R.I.P. Conrad Janis

I’m sure I’ll be roundly ridiculed for this, but while the rest of the blogosphere has been mourning the untimely passing of William Hurt since last night, I am going to have to take the Road Less Traveled today and memorialize instead Conrad Janis (b. 1928) who left us on March 1 at the age of 94. Not due to “Age Before Beauty” or that I didn’t like Hurt (I was a particular fan of his first film, Altered States, which I first saw, like most of his early movies, in a cinema on its initial release) but because Janis is more relevant to our usual themes, and I was planning to write about him at some point anyway, having already mentioned him here on Travalanche a good half dozen times.

I was delighted to learn this morning that our subject’s father, Sidney Janis (1896-1989) is every bit as fascinating as his son. Originally from Buffalo, Janis pere had been a dancer in vaudeville (!) before making a pile of dough manufacturing shirts, which allowed him to become an important art dealer and writer in collaboration with his wife (Conrad’s mother) Harriet Grossman. He was an early collector and proponent of Modernists starting in the 1920s, opened his own gallery, was on the Board of MOMA, and later became an even more instrumental champion of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. He organized exhibitions, wrote books, and was instrumental in the lives and careers of most of the major painters of the 20th century. But that’s its own post — really, its own book.

Conrad was therefore born into a life of wealth and culture. He was only 13 when he began acting professionally in live theatre and radio. In 1945, aged 17 he debuted on Broadway (Dark of the Moon) and his first Hollywood movie (Snafu, with Robert Benchley and Vera Vague). I’ve always thought Janis resembled Frank Sinatra a little — he’d have been well cast as his goofy brother. He normally got Eddie Bracken type roles in his youth. Later when he became as bald as a cure ball, he was a sort of visual template for Jason Alexander. Throughout his career, he was great at comic exasperation. At any rate, in rapid succession he was in the movies Margie (1946) with Jeanne Crain, The Brasher Doubloon (1947) with George Montgomery, That Hagen Girl (1947) with Shirley Temple and Ronald Reagan, and Beyond Glory (1948) with Alan Ladd and Donna Reed. Throughout the 1950s he alternated work in live television dramas with roles in Broadway plays, the most significant was probably Gore Vidal’s A Visit to a Small Planet (1957). In 1958 he played Julia LaRosa’s manager in Let’s Rock (1958).

Constantly on TV throughout the ’60s, on things like My Favorite Martian and Get Smart, he suddenly became much more visible in the mid 1970s, and this is the stuff I first knew him in. He’s one of a trio of hilarious drunks (with Jerry Stiller and Norman Fell) in Airport 1975. After guest shots on Happy Days and Maude, he was a regular on one of my all-time favorite sitcoms, Quark (1977), followed by by his most famous stint as Mindy’s dad on Mork and Mindy (1987-1982). Meanwhile he was also in the movies The Happy Hooker (1975), The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976), The Buddy Holly Story (1978), Oh God Book II (1980) and Brewster’s Millions (1985).

At the same time (much like his Duchess and Dirtwater Fox co-star George Segal) he had his own Dixieland Jazz Band, which he led and played trombone in starting in 1949. His band was featured in the Broadway show Marathon ’33 (1963), played numerous times at Carnegie Hall, and was featured on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen and later with Johnny Carson multiple times, in addition to countless other dates over the decades.

Later screen credits for Janis included appearances on The Golden Girls and Frasier, and roles in the films Mr. Saturday Night (1992) and The Cable Guy (1996). In 2012 he directed and starred in a horror film called Bad Blood with Piper Laurie, written by his wife Maria Grimm. That was his final screen credit.

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For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.