Known to fans of classic "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) as Father Guido Sarducci, comedian Don Novello played that irreverent Catholic priest on and off in different mediums for the better part of four decades, cleverly commenting on all manner of political and religious events from various eras. He also proved to be a wicked satirist in the form of Lazlo Toth, the fictitious letter writer eager to offer his two cents on everything politicians and other American powerbrokers were doing and how he felt they could be doing it better. While not all of Novello's projects came to fruition - most notably, "Noble Rot," a movie he was co-writing with his "SNL" co-star John Belushi right before the troubled comedian's fatal drug overdose in 1982 - he orchestrated some unique endeavors, including a high school year book featuring nothing but sheep and a complex children's musical that took months to plan, involved hundreds of children, and was only performed once. While Guido Sarducci remained Novello's best known character, he also landed occasional work as an actor, including parts in several films by director Francis Ford Coppola, and displayed considerable flair as a humorist with a unique sensibility.
Born in Lorain, OH on New Year's Day in 1943, Don Novello overcame dyslexia and graduated from Lorain High School, later earning a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Dayton. He worked for a time as an advertising copywriter with the Leo Burnett Co. in Chicago, IL, but left in 1972, relocating to Marin, CA where he set to work on a rock opera. He also began performing in a local coffee house and joined a San Francisco comedy troupe called The Chicken Little Comedy Hour. In 1973, he purchased a priest's cape for $7.50 at the St. Vincent de Paul store in San Rafael and created his best known character, Father Guido Sarducci. Describing himself as the rock critic and gossip columnist for Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Novello first played Sarducci on "The Smothers Brothers Show" (ABC, 1974-75), a short-lived follow-up to the sibling's popular but controversial CBS program from the 1960s.
During this time, Novello also created another character with alter-ego Lazlo Toth, a variation on the name of Laszlo Toth, the psychotic vandal who attacked Michelangelo's Pietà with a hammer. Starting with a letter to then vice president Spiro Agnew, Novello crafted a series of outrageous missives from this fictional conservative super patriot to various political and corporate figures that were filled with amusingly blatant factual inaccuracies and other humorous intent. He soon collected them into a book called Lazlo Letters: The Amazing Real-Life Actual Correspondence of Lazlo Toth, American! (1977), which led to later follow-ups Citizen Lazlo!: The Lazlo Letters, Volume 2 (1992) and From Bush to Bush: The Lazlo Toth Letters (2003). While Novello had already gained a measure of notoriety playing Sarducci, his first Lazlo book inadvertently led to the wide exposure that would make the chain-smoking priest his best known character.
In 1978, Novello became a semi-regular on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) when his Toth collection caught the attention of the show's producer, Lorne Michaels. Novello made periodic appearances as Guido Sarducci, usually on the "Weekend Update" segment, staying with the show through the end of the 1980 season. This additional exposure helped his notoriety, but Novello made newspapers around the world in 1981, when the comedian was arrested by Vatican police after arriving at St. Peter's Basilica disguised as Sarducci. In addition to violating Vatican law for "impersonating" a priest, Novello had also failed to get permission to take photographs on the premises. After being detained and questioned for over six hours, Novello and his photographer were released. While "SNL" cast members like John Belushi and Chevy Chase were making their mark in Hollywood, co-star Gilda Radner headed to Broadway for "Gilda Radner: Live from New York" (1979). The show included many of her signature characters and also featured Novello as Sarducci between acts. A filmed record of the show, "Gilda Live!" arrived in theatres the next year, and Novello also released a pair of Sarducci comedy albums, Live at St. Douglas Convent (1980) and Breakfast in Heaven (1986), both nominated for Grammy Awards.
In 1981, Novello's life took an unexpected detour into infamy when he and Belushi began working on a script that would be a vehicle for the "Animal House" (1978) star. In addition to scouting possible locations, the pair collaborated on and off for the better part of a year on the project, which was adapted from a pre-existing screenplay about a winery called "Sweet Deception." Belushi's drug use had accelerated since he broke into the movies and the critical and financial failure of "Neighbors" at the end of 1981 left him feeling dangerously insecure about his career. With a perpetually drugged Belushi often unable to function, Novello was left to handle much of the work. They did, however, brainstorm on occasion. Bob Woodward's notorious Belushi biography Wired: The Short Life & Fast Times of John Belushi (1984) described an alleged meeting in early 1982 in a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles, where a high Belushi suggested changes that greatly altered the storyline and approach to the humor and characters - changes the sober Novello was not on board with. That version, entitled "Noble Rot," was subsequently rejected by Paramount Pictures, which allegedly accelerated the comedian's narcotics intake even further, leading to the circumstances behind his fatal heroin and cocaine "speedball" overdose about a week later. While notable friends of Belushi - including Robin Williams and Robert De Niro - spent time with him the night before he died, Novello was reportedly not among them.
Following his departure from "SNL," Novello served a stint as a writer on one of its late night rivals, "SCTV Network 90" (NBC, 1981-83), and remained in demand as Sarducci, doing the character in a handful of specials as well as guest spots on programs like "It's Garry Shandling's Show" (Showtime, 1986-1990), "Great Performances" (PBS, 1971- ), "Tales of the City" (PBS, 1993), "Unhappily Ever After" (The WB, 1995-99), and "Married With Children" (Fox, 1987-1997) well into the mid-1990s. He also appeared in his priestly garb for live shows in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, as well as a comic recruiting ad for the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Although Novello did the spot for free, his promise of perks like eating free in Italian restaurants, sleeping late, and getting first crack at rummage sales still managed to ruffle some feathers among Catholic Church officials. One of Novello's odder projects that decade was The Blade: Shellville High School Yearbook (1984), a send-up of the usual teen yearbook with sheep as the students, engaged in all manner of pursuits, including skydiving and posing for the prom.
After slumping in the ratings and losing some of its most popular players, "SNL" underwent a major revamp in the early 1980s, with Novello being hired on as a writer for the 1985-86 season. One of the show's guest hosts during that time was Francis Ford Coppola and Novello became a member of the noted director's rep company, appearing in small roles in pictures like "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" (1988), "New York Stories" (1989), "The Godfather: Part III" (1990), and "Jack" (1996). He also created "Full Moon Over Tutti," an elaborately staged children's musical performed a single time in 1994 by 600 San Francisco students. Into the new century, Novello continued to appear in small character roles in films like "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" (2000), "Just One Night" (2000), "Rent Control" (2003), "Factory Girl" (2006), and Coppola's "Twixt" (2012). He tried unsuccessfully to get on the ballot for the 2003 California recall election and was back in character and cape as Guido Sarducci for Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart's "The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" (Comedy Network, 2010), performing the rally's benediction.
By John Charles
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Special Thanks (Special)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Appeared on Ken Shapiro's "Chicken Little Comedy Hour" on San Francisco UHF TV
Appeared on and wrote for "The Smothers Brothers Hour" (CBS)
Joined "Saturday Night Live" as writer and actor; remained with show until 1980; rejoined cast in 1985; left second time in 1986
Made film debut (acting and writing) in "Gilda Live"; played signature role of Father Guido Sarducci
Appeared in the film comedy "Head Office"
Had supporting role as a filmmaker in "Tucker: The Man and His Dream", directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Reteamed with Coppola for a role in "The Godfather, Part III"
Played Fr. Sarducci in the PBS miniseries "Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City"
Co-starred in "One Night Stand"
Again teamed with Coppola on "Jack", starring Robin Williams
Appeared alonside Andy Garcia and Andie MacDowell in "Just the Ticket"
Portrayed a dual role as twin fruit sellers in "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle"
Voiced the character of Vinny Santorini in "Atlantis: The Lost Empire"