Tony Mendez, David Letterman’s Oddball ‘Cue Card Boy,’ Dies at 76

An obituary by Richard Sandomir for The New York Times.

For more than 20 years, he wrote and flipped cards for Mr. Letterman’s “Late Show.” He was also a member of the show’s troupe of quirky onscreen characters.

Tony Mendez, who was in charge of cue cards for “Late Show With David Letterman,” as well as one of the show’s breakout oddball characters, until an altercation (over cue cards) with one of the writers got him fired in 2014, died on July 29 at his home in Miami Beach. He was 76.

Andrew Corbin, his former companion, confirmed the death but said he did not know the cause.

Mr. Mendez’s on-camera exchanges with Mr. Letterman made him a key member of the show’s troupe of non-stars, among them the comedian’s mother, Dorothy Mengering; the stage manager Biff Henderson; and Mujibur and Sirajul, salesmen at a souvenir shop near the Ed Sullivan Theater, where the show was taped.

Mr. Mendez started to print (in big black letters) and flip cue cards for Mr. Letterman periodically on his NBC show “Late Night With David Letterman” in 1990. He took over full time when Mr. Letterman moved to CBS in 1993. Nicknamed “Cue Card Boy” by Mr. Letterman, Mr. Mendez went on to turn the oversized cards for the comedian’s monologue and other scripted bits for another 21 years.

“The flipping of the cards is very important,” Mr. Mendez told The New Yorker in 2001. “If you flip too fast, they can’t see the last line. If you’re too slow, you slow them down.”

Mr. Mendez also was the star of a series of bizarre online videos, “The Tony Mendez Show,” posted on the show’s website for several years. In 2007, a billboard promoting the Mendez show was unveiled near the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway, where Mr. Letterman taped his program.

But Mr. Mendez’s time at “Late Show” ended in October 2014, when he assaulted one of the writers, Bill Scheft. The backstage incident made the front page of The New York Post with the headline “HATE SHOW: Backstage Battle Erupts at Letterman.”

The two men had argued before the taping of the Oct. 8 show over changes to the cue cards. “He tells me what to do and I have to say, ‘I know what I’m doing,’” Mr. Mendez told The Post.

The next day, The Post reported, Mr. Mendez was still angry. He grabbed Mr. Scheft’s shirt and shook him, leading to his firing (six months after Mr. Letterman announced that he would be retiring from the show in 2015).

“It was an unfortunate way to end his time at the show, and a sad way to end a 22-year friendship,” Mr. Scheft said in an email.

Antonio Emilio Mendez Jr. was born in Havana on March 27, 1945, and left Cuba by airplane in 1961 with his father, who worked in the law department of the University of Havana, and his mother, Josefina.

No immediate family members survive.

In Los Angeles, where Mr. Mendez lived with his family, his mother, who taught Spanish at U.C.L.A., met someone who knew Barney McNulty, who is credited with being the first person in television to use cue cards. Mr. McNulty hired Mr. Mendez to turn cards for soap operas, sitcoms like “The Lucy Show” and the variety show “The Hollywood Palace.”

In his early 20s, he detoured into dancing. His sister, Josefina, was a prima ballerina with the Cuban National Ballet, and he grew up appreciating her art. He studied with the Houston Ballet, was an apprentice with the Harkness Ballet and received a scholarship from American Ballet Theater.

“And in those days, if you could point your toes, they would give you a scholarship,” he said in an interview with Time Out New York magazine in 2008.

He danced on Broadway in the 1970s and ’80s, in “Pippin,” “Irene,” “Dancin’” and “King of Hearts.” He also danced in tours of “Applause” and “Evita.”

In 1984, nearing 40, he returned to flipping cards, this time for “Saturday Night Live,” where he stayed for nine years.

“It was the most stressful job I ever had,” he told The New Yorker. “The hosts were totally freaked out. They would all try to memorize, and I would tell them that the script was going to be changing until the last minute, so they had to follow me.”

Then, in 1993, Mr. Mendez succeeded his companion, Marty Zone, who had been diagnosed with H.I.V. five years earlier, as Mr. Letterman’s cue card man.

Mr. Mendez’s relationship with Mr. Letterman was, he once recalled, unusually strong — until he was fired.

“Nobody talks to him the way I do and he welcomes it because everybody is so afraid of him,” Mr. Mendez told Time Out. “And he knows he’ll get the truth from me.”

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