Archive for the Television Category

Steve Franken: He’s Everywhere

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2017 by travsd

Today we honor the character comedy contribution of the late actor Steve Franken (1932-2012). The son of a Hollywood agent, Franken had an easy entree into film and tv roles, although he never flew higher than recurring and guest shots on tv, and bits parts on screens big and small. But he was instantly recognizable, almost walys showcased prominently and to advantage.

His first recurring part was as a snooty rich kid on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, although that was before my time. But I grew up watching him in other things. His smallish stature and large staring eyes made him perfect for playing callow, sheltered and privileged young men: mama’s boys, nephews, clueless heirs, and psychiatry patients.

He had a memorable and prominent turn as the drunken butler in Blake Edwards’ The Party (1968):

He played several characters in 7 different episodes of Bewitched including Cousin Henry and Bruce, the Loch Ness Monster.

He’s in five episodes of Love American Style, two of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (as one of Mary’s serious boyfriends). He had a great scene in Westworld (1973) as the terrified technician Richard Benjamin encounters in the desert.

He’s in the “Chopper” episode of Kolchak: The Night StalkerHe’s a shrink in the spooky 1975 movie The Reincarnation of Peter Proud. He plays Molly Picon’s son in Murder on Flight 502He’s a perp in two episodes of Barney Miller. He’s in two Jerry Lewis movies: Which Way to the Front? (1970) and Hardly Working (1981). The Curse of the Pink Panther (1983). On and on, in places expected and unexpected throughout the decades. One of his later credits was in an episodes of Angels and Demons (2009).

It’s Steve Franken’s birthday today. And to my astonishment, yes, he actually is Al Franken’s cousin.

Why I REALLY Love Roger Bowen

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Movies, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2017 by travsd

May 25 is the natal day of the late character actor Roger Bowen (1932-1996). Bowen is best known today for having played Lt. Col. Henry Blake in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970). I didn’t see that film until about a dozen years after it came out, when I was a teenager. I’d long known of its existence, and was a longtime fan of the tv series it spawned, but the original movie was kind of notorious for its racy language, adult situations, and gore — making it out of reach for most kids at the time. It wasn’t until the cable tv and home video era that I first got to see the movie — and loved it so much I watched it dozens of times with my buddies, easily.

The wild thing is, Bowen, who probably seems obscure to younger people today (at least compared to fellow cast members Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Robert Duvall and Tom Skeritt) was probably one of the better known faces when the film came out, and he was certainly well known to me when I first caught it in the early ’80s, although I didn’t know his name. Bowen’s was an exceedingly familiar face from television and movies as a character actor. He was ESPECIALLY popular in tv commercials, for products like Libbys Canned Goods, Chevrolet, Kingsford Charcoal, Bell Telephone etc etc etc.  With his horn-rimmed glasses and upper-class demeanor he specialized in squares and WASPS, businessmen, politicians and the like. He had bit roles in films like Petulia (1968) and Bullitt (1968), and he had guest shots on shows like Love American Style (1973) and The Paul Lynde Show (1973).

I was thrilled when I get to meet and work with his ex-wife and step-son, who operated a small theatre company in New York, a few years ago. I was most effusive in my enthusiasm for Bowen’s work, as I am wont to do. Everything clicked into place when I learned that he was from my home state of Rhode Island. His accent is my accent exactly — it’s rare to hear the “R” pronounced in films as Bowen pronounces it. And doesn’t he seem like a product of the region? It doesn’t take hard work to picture him on a golf course or yacht club in Newport or something. It turns out I am distantly related to him, though my people are definitely the ones who’d be clipping his people’s hedges.

Bowen went to Brown and then went onto graduate work at the University of Chicago, which is where and how he got involved with the Compass Players, which became Second City. He had that excellent comedy training, employed to excellent effect in broader movies like Tunnel Vision (1976) and First Family (1980).

Bowen had also written for his college humor magazine. He went on to write and publish nine novels, which I am most curious to read.  His last credit is a small bit part in Even Cowgirls get the Blues (1993), although he had a bigger speaking part in What About Bob? (1991). He was only 63 when he died of a heart attack in 1996. His death came one day after Mclean Stevenson’s — almost as though God were trying to get rid the world of everyone who had ever played Henry Blake.

Joseph Cotten: Courtliness Personified

Posted in Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2017 by travsd

Joseph Cotten (1905-1994) was born on May 15. The late year of his death surprised me. Cotten’s last film had been in 1981 and I couldn’t imagine him ever not acting. But a stroke felled him in 1981. He eventually recovered sufficiently enough to write a memoir, but he never acted again.

From an old Virginia family, Cotten seemed from another time. This gentle, courtly quality made him perfect for a part in the original Broadway production of the antebellum themed melodrama Jezebel (1933). Orson Welles loved this quality of Cotten’s; in 1934, Cotten was to become a core cast member of the Mercury Theatre as well as its radio component The Mercury Theatre on the Air. In 1939, when Welles and company had gone out to Hollywood, Cotten remained in New York and starred in the original Broadway production of The Philadelphia Story. When it was made into a movie the following year the role he had created onstage went to the far better established Cary Grant.

But Welles was to be his patron once again, giving him key roles in the Mercury’s first three (and only completed) pictures for RKO: Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and Journey Into Fear (1942, which Cotten also co-wrote). Then his Hollywood career began to take off.  Alfred Hitchcock liked Cotten so much he starred him in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Under Capricorn (1949). Among Cotten’s other memorable pictures in the ’40s were: Gaslight (1944), Duel in the Sun (1946), The Farmers Daughter (1947), Portrait of Jennie (1948) and The Third Man (1949).

With Welles once again in “The Third Man”

In the 50s, the magic sort of wore off, although he continued to be featured in copious movies through the middle of the decade, most notably Niagara (1953). He also made cameos in Welles’ Othello (1951) and Touch of Evil (1958). In 1953 he returned to Broadway to star in the original production of Sabrina Fair. As had happened with The Philadelphia Story, he was replaced in the 1954 film version, Sabrina. Cotten’s biggest splash in the ’50s was his tv show: The Joseph Cotten Show: On Trial, which ran from 1956 through 1959.

with de Havilland in “Sweet Charlotte”

I will talk a bit more about the next phase of Cotten’s career in another pioneering post I am working on. You can guess its topic by the film titles: Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), The Oscar (1966), The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Lady Frankenstein (1971),  The Screaming Woman (1972), Baron Blood (1972), The Devil’s Daughter (1973), Soylent Green (1973), Airport ’77, Guyana: Cult of the Damned (1979), and The Hearse (1980). But there was also some far less schlocky movies in there: Petulia (1968), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), A Delicate Balance (1973), and Heaven’s Gate (1980 — I don’t care what it lost at the box office, Heaven’s Gate happens to be a brilliant film, only a moron thinks otherwise). And lots and lots of other movies and tv appearances in there as well. As we say, in 1981 he had a stroke. His autobiography Vanity Will Get You Somewhere was published in 1987.

Doodles Weaver: A Kook in Multiple Media

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2017 by travsd

I discovered Doodles Weaver (1911-1983) by a path that might confound his long time fans. But then, his was a most confounding life and career. I noticed him in the 1971 low budget exploitation horror film The Zodiac Killer. He played a goofy neighbor, and like I often do, I semi-recognized him. I went, “That’s gotta be somebody! Who is that?” But remember the surroundings: this was a Grade Z cheapie of a movie; like a lot of similar low budget movies of the time, it literally looks like a home movie. 95% of the cast are amateur non-actors.

Weaver in “The Zodiac Killer”

Reasons why it’s odd to find him in such surroundings: 1) he was of wealthy family and very old American WASP stock; and 2) he wasn’t a nobody, he had a certain measure of mainstream fame.

And yet a reason why it wasn’t so odd to find him in this movie: he kind of showed up everywhere and did everything; this was true throughout his career.

Of his family: his full name was Winstead Sheffield Glenndenning Dixon Weaver. “Doodles” is one of those humiliating WASP nicknames. I’ve known Trips, Crickets, Corkys, Bunnys, etc. He was one of those. His older brother was Pat Weaver, President of NBC, and the creator of The Today Show, among much else. Pat’s daughter Sigourney Weaver achieved fame after Doodles had passed away.

Doodles went to Stanford, where he wrote for the campus humor magazine. In the ’30s, he seems to show up immediately on radio, without the usual early formative period in vaudeville and night clubs. This was probably through the help and influence of Pat, who was already producing Fred Allen’s Town Hall Tonight by the mid-30s. Doodle was a semi-regular guest on Rudy Vallee’s show and Kraft Music Hall. At the same time, he was getting bit parts in Hal Roach and Columbia comedies, supporting such comedians as Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges. From the mid to late 1940s, he was a star of Spike Jones band and radio show, achieving even greater fame.

Spoke Jones, left, Weaver. center

1951 was probably the peak of his career, when he had his own television comedy variety show The Doodles Weaver Show, which made full use of Doodles’ mugging and face pulling abilities. It’s both anomalous and delightful. This educated, well-off man, whose sensibilities were so unpretentious and low-brow. During these same years he wrote for Mad magazine!

“A Day with Doodles”

He continued to be a frequent presence on tv after his show went off the air, on Spike Jones show, Batman, The Monkees. In 1965 he starred in a series of kiddie show segments called A Day with Doodles (1965). In 1966 he released a parody version of “Eleanor Rigby”!

And he continued to play bit parts in movies. I had seen him in films countless times prior to The Zodiac Killer, which is clearly why I recognized him. He played the hardware store owner in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). He’s the boat operator in The Birds (1963). He’s in Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor (1963) and Which Way to the Front (1970)! He’s in Kitten with a Whip (1964)!  He’s in William Castle’s The Spirit is Willing (1967). He’s in Bob Hope’s last movie Cancel My Reservation (1972)!

So how he wound up in The Zodiac Killer is both confusing and not confusing. On the one hand, he didn’t have to. He was famous and clearly had famous friends who were happy to showcase him. Did he lose a bet? Was he doing someone a favor? On the OTHER hand, he sort of did everything. His career was a bit of “throwing spaghetti at the wall.”

He’s still doing his usual sort of turns throughout the 70s. He’s in movies like Banjo Hackett (1976) and Won Ton Ton, The Dog That Saved Hollywood (1976). He’s on Starsky and Hutch and Fantasy Island. His last film was the independent science fiction film Earthbound (1981), starring Burl Ives.

Then, in 1983, Weaver’s sad and shocking death by suicide. Apparently despondent over ill health, he shot himself twice in the chest. His body was discovered by his son. It’s a Hollywood ending not out-of-step with the tone of The Zodiac Killer. 

Bob Hastings: From Christmasland to Character Man

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2017 by travsd

Well, here’s a wonderful surprise: familiar character actor Bob Hastings (1925-2014) had an old school show biz background as a kiddie performer.

First: you recognize him, right? The first place I can be sure I saw him was in The Poseidon Adventure (1972). He has a small but memorable and highly visible part as the master of ceremonies of the New Year’s Party — he’s the guy who leads the count-down to midnight.

But he also played Lt. Carpenter on McHale’s Navy (1962-1966), which I watched in re-runs as a kid.

And he was also Kelsey the bartender, a recurring role, on All in the Family (1971-1976). These were pretty much his peak visibility years. He was also in several films during these years, like Disney’s The Boatniks (1970) and the Don Knotts movies The Love God (1969) and How to Frame a Figg (1971).

So I totally know who that guy is!  But then he turns up in a 1938 Vitaphone musical short called Toyland Casino as 13 year old Bobby Hastings in rustic highland clothes and sings “In the Gloaming”!

Hastings had started out on NBC children’s radio program Coast to Coast on a Bus with such fellow stars as Ann Blyth, Walter Tetley, and Jackie Kelk. After bomber service in World War II, he returned to radio, and perhaps his greatest stardom in the part of Archie in the radio version of Archie comics, which ran from 1945 to 1953.

Publicity still: Hastings as Archie

One of his first recurring tv roles was on Sgt. Bilko, establishing a recurring theme in his career: his characters were frequently in uniform. After the 1980s, most of his acting gigs were voice-overs for animated cartoon series. For example he voiced Batman’s Commissioner Gordon in the 1990s:

Bob Hastings passed away just a couple of years ago! Today is his birthday.

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Señor Wences: S’Alright

Posted in Television, TV variety, Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2017 by travsd

Born today in 1896 in Salamanca, Spain: the great ventriloquist Wenceslao Moreno, better known to American audiences as Señor Wences. After having written about a couple of thousand variety artists, actors and other performers over the past 8 years, it seems a shocking lapse that I haven’t written a proper post about this key 20th century performer until today. He fell through the cracks! I had initially made a very cursory post (he arrived in the U.S too late for American vaudeville, my initial focus here), and then afterwards I kept assuming I had done one, but I hadn’t yet. Today we redress the lapse.

Señor Wences was nearly 40 years old and a well-polished veteran of the music halls, cabarets and night clubs of Europe prior to his first arrival in the U.S. in the mid 1930s to perform at New York’s Club Chico. By this time, the American vaudeville circuits were dead, so the word “vaudevillian” when applied to him, while accurate, is true only in the broader sense. He played night clubs and resorts in the U.S.in his early years.

His best known character, Johnny (above) was created by drawing a face on his hand, and then attaching a body below it. A lot of humor was generated by the fast interchanges between himself and the character, as well as by his thick Spanish accent, and his treating of Johnny, with his falsetto voice, as a mischievous young child. In 1936 he created his second best known character, Pedro, essentially just a head in a box, when one of his dummies was destroyed on the way to a gig:

Another favorite bit had him answering a telephone and providing the voice at the other end. As you can see, his act was very original — he had great fun using all manner of offbeat props and “partners” that were quite different from the typical ventriloquism dummies, which probably becoming quite tiresome and “old hat” to audiences by the mid-20th century. He also did juggling and plate spinning.

His great boon was the advent of television in the late 1940s, and he started to become a familiar and regular sight on all the variety shows and talk shows: Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, and Jack Paar all had him as a guest, and his catchphrase: “S’alright? S’alright!” become universally known. He was still popular on tv in my own time, and I saw him places like The Mike Douglas Show, The Muppet Show, Late Night with David Letterman, and a very popular series of Parkay Margarine commercials.

Señor Wences was still performing well in the 1980s, and passed away in 1999 at the age of 103.

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Harvey Lembeck: High and Low

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2017 by travsd

Harvey Lembeck (1923-1982) was born on April 15.  Lembeck is a wonderful illustration of a transitional time in American show business. As with Gabe Dell of the Dead End Kids, there is surprising seriousness and depth to his artistry. Those who know only his most famous roles will probably guffaw to see me use those words (seriousness, depth) in association with him. But attention must be paid!

Transitional, I said. Lembeck was one of the last to come into his career in a very old school show biz kind of way, starting out as part of a dance act with his wife called The Dancing Carrolls. They performed at the 1939 New York Worlds Fair! If vaudeville were still around, they would have been in it. Then he served in World War Two, then prepared for a career in radio (he actually majored in it at NYU). Instead, right after graduation he got cast in the original Broadway production of Mr. Roberts in the part of Insigna. After this he was in both the stage and screen versions of Stalag 17, and several other Broadway and regional theatre productions. Theatre would always be an important part of his life.

Lembeck was a serious actor, but obviously something about his “authenticity” is what got him frequently cast, particularly in service comedies and the like — because they always have a guy from Brooklyn. (Lembeck was from Brooklyn — could there be any doubt?) So in 1955 he was cast as Barbella, Phil Silvers’ sidekick on Sgt. Bilko. Here he is with Silvers and co-star Allan Melvin:

That cushy gig lasted four years. For a tantalizing but brief time, Lembeck got good roles in all sorts of movies : he’s in the screen adaptation of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge (1962), the romantic melodrama Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), and the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), But as happens so often in the modern era, he got cast in that one role that became indelible and essentially swallowed up the rest of his career.

In 1963 he was cast as Eric Von Zipper in the movie Beach Party, with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. A loose parody of Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones, the comical character is the witless leader of an equally dumb biker gang. I’ve always been particularly amused by the fact that Lembeck was 40 years old — twice the age of the other kids at the beach –when he started playing this role. The bikers are the bad guys in all the beach party movies, and to my mind, the best thing about them. Lembeck only did this for three years, until the beach party movie craze died out, but it’s a LOT of movies, including also Bikini Beach (1964), Pajama Party (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965), and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966). In Chain of Fools I wrote a bit about these films as one of the last vestiges of classic comedy, for there is a continuity, including the frequent presence of Buster Keaton in the casts, and old time silent comedy directors like Norman Taurog at the helm. It’s why I mention Gabe Dell in this context: the Dead End Kids too were among the last classic comedy hold-outs, and like Lembeck, Dell was also a serious stage actor. (Lembeck later taught acting — his Harvey Lembeck Comedy Workshop in LA turned out such distinguished acolytes as John Ritter, John Larroquette and Robin Williams*.)

After the Beach Party films Lembeck continued to work steadily, but mostly in television guest shots, many of them referencing his beach party movie past. One notable exception is the 1969 comedy Hello Down There (a movie I saw a few times when I was a kid, and am dying to see again because I haven’t seen it since). He passed away on the set of Mork and Mindy in 1982, and I can’t think of a better place. He was working.

* Thanks for the reminder, John Smith.

To find out more about vaudeville and show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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