One may not expect a man, who almost flunked out of the University of Dayton, to go from an advertising copywriter to the ranks of a writer and performer on “Saturday Night Live,” but comedian and actor Don Novello, class of 1964, did.
Novello came to Dayton, in January 1961, just days after graduating from high school in Lorain, Ohio. He spent a “miserable” first year living at a tuberculosis hospital-turned UD dormitory about nine miles away from the main campus.
Even after struggling to make grades in a number of classes, he graduated with a degree in economics a semester early.
“At UD, I got my only ‘A’ in speech,” he said. “I don’t know why I didn’t realize I was good at it [at the time].”
Even after his bumpy start at UD, he holds one memory especially close to his heart. He recalls a professor, Mr. King, whom he had for history freshman year. He gave Novello a life-changing break, as he was failing a class, which would have knocked him out of school.
“I went to this guy and asked if there was anything to do,” Novello said. “And this guy said to me, ‘How old are you?’ I said ’18.’ He said, ‘Well, I didn’t feel like studying when I was 18 either,” Novello said. “And he gave me a ‘C,’ and I stayed in college.”
“I really would have flunked out, and this was right before Vietnam, and I would have gone into the Army,” Novello said. “He showed humanity and kindness.”
He spent three years as a Flyer, including a year studying abroad in Rome, which provided him with material he’s been drawing off of since the 1970s.
After spending a few years in the advertising and business world, he made the jump to the creative side of advertising and eventually went on to do stand-up comedy, which garnered his writing the attention he was striving for.
Father Guido Sarducci, a mustached, chain-smoking priest, was developed based off Novello’s time in Rome during his year abroad.
After not having been in drama in high school or at UD, he said he was fortunate with how things progressed with Sarducci.
“I got lucky right away,” he said. “Within a year or two, I was on national television.”
Novello and his Sarducci character saw peak success when, after appearances on the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” he found his way on to “Saturday Night Live” in the late 70s as a writer. Father Sarducci appeared in numerous “Weekend Update” sketches on the show.
Ever since his days on SNL, he has been working in the show business and comedy world. He has had minor roles in numerous movies, including being the voice actor in the 2001 animated Disney movie “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” as Italian demolitions expert Vinny Santorini.
In recent years, Novello, as Sarducci, appeared on “The Colbert Report,” in addition to giving the benediction at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, in October 2010.
Novello’s comedic writing success has translated into writing three books. All three are compilations of letters written by Novello, under the pen name Lazlo Toth, to celebrities or politicians. He started in 1973, and “it just kept running.”
The letters were not fan letters or always the most serious. Some of his favorite responses were when people repeated what he wrote in the original letter.
“One of my favorites is when I wrote to Preparation H,” he said.
He asked what the “H” stood for, and Novello said the company’s response was, “We are writing back to inform you that the ‘H’ stands for hemorrhoids.”
Novello hasn’t been to campus recently, but he was brought in to be a keynote speaker at the 2004 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. Former workshop director Tim Bete had all good things to say about Novello.
“Don was definitely one of my favorites of all time,” Bete said. “He’s outrageously creative … so incredibly down to earth.”
Novello attributes his successes to not being afraid to take chances, and encourages students who have dreams in writing or comedy to have courage to follow them.