Eddie Mekka, a star of 'Laverne & Shirley,' is dead at 69

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Eddie Mekka, a star of 'Laverne & Shirley,' is dead at 69
As Carmine Ragusa on the hit sitcom, he got to show off his singing, tap-dancing and gymnastic skills — and to croon “Rags to Riches” many times.

by Anita Gates

NEW YORK, NY.- Eddie Mekka, the actor best known for his role as the aspiring entertainer Carmine Ragusa on the hit television series “Laverne & Shirley,” died Nov. 27 at his home in the Newhall area of Santa Clarita, California, northwest of Los Angeles. He was 69.

His death was announced on Mekka’s Facebook page. No cause was given.

Mekka was a regular cast member on “Laverne & Shirley” (1976-83), a sitcom about two young single women working at a Milwaukee brewery in the 1950s. His character, known as the Big Ragoo, was the high school sweetheart and on-again, off-again boyfriend of Shirley (Cindy Williams).

If anyone was upset with Carmine, all he had to do was sing the words “You know I’d go from rags to riches” — in Tony Bennett style — and all was forgiven. Mekka got to show off his singing, tap-dancing and gymnastic skills in talent-show and other episodes. In the final episode of the series, Carmine found success: He went to New York, auditioned for the Broadway musical “Hair” and got the job.

Mekka was the second veteran of the “Laverne & Shirley” cast to die in less than a year. David L. Lander, who played Squiggy, died in December 2020.

Mekka began and ended his real-life career on the stage, even earning a Tony Award nomination. He was nominated for best actor in a musical for his performance as Lt. William L. Calley Jr., who perpetrated the My Lai Massacre of civilians during the Vietnam War, in “The Lieutenant” (1975).

Clive Barnes, reviewing the show for The New York Times, said Mekka displayed “an honesty and openness that proves very attractive” in his portrayal of “a puzzled kid with a gun who has been told to kill.” The musical, with its difficult subject matter, closed after nine performances but received four Tony nominations.

He also appeared in more than 50 film and television roles, including small parts in “A League of Their Own” (he jitterbugged with Madonna at a bar) and “Dreamgirls” (as a nightclub manager). His last screen appearance was in the 2018 film “Hail Mary!” (originally titled “Sushi Tushi”), a comedy about a football team that recruits sumo wrestlers.

Edward Rudolph Mekjian was born on June 14, 1952, in Worcester, Massachusetts, to Vahe Vaughn Mekjian, an Armenian-born factory worker who served in the U.S. Army in World War II, and Mariam (Apkarian) Mekjian, a dry-cleaning presser.

He performed with the Worcester County Light Opera and attended the Boston Conservatory for a year before dropping out to take a job with a regular weekly paycheck in dinner theater.

He married actress DeLee Lively in 1983; they divorced in 1992, and he married Yvonne Marie Grace two years later. His survivors include a daughter, Mia Mekjian, and a brother, Warren Mekjian; complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

Mekka returned to the New York stage in 2008, starring in the one-man off-Broadway comedy “My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish and I’m in Therapy.”

He also continued to appear in regional theater. He was Harold Hill in “The Music Man,” Pseudolos in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors” and Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” his favorite role, which he said in 2003 he had already played more than 20 times.

He had a unique take on the character, as he told The Boston Globe in 2014: “I play him like an older, grumpier and slower Jackie Mason.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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