R.I.P. Orson Bean

Orson Bean is dead at 91, not of old age but of being hit by a car. That he was still alive and crossing streets is the second revelation that will be inevitable around breakfast tables this morning, following the news of his death. Anyway, who was Orson Bean? That was a question we asked even back when we theoretically knew who he was. In the ’70s we knew him as a TV personality, a panelist on such games shows as To Tell the Truth and Match Game, and a guest on The Tonight Show, and so forth. He was pleasant and funny, but who was he? What did he do? Why was he booked?

Dallas Burrows (1928-2020) was from Burlington, Vermont, and developed a magic act while serving in the army. He began performing in night clubs; the name Orson Bean was selected for its absurdity. His first stardom came on the Broadway stage, in the shows Men of Distinction (1953), John Murray Anderson’s Almanac (1953-54), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1955-56), Nature’s Way (1957), Subways Are for Sleeping (1961-62), Never Too Late (1962-65), I Was Dancing (1964), and Ilya Darling (1967-68). Strange to imagine this reserved, mild-mannered WASP tearing it up before the footlights, but apparently it was so. I am delighted to learn that Bean was one of the founding members of the Sons of the Desert, the international Laurel and Hardy fan club, in 1964. Hard to put my finger on, but there was something Laurelesque about this lost-looking, vacant man.

In 1971, he published a book entitled Me and the Orgone: The True Story of One Man’s Sexual Awakening, which I hope you’ll forgive my saying is one book I hope I never read.

While he had been in films and television since the early ’50s, Bean’s more high profile work began to accrue decades later. He was the voice of Bilbo Baggins in the Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit in 1977, and the voice of Frodo in The Return of the King (1980). He was in a rather sordid movie with Kevin Bacon called Forty Deuce (1982). He was a regular on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993-99), in which he appeared with his third wife Alley Mills, also known from The Wonder Years and The Bold and the Beautiful. He’s also in Being John Malkovich (1999). He had over 100 screen credits, right up to the present day.

Another interesting bit of trivia: He was the father-in-law of Andrew Breitbart. Sorry! Apart from that, he appears to have lived a full and productive life. He is no doubt spreading his Orgone energy throughout Middle Earth with Gene Rayburn even as we speak. Come to think of it, the existence of Orson Bean was perhaps the most eloquent expression we have of the fact that the distance between Vermont and California is purely geographic.

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