R.I.P. Warren Berlinger

Character actor Warren Berlinger (b. 1937) has just passed away. I don’t know that I’d have felt the need to eulogize him, but for the fact that, par usual, the entertainment obit writers (or the people who write their headlines) have tended to place the wrong emphasis on who he was. Most of them are calling him “Happy Days actor” which is sort of stupid beyond belief. Berlinger guest starred on that show a few times (in different roles every time), and indeed he was memorable when he appeared, and it’s probably even where I first knew or noticed him from. But it is VERY far from his most noteworthy accomplishment or association.

Garry Marshall cast Berlinger on Happy Days for NOSTALGIA. He already HAD an identity. Berlinger was associated with the 1950s. What would I lead with? He was the STAR of Neil Simon’s first hit Broadway play Come Blow Your Horn (1961-62). (Replaced by Frank Sinatra in the movie version.) Come Blow Your Horn was Berlinger’s eighth Broadway show, the first being the original production of Annie Get Your Gun (1946) when he was 11 years old. THAT’S some significance right there. A Jewish kid from Brooklyn (and apparently not a close relation to Milton Berle, whose real name was Berlinger), Warren Berlinger was part of the fabric of teen-oriented movies that came out during the early rock and roll years, including Teenage Rebel (1956), Blue Denim (1959, and also the 1958 original Broadway play), Because They’re Young (1960) with Dick Clark, Platinum High School (1960), Billie (1965) with Patty Duke, Spinout (1966) with Elvis Presley (1966), and Thunder Alley (1967) with Annette Funicello and Fabian. In these youth-oriented settings, Berlinger was often cast as jerky rivals. He had an insinuating smile, a sort of ruddy-cheeked, bright-eyed leer. He was also on the stocky side. He seemed like the kind of kid who’d lead a group of bullies, and laugh while their victim cried. Berlinger was also associated with military themed comedies and dramas including The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1961), All Hands on Deck (1962), and TV shows like Men of Annapolis (1957) and the Disney mini-series Kilroy (1965).

By the ’70s, Berlinger was middle-aged and began to play age appropriate versions of the characters of his youth. They were often in the vein of Archie Bunker, loud-mouthed, belligerent, dumb bigots. For example on a short-lived 1971 tv sketch comedy show called The Funny Side he played a character named simply “Blue Collar Husband”. He played similar characters on Love American Style, which may well be where he first met and worked with Garry Marshall. And he played Shirley Booth’s conservative son-in-law on her 1973 sitcom A Touch of Grace.

Sometimes, as on Happy Days, there was a nostalgic tinge, reminding Baby Boomers of his previous roles. For example, he was in Disney’s The Shaggy D.A. (1976) — though he hadn’t been in the original 1959 The Shaggy Dog, it’s just the kind of movie he would have been in. And similarly, he was a regular on Operation Petticoat (1978-79), which was based on a 1959 service comedy very much like ones he had appeared in. (Again, his role on this show would have been another better lede than the Happy Days reference. After all, he was a regular on Operation Petticoat, just a guest star on Happy Days.)

Other notable stuff: Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), Joan RiversThe Girl Most Likely To… (1973) starring Stockard Channing, Lepke (1975) with Tony Curtis, The Four Deuces (1976, in which he is third billed behind Jack Palance and Carol Lynley), Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976), The Magician of Lublin (1979), The Cannonball Run (1981), The World According to Garp (1982), a recurring role on Too Close for Comfort, a 1989 version of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, episodes of Murder She Wrote, Stephen Frears’ Hero (1992), and a bit turn in Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do! (1996). He retired, perhaps understandably, after They Call Him Sasquatch (2003), although he returned in 2016 for an episode of Grace and Frankie, his final credit.