The Hall of Hams #15: Victor Buono
The Hall of Hams is my series on some of my favorite actors who have brought the art of melodramatic acting into the modern era.
Today is the birthday of the late great Victor Buono (1938-1982). It’s crazy to me to realize how young he was when he died. Because of his demeanor, his size, and the fact that he frequently wore facial hair he always played “older”. The parts he played in the 60s and 70s made him seem like he was already in his 50s. When he died in 1982 he was only 44!
His biggest mark was in television. He seemed to be cast on every single tv series going, and in every genre: sit-coms, westerns, sci-fic, crime dramas etc etc. He was frequently cast as the “diabolical villain” and the reasons why are due to a number of attributes. There was his girth, of course, but that was abetted by that extraordinary face. Those remarkable, piercing pale blue eyes, which could bore into someone like daggers…but could also twinkle and dance like those of Santa Claus. And there was a sensuousness to the mouth, which seemed made both for gourmandizing and for smirking. His face also radiated his obvious intelligence. He also had a great gift for language, having played many classical roles on stage in his younger years. On TV he played everyone from King Tut on Batman to an alien on Star Trek to a villainous landlord on The Odd Couple to several villains on The Wild Wild West to Jim’s millionaire father on Taxi.
Along the way, he became such a familiar face, and had such a sense of humor about himself (very similar to Vincent Price’s public image) that he was also a frequent guest on talk shows, and even cut record albums, often reciting his own humorous poetry. (He’d been doing that since a teenager, largely at the instigation of his grandmother who’d been a vaudevillian on the Orpheum circuit!) He was most famous for his “Fat Man’s Prayer”, which proved sadly ironic in it’s praise of overeating when he died of a heart attack as a relatively young man.
Buono would have been a perfect James Bond villain, but sadly he didn’t get many movie roles. His most memorable turns were in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).
We earlier mentioned Buono’s turn as a nasty landlord on The Odd Couple. He came back for an even funnier and more distinctive role in a later episode. In this one, he plays a spooky excorcist whom Felix and Oscar try to hire to help rid their apartment of ghosts. (Think of the movies that were in vogue at the time and you will realize the topicality).
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.