Cliff Norton: It’s About Time

I can see and hear the face and voice of Cliff Norton (1918-2003) in my head so clearly but have struggled in vain to identify the ONE place I know him from. The answer is probably a thousand places, yet I can’t shake the feeling that I am recalling a single performance…

Norton was a comical character actor who flourished in radio and TV, with a smattering of film and commercial work besides. The few occasions when he had leads in series are obscurities. He was the head caveman in Sherwood Schwartz’s time travel sitcom It’s About Time (1966-67), and he was the voice of the title character in Hanna-Barbera’s prime-time animated football sitcom Where’s Huddles? (1970). Before that, if you’re old enough to remember such things (I’m not), in the ’50s he was a regular on The Dave Garroway Show and on several of  Sid Caesar’s many variety shows. Highly prized as a sketch comedian, Norton possessed a dry, droll midwestern quality that would serve him well in supporting parts over the ensuing decades.

Dave Garroway was Norton’s stepping stone to success. After active duty as a bombardier in World ar II, Norton found work as a local radio announcer in Chicago, which led to work on Garroway’s radio show, which led to work with Garroway on TV, which led to everything else. Norton is probably best known from his guest shots on TV, mostly on sitcoms, such as The Jack Benny Program (5 episodes), McHale’s Navy, The Munsters, The Joey Bishop Show, My Favorite Martian, The Andy Griffith Show, Hogan’s Heroes, The Lucy Show/ Here’s Lucy, The Monkees, That Girl, I Dream of Jeannie, Get Smart, Bewitched (6 episodes), Love American Style, The Doris Day Show, Lotsa Luck, The Odd Couple, The Bob Newhart Show, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Holmes and Yo-Yo, Maude, The Tony Randall Show, The Feather and Father Gang, The San Pedro Beach Bums, Alice, etc etc etc.

Many of Norton’s film appearances are related to his TV work: McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force (1965), Munster Go Home! (1966), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966, with The Andy Griffith Show‘s Don Knotts), and The Russians are Coming The Russians Are Coming (1966, with Sid Caesar’s collaborator Carl Reiner). Other movies you can see him in include Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid (1964); Harlow (1965), Frankie and Johnny (1965, with Elvis Presley), Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came (1970), The Phantom Tollbooth (1970), Harry and Tonto (1974), and two related bio-pics: Funny Lady (1975), about Fanny Brice, and the tv movie Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women (1978), in which he played Abe Erlanger. 

Norton’s last screen credit was a 1994 episode of Murphy Brown.

To learn more about the variety arts, including radio and tv variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.