On The Many Faces (and Voices) of Howard Morris

howardmorris

Today is the birthday of the once ubiquitous comedy professional Howard Morris (1919-2005).

I find it a little crazy (and surely incorrect) that his Wikipedia entry and his official page both give as Morris’s biggest claim to fame his recurring role as the minor character Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show. When SURELY he cast a much larger shadow as one of the key cast members of all of Sid Caesar’s comedy variety shows:  The Admiral Broadway Revue, Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour. I mean, come on! It’s ironic: nowadays, there’s a habit of immortalizing Caesar’s legendary writing staff (Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil (and Danny) Simon, Selma Diamond, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin) but Morris, who ALSO went on to do bigger things (chiefly as a director) often gets left out, even though to the television audiences of the 50s and early 60s he would have been much better known than those writers (except Reiner), because he was actually on camera.

Morris was to play bit roles throughout his career, but never more than that. Though a good looking man in repose, in action he was excessive. He had what I call the “Bert Lahr problem”. As a performer he could ONLY be extremely broad. His eyes would bug out and light up, and his mouth was perpetually open and making faces. It’s really too much to look at. It works OK on TV in small doses, but in the movies it can be a bit overwhelming. But he did have some notable turns. He plays Kelp’s father in Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor (1963), for example, and Mr. Professor Lilolman in Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety (1978), among others.

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But with his scratchy voice, and his facility with character and accents, he was a shoe-in for voice-overs. Just as with Paul Winchell, my first exposure to the comedy of Howard Morris was without a doubt his cartoon work: he was part of the ensembles of The Flintstones and The Jetsons, he played the title character in Atom Ant, and above all he did the voice of Jughead in the various animated iterations of The Archies. Not to mention that voice of Mayor McCheese in the McDonald’s commercials!

And from the 1960s through the 1980s, he directed scores of tv sit-com episodes (including the pilot of Get Smart) as well as films: the all-star heist comedy Who’s Minding the Mint? (1967), the Doris Day vehicle  With Six You Get Egg Roll (1968) and the original version of Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water (1969).

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2 comments

  1. I think you’re right about his mugging. I tried to watch him in roles besides “Ernest T.” and so many were “bug-eyed” as you say. But watch him in Boris Karloff “Lethal Women” episode on YouTube. :He plays two roles in two different vignettes. He’s acting. Fine. Also, I understand that there was a production directed by Alfred Hitchcock where he played an undercover gov’t agent. Also low-key: guess someone knew how to direct and focus him.

    There’s a wonderful YouTube interview with him when he was older. In it he said:” The streets are paved with the corpses of talent that just couldn’t ..” I forget the rest of the sentence, but he goes on about how producers and money controls who gets a chance to act. “I was lucky.” He said “I should shut up or I’ll get in trouble again” for telling the truth. A very articulate, impassioned and urbane individual. – Well worth watching that interview.

    Best!

    Like

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