In the early years of this blog I would often bundle together folks who had the same birthday for shared biographical blogposts, but I soon realized the impracticality of making readers who were interested in one figure wade through the life of another. Today, however, we revive the practice for a pair of men with similar backgrounds who were united by a common role — Pappy Yokum in very different versions of Li’l Abner.
The first is the more obscure. Johnnie Morris (1887-1969) was Pappy in the bizarre 1940 all-star version of Li’l Abner we wrote about here, the one where some of the actors wore facial prosthetics to resemble Al Capp’s comic strip characters. That’s him in the lower right hand corner of the poster above.
But Morris has an even better claim to fame, one which Marx Brothers fans will appreciate. In 1905 he was the third member of the vaudeville team the Leroy Trio with Gene Leroy and, in his first professional gig, a young Groucho Marx!
In addition to vaudeville, Morris appeared in silent movies for the Selig Polyscope Company as early as 1912. During the silent era, Morris appeared in films with actors like Jeanne Eagels, Bebe Daniels, Emil Jannings, Fay Wray, Olga Baclanova ,Wallace Beery and Louise Brooks. By the late ’20s he was already a minor supporting player, usually in walk-ons. Due to his diminutive height he was often cast as jockeys, newsboys, and the like. His other films include Once in a Lifetime (1931), Barbary Coast (1935), Golden Gloves (1940), and a couple of dozen other pictures. His last screen credit was in My Wild Irish Rose (1947).
The other gent in question is Joe E. Marks (1891-1973). According to his Times obit, Marks went into burlesque when he was 20, and became a star comedian there, alongside colleagues like Bert Lahr, Bobby Clark, Leon Errol, and James Barton. In vaudeville, he was in Gus Edwards’ “School Days” act. Marks was married to a woman named Mae McCullough, which leads me to wonder if she might have been the sister of Bobby Clark’s comedy partner Paul McCullough. TBD!
Like Morris, Marks had a movie career that was distinctly minor, just a couple of dozen credits, though he attained higher heights. His first film role was a walk-on in the 1937 Joan Crawford picture Mannequin. Wide Open Faces (1938) with Joe E. Brown was another of the handful of movies Morris was in the late ’30s prior to starting his much more successful Broadway career, which began in the early ’40s. Of his 15 Broadway roles, notable ones include Ebenezer Mimms in the original production of Bloomer Girl (1944-47), Smee in the 1950 production of Peter Pan with Jean Arthur and the same role in the 1954 version with Mary Martin, and Pappy Yokum in the original Broadway production of the musical Li’l Abner (1956-58). These roles carried over into screen work. He was Smee in TV productions of Peter Pan in 1955 and 1960, and Pappy in the 1959 movie version of Li’l Abner. He was also on Bilko with fellow burlesque alum Phil Silvers, performed on the Colgate Comedy Hour, and was the original TV production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1965). Ilya Darling (1967-68) with Orson Bean was his last Broadway show. His last screen credit, appropriately enough, was in The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), which was also the last film of his old burlesque colleague Bert :Lahr.
For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.