This one goes out to Kemal Amin “Casey” Kasem (1932-2014).
Lebanese-American Kasem was from Detroit, and got his start in local radio in high school and later as a student at Wayne Statue University, followed by a stint in Armed Forces Radio while serving during the Korean War. After he was discharged, he found work as a disk jockey in Flint, Detroit, Buffalo and Cleveland. After this he moved to the coast and worked at stations in San Francisco, and finally, the center of everything, Los Angeles. He began to weave factoids into his patter and this became the basis for his syndicated America’s Top 40 program, launched in 1970.
Now: I grew up on this program, and I’m here to tell ya, I wasn’t crazy about it: either the canned, impersonal, dumbed down format or Kasem’s phony sounding announcer voice. Granted, most DJs then and now (do they still have them anymore?) sound bogus and/or obnoxious, so there’s that. What we did like about the show was the weekly ritual of counting down the Top 40 songs. It’s one of America’s favorite little obsessive compulsive hobbies, just like sports stats or the box office figures for the top Hollywood movies. In point of fact, vaudeville acts were tracked in much the same way back in the day, both by the industry itself, and the publications that covered the circuits. Woo boy, are we about status in this country.
At any rate, as much as Kasem is associated with his role as one of America’s most popular DJs, it wasn’t the only thing he had going on. He was also an actor. In the early years, he was a supporting player in AIP biker movies, not such a stretch for a guy who played rock records all day, if you think about it, at least in terms of securing the role. These early films included The Glory Stompers (1967), Wild Wheels (1969), The Cycle Savages (1969), Scream Free (1969), and The Girls from Thunder Strip (1970). By that point, he had yet another, much more lucrative line going: cartoon voice-overs.
His masterpiece was the character of Shaggy, Scooby Doo’s hippie beatnik companion on the eponymous program, starting on 1969. Kasem was already 37 years old at the time, maximum squaresville, but he got a handle on the character and it was years before I realized who was doing the voice. It’s a really funny characterization, and worlds away from what he did as a radio announcer. Around the same time he did the voice of the manager on Josie and the Pussycats, and Robin in Superfriends’ era Batman cartoons. These were all for Hanna-Barbera. For Rankin-Bass, he played the voice of the title character in Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971).
Kasem’s various radio programs, personal appearances, TV guest shots, and voice-over work held him aloft for decades. In 1980 he married his second wife, bit player Jean Thompson, best known for playing Loretta Tortelli, Dan Hedaya’s wife on Cheers and the spinoff The Tortellis. Of Norwegian stock, she stood a good head taller than him. Think I’m kiddin’? Check this out:
Is she stealing his pink purse? Or shoving a bomb down his shorts? At any rate, it seems she had an Anna Nicole Smith thing going on in more ways than one. In 2013, Kasem came down with something like Parkinson’s Disease and became bed-ridden. Oddly, Jean Kasem wouldn’t let any of his three adult children in to visit him. This went on for months. When Kasem passed away about a year later (of sepsis from bed sores — that doesn’t sound like adequate care to me), Jean and Kasem’s offspring argued again about the funeral arrangements. Jean solved the problem by STEALING THE BODY, shipping it to Canada and finally to Oslo, where it was buried and remains to this day.
And ya know what? If he gets up again at this point — better call these guys:
To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous
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