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Jay Leno receives career award from Sarasota film fest

The comedian was presented with the Sarasota Film Festival Career Achievement Award after his performance at the Van Wezel.

Jay Leno was awarded the Sarasota Film Festival Career Achievement Award by SFF President and Chairman of the Board Mark Famiglio.
Jay Leno was awarded the Sarasota Film Festival Career Achievement Award by SFF President and Chairman of the Board Mark Famiglio.
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Longtime "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno's suitcase was a couple pounds heavier when he left Sarasota than when he arrived.

After his March 28 show at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, Leno was presented with the Sarasota Film Festival Career Achievement Award.

"Hey, this is heavy," said Leno as he was handed the glass statue by SFF President and Chairman of the Board Mark Famiglio at the Van Wezel.

Leno received the award "in recognition of his illustrious career across television, comedy and beyond spanning nearly half a century," according to the festival press release.

Although Leno achieved stardom as a comedian and TV host, his Hollywood career began with a movie role. To hear Leno tell it, he was standing on the street in Los Angeles with no money when he was "discovered" and cast in "Silver Bears" with Michael Caine.

Director Ivan Passer sent Leno abroad to shoot scenes for the 1977 film, which also starred Louis Jourdan and Cybill Shepherd. When Leno's grandfather called him and asked how things were going in Hollywood, Leno said he wasn't in Hollywood; he was in Morocco. Needless to say, Grandpa was astounded.

During an award ceremony, Leno and Famiglio riffed on their shared Italian heritage. Leno's family was originally named Lino, but his insurance salesman father changed it because he thought it would be more appealing to potential customers. "His first name was Angelo," the implication being that was enough Italian for one name, Leno said.

Leno recalled that after he became famous, his representatives got a call from the mayor of Flumeri, the family's hometown in the Old Country, offering to put up a statue of him and his grandfather. "He told us it would cost $75,000, but if we wanted it on the hill, it would cost $125,000," Leno said. "How Italian!"

Although his father was of Italian descent, his mother had Scottish roots. When both sides of the family got together, it could make for some interesting situations since Italian celebrations appeared extravagant to the thrifty Scots. "Why are there 50 meatballs when there are nine people?" Leno quoted his Scottish aunt as saying. 

Asked by Famiglio how he navigates comedy during these politically correct times, Leno said his jokes haven't changed over the years. "If the heckler is fat, I don't make fun of his stomach, I make fun of his tie," he said. "I don't go for the throat" with humor.

Told by a well-wisher that he looked "great" (without directly mentioning Leno's recent face burns he got while working on one of his classic cars), the comedian smiled and quipped, "Sort of lifelike!" The repartee never stopped even though Leno had just put on a show.

Speaking of cars, when Famiglio noted that collecting cars is an expensive hobby, Leno came right back with: "I love cars. They're cheaper than coke and hookers."

Leno advised aspiring comedians to get their feet wet by acting as an emcee at a talent show hosted by a church or another community group. "Don't invite your friends," he says. "The affirmation of strangers is more important."

While Leno can immediately connect with people he has never met, it's his family that keeps him going. As the cameras start rolling at the award ceremony, Leno confides in Famiglio that he flies home whenever he can when he's on the road. "I try to stay married," he said.

The Sarasota Film Festival continues through April 2. For more information, visit



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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