, who often remarked how Hackett had to clean up his club act when appearing on TV.

Paar once famously took Hackett with him to Japan and dressed him up as a Sumo wrestler – and threw him into the ring with the actual wrestlers. “My,” said Paar, looking at Hackett in the skimpy Sumo outfit, “you’re a fat little guy.”

And a very funny one.