The Riddle of Frank Gorshin

Celebrity impressionist, comic and character actor Frank Gorshin (1933-2005) has somewhere around 250 film and tv credits, and scores of live theatre and nightclub credits to his name. It would be madness to attempt to include them all, so just a few highlights:

If you have ever wondered about the name Gorshin, as I often have, it turns out it’s SLOVENIAN. Gorshin grew up in Pittsburgh’s Slovenian-American community, was raised Catholic and sang with a local Slovenian singing society.

While best known for playing the Riddler on Batman (1966-68), and despite having played a gazillion supporting parts over the course of his career, as any fan can tell you, Gorshin’s MAIN genuine distinction was in being one of the best impressionists of his time. He was a cinema usher as a teenager in the late ’40s and worked up impressions of all the stars he saw on screen. He specialized in macho stars. His repertoire included Al Jolson, Kirk Douglas (whom he somewhat resembled), Burt Lancaster, Jimmy Cagney, Jackie Gleason, Dean Martin, Joseph Cotten, Peter Falk, Anthony Quinn, Lee J. Cobb, Richard Burton, Rod Steiger, and Marlon Brando. His giggle as The Riddler is said to have been taken from a Richard Widmark performance. He was so good, he could do entire recognizable impressions of certain people without uttering a word — just the faces and gestures. But he also nailed the voices. The physicality seemed a key to how he did that.

For a time in the early ’50s Gorshin performed with army special services. This brought him to the attention of an agent who helped his career take off when he returned to civilian life in the middle of the decade. Gorshin was to become the first impressionist ever to headline in Las Vegas (helped along by the fact that he was also a terrific singer and dancer), and was constantly booked for television variety programs hosted by Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar, Joey Bishop, Jackie Gleason, Dean Martin, et al.

Some of his earliest acting credits came in schlocky horror, sci-fi and exploitation pictures for AIP, including Hot Rod Girl (1956), Dragstrip Girl (1957), and perhaps most memorably Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), which we wrote about here. He was good in both comedy and drama, although in the latter he was very broad and seemed to be channeling the actors he normally did impressions of. Other movies he appeared in included Bells Are Ringing (1960), Where the Boys Are (1960), The George Raft Story (1961), That Darn Cat (1965), and Skidoo! (1968).

Of dozens of memorable TV appearances a particular one that stands out is the half black-half white guy in the Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”. On Broadway in 1969 he starred on Broadway as Mayor Jimmy Walker in Jimmy! 

In 2002 and 2003 he played George Burns in the one man Broadway show Say Goodnight Gracie, which he then toured with. He died following a Memphis performance in 2005.

To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous