Ronny Graham: Joker of All Trades

Ronny Graham (Ronald Stringer, 1919-1999) was one those infuriating people about whom you can’t just drop a simple job description: he was a stand-up comedian who played the piano, wrote songs; wrote, directed and performed theatre; wrote and performed in television; and wrote and performed in films. Modern pop culture being what it is, I knew him as a familiar comic character actor long before I knew about the other things.

Graham’s parents (Steve Graham and Florence Sweeney) had a vaudeville act called Flo and Steve. Ronny started out performing in night clubs circa 1947 in an impish act that was known for its sexy innuendo. He got his break in Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1952, along with Eartha Kitt, Alice Ghostley, Paul Lynde, Robert Clary, Carol Lawrence, June Carroll, et al. In addition to performing in the show, Graham also wrote sketch and song material, as did the young Mel Brooks, with whom Graham would become a frequent collaborator three decades later. Graham also contributed to New Faces of 1956 and New Faces of 1962, appeared in the original production of The Tender Trap in 1954 and 1955, and contributed to, or directed another half dozen Broadway shows through 1970.

While Graham had done some sporadic screen work in the ’50s and ’60s, he began to find much more employment in film and television, both as a writer and as an actor, starting in the early 1970s. (One special high profile gig: he was in the 1969 “Spicy Meatball” Alka-Seltzer commercial as the guy clapping the clapper board!) Graham had a role in the 1972 western Dirty Little Billy, directed by Stan Dragoti. In 1974 he wrote for The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show. In 1975 he was a regular on The Bob Crane Show, and got a recurring role as a minister on Chico and The Man. In 1976 he was one of the writers on the notorious Paul Lynde Halloween Special as well as The Brady Bunch Variety Hour. In 1977 he appeared in Gene Wilder’s The World’s Greatest Lover. In 1978 and 1979 he wrote numerous episodes of M*A*S*H and appeared in one as well.

Then came numerous collaborations with Mel Brooks, perhaps what he is best known for: he had several roles in The History of the World, Part I (1981); co-wrote and acted in To Be or Not to Be (1983); co-wrote and acted in Spaceballs (1987); and had parts in Life Stinks (1991); and Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). His last credit was a 1997 episode of Chicago Hope.