I remember being virtually alarmed when I saw Robert Cummings (1910-1990) in a TV screening of the 1963 Frankie and Annette musical Beach Party, realizing he was the same guy I had seen in many movies from decades earlier. As a proto-hippie professor in the film, he doesn’t look that old; he looked about he how had appeared throughout his career…underneath the beard, anyway:
He’s 53 at the time. I might have guessed 43, if asked, and even so he has a highly youthful energy (in spite of the insults he endures from the teenagers on the beach). We’ll return to the subject of his vitality, but I wanted to remark on the longevity of his appeal. Cummings had been in movies for 30 years by the time of Beach Party, and had a stage career prior to that. And it’s been a delight learning about him because he was a crazy eccentric.
Born and raised in Joplin Missouri, Cummings’ father was a surgeon, his mother was a practitioner of an early New Age religion called Science of Mind. Cummings studied to be an aeronautical engineer (and remained an aviation enthusiast all his life; Orville Wright was his Godfather) but had to drop out of school due to the stock market crash of ’29. So he decided to become an actor, studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1930 he embarked on a motorcycle tour of England, trying to learn the accent, and then hit on the ingenious idea of posing in front of a theatre with a phony marquee which he’d made up that read “Blade Stanhope Conway in Candida.” Blade Stanhope Conway was his new stage name. He made up a stack of glossies of this photo and created a resume of phony English stage credits, and used it to get parts back in the States. He appeared on Broadway under this name in John Galsworthy’s The Roof (1931) with Henry Hull. The following year he was hired as a cast replacement in Earl Carroll’s Vanities. At this stage he also appeared in a musical film short called Seasoned Greetings (1933) with Lita Grey and Sammy Davis Jr., and was an extra in Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert (1933).
This wasn’t the last of his subterfuges. In 1934, he replaced his faux English accent with a fake Southern drawl and became “Bryce Hutchins”. In this guise he was cast in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934, which then went on tour, which wound up in L.A., where he remained. Early movie credits include The Virginia Judge (1935) with Walter Kelly, Arizona Mahoney (1936) with Joe Cook, the all-star College Swing (1938), Charlie McCarthy Detective (1939), One Night in the Tropics (1940) with Abbott and Costello, and The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) with Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn. Cummings had just the right touch for light comedy. It was a quality Alfred Hitchcock always valued in his stars, and so he cast Cummings in two of his better known roles, in Saboteur (1942) and Dial M for Murder (1954). Other films of the classic studio period included Kings Row (1942) with Ronald Reagan, The Bride Wore Boots (1946) with Barbara Stanwyck, Let’s Live a Little (1948) with Heddy Lamarr, Tell it to the Judge (1949) with Rosalind Russell, and The First Time (1952), Frank Tashlin’s first film as director. During World War Two, Cummings served the US army as a flight instructor.
From the early ’50s through the early ’60s, Cummings was a constant presence on television, and this may be how some people remember him best. My Hero (1952-53), the first of his four sitcoms, ran a single season. On the show, he played an accident prone real estate salesman. He fared better in the original telecast of Twelve Angry Men (1954) in which he earned an Emmy for his performance as Juror #8, the role Henry Fonda played in the big screen version a few years later. This put Cummings’ career back on track.
Next came his most popular program, The Bob Cummings Show a.k.a. Love That Bob (1955-1959). This was kind of a pivotal show in all sorts of ways. Cummings character was a thinly-disguised version of himself, an aviation and photography enthusiast from Joplin, Missouri. But more than this, his character, a swinging, sexed-up bachelor, a wolf, seems to point the way to the ’60s, much more than being part of the fabric of the moralizing, white-bread Eisenhower era. To watch it now, it seems oddly leading edge (more on that aspect anon). The other important aspect of the show was its personnel. It was created and produced by Paul Henning, the guy later responsible for The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres. The cast included Rosemary DeCamp (whom I first knew as the mom on That Girl), Dwayne Hickman (soon to be the star of Dobie Gillis), Ann B. Davis (later to be immortalized as Alice on The Brady Bunch), with recurring appearances by the likes of King Donovan, Nancy Kulp, Joi Lansing, Lyle Talbot, Rose Marie, Kathleen Freeman, et al.
After this show, he took a year off and then returned with The New Bob Cummings Show (1961-62), which only lasted one season. He then returned with his last sitcom, My Living Doll (1964-65), on which Julie Newmar played his robot girlfriend! As always, Cummings seemed to be well ahead of the curve. Or curves, as the case may be. Demented incels, take note!
Cummings made several films in the mid ’60s including The Carpetbaggers (1964), What a Way to Go! (1964), Promise Her Anything (1966) and a remake of Stagecoach (1966). And he guested on such TV shows as The Flying Nun, Green Acres, Here Come the Brides, Bewitched, Here’s Lucy, Love American Style, and The Love Boat through the end of the 1970s.
Now we come to the part we alluded to a couple of times above, Cummings’ private life. There is an interesting, peculiarly American dichotomy to it. On the one hand, he’s the cheerful, likable, clean-cut, All American guy, and a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. But do you also find him a little creepy, a little too intense? I look at his performances starting in the mid ’50s and I go, “Man, that guy is wired!” And he was. Turns out that (according to some of his five ex-wives), that in addition to being a health nut, a vegetarian, and so forth, Cummings was also a speed freak, one of those stars who got a daily amphetamine-enriched “vitamin shot” in the ass by Hollywood doctors. In light of this, it’s amazing he managed to remain looking boyish for as long as he did. Usually that stuff kills your looks, ages you prematurely if anything. Although during his last decade, he did suffer from Parkinson’s, so it wasn’t all skittles and beer.
At any rate, the whole picture of the guy makes me think of Bob Cummings as a true transitional figure between Hollywood’s classic studio era…to the gonzo, weirdo, strange-o Hollywood we all know and hate-love today.