Richard Deacon: A Flappable Foil

Bald-pated, bespectacled character actor Richard Deacon (1921-1984) was one of the great comic foils of all time, and one of the first to spring entirely from the television era. For over a decade he was a sitcom staple, first as Lumpy’s father Fred Rutherford on Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963), then as the humorless Mel on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), and then as the grumpy Roger on The Mothers-in-Law (1968-69), replacing Roger C. Carmel in the part in the second season. He was also a frequent presence on The Jack Benny Program (1954-1962), Make Room for Daddy (1956-1961), The Red Skelton Hour (1957-1963), The Real McCoys (1959-1962), The Donna Reed Show (1959-62), Mister Ed (1961-1964), The Phyllis Diller Show (1966-67), The Beverly Hillbillies (1967-70), and two of Lucille Ball’s series, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1957) and Here’s Lucy (1971-72). And in dozens of other major shows in one-offs.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on why I find this guy so funny. It is something, I think, about his being so baitable and perturbable. His feathers are always getting ruffled yet he remains unthreatening and ineffectual. He was fun for comedians to torture, with minimal consequences. He often represented authority, but at the grunt level. He was a mouse that roared. The fact that his surname suggested a minor church functionary helped.

Classic comedy work on the big screen included Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955); The Kettles in the Ozarks (1955); Critic’s Choice (1963) with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball; Morey Amsterdam’s Don’t Worry, We’ll Think of a Title (1966); Carl Reiner’s Enter Laughing (1967); and Jerry Lewis’s Who’s Minding the Store? (1963), The Patsy (1964), and The Disorderly Orderly (1964); as well as the Disney classics That Darn Cat (1965), Lt. Robinson Crusoe USN (1966), The Gnome-Mobile (1967), Blackbeard’s Ghost (1967), and The One and Only Original Family Band (1968).

I find it interesting that is also in a significant number of B movie horror and science fiction classics: Invaders from Mars (1953), Them! (1954), This Island Earth (1955), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Birds (1963) and Piranha (1978).

In later years he appeared in films like Joan Rivers’ Rabbit Test (1978), and The Hoboken Chicken Emergency (1984) with Benny Baker and Alice Ghostley, and on TV shows like Sheriff Lobo/ B.J. and the Bear, The Love Boat, Alice, and Trapper John MD. He appeared in the 1983 reunion film Still the Beaver, reprising his role as Fred Rutherford, and was booked for the series, but died of heart disease before it went to production.