As It Happens

The NY Times wrote his first obit in 1980 — but prankster Alan Abel died last week at 94

Celebrated hoaxster Alan Abel was known for fooling everyone from The New York Times to the U.S. State Department with his elaborate pranks. And, on one occasion, he successfully targeted As it Happens.

Abel's daughter said he fooled 'many a reporter,' including the team at As It Happens in 1975

Alan Abel with his daughter, Jenny, in front of the White House. (Jenny Abel & Jeff Hockett/Flickr)

When the news of Alan Abel's death came out last week, many media outlets didn't initially believe it.

Abel was a professional practical jokester and he had previously convinced the New York Times that he'd died in 1980. 

But Abel actually did die this week. He was 94.

Over the years, he fooled a lot of people with his antics — including As It Happens. He thought it'd be funny to present himself as the man behind a new school for panhandling in New York City. Embarrassingly, we bought it.

Here's a bit of that interview with former As It Happens Barbara Frum in 1975:

His daughter Jenny Abel spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off on Wednesday about her father's legacy. Here is some of their conversation.

What a character your dad Alan was. When you hear him pranking our radio show back in 1975, what goes through your mind when you hear him playing Omar Rockford, giving a crash-course in panhandling?

I can't help but laugh. His deadpan is so perfect. He doesn't break character. He had an innate gift for bamboozling. I think he was just a born performer.

He believed he was Omar Rockford. And he was. He fooled many a reporter. 

Omar the Beggar (Alan Abel in disguise) on his way to teach a class at his infamous Professional School for Panhandlers. (Jenny Abel & Jeff Hockett/Flickr)

Do you think that in 2018 we could still be fooled as easily as people were in 1975?

Yes. Absolutely. We are never going to not believe. We're always going to believe.

I mean, look at what's happening in our political arena right now. Both sides are crying out "Fake news!" But yet we're hungry for more.

So I think that's what my dad played on — people's gullibility, but not in a mean way. He was toying with the public, and also in some way shining a light on a societal problem that will never go away. 

Abel in a 'Public People Pooper' in Manhattan in front of the Helmsley Palace. (The Able Archives)

How did he get into this line of work?

He was a musician, and then he would MC different shows. He was a really good drummer, a national drumming champion when he was a boy. But yeah, so he tripped, and luckily he didn't hurt himself. But he did do a somersault off of the stage into the pit. And the audience went wild.

And he got back up on stage and he dusted himself off. And he tried to do the introduction straight. But everybody else was still full of giggles. So it turned out to be an unwitting comedy routine in a sense — with a deadpan, dry delivery.

Abel playing the drums. (The Abel Archives)

But he was established as a professional prankster with the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, which was sparked by this incident on his way from one performance to another. 

He stopped on a back road in Texas, because a bull and a cow were mating. And traffic couldn't go anywhere because they were taking up the whole road. And my dad looked around, saw shocked expressions, other people laughing. Why were these animals stopping traffic?

It was just a silly scene that made him imagine this actual organization that wanted to clothe animals and make them more decent so that they wouldn't do these heinous acts in public.

And he wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece to the Saturday Evening Post. And the editor thought it was a real organization.

And then he realized, wow, this was just a crazy idea. And some pamphlets, materials, going out and protesting — he made people believe that this organization really did exist.

Cropped version of the record album called INSIDE SINA (Society for Indecency to Naked Animals) from the '60s. (The Abel Archives)

One of his big coups was with the New York TimesHe convinced them that he was dead. They checked the facts, they talked to people who confirmed he was dead. And he got the New York Times to write his obituary. How did he pull that off?

My dad had a friend out in a trailer somewhere in Utah with a line that was supposedly the funeral home. And he paid some actress to act as the grieving widow to deliver the notice to the Times. He thought everything through. And then he went into hiding for however many days or weeks.

I don't know if anybody had faked their death on that level, but he was one of the first. But the paper of record making a mistake, that was more of a big deal. The New York Times doesn't like to be fooled. 

That's why we were so surprised they wrote such a nice obituary with my dad passing in actuality last week.

But the one ball my dad dropped was not telling me. Because I may have spoiled [it]. I said to everybody, "I don't what you're talking about. I just played basketball with my dad yesterday. He's not dead."

Written by Kevin Ball and Jeanne Armstrong. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A edited for length and clarity.