Archive for the Sit Coms Category

Henry Jones: Quietly Indispensable

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2017 by travsd

The great character actor Henry Jones (1912-1999) was born on this day. Jones’ laconic manner made him perfect for rural types, though he was from Philadelphia and the grandson of a Congressman. Yet he was also enough of an obvious WASP to play satirical corporate characters. His bemused nature and unusual voice (both high pitched and gravelly) meant he was usually used for comic purposes. Jones’ characters often seemed angry and impatient or insinuating, but also ineffectual. He knew how to use his huge eyes for maximum effect, but he’d never lift a finger to harm you — not because he was angelic, but because he was lazy or too comfortable. Though he started out as an actor in his 20s, he was definitely one of those actors who made the most sense in middle age.

Jones played supernumerary parts in Maurice Evans’ Broadway productions of Hamlet and Henry IV, Part One in 1938, 1939 and 40, and was a replacement in the original production of William Saroryan’s The Time of Your Life in 1940. He continued to work on Broadway and also broke into film and television in the 1940s, but didn’t really make his mark until the mid 50s, with George S . Kaufman’s The Solid Gold Cadillac (1953-1955) on Broadway and both the stage and screen versions of The Bad Seed (1954-55 and 1956 respectively). Frank Tashlin loved him, using him in The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) and (one of his best roles), as Tony Randall’s boss in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) (“Eh, Rocky Boy?”). He’s the callous coroner in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). He returned to Broadway for two more major plays, the original productions of Sunrise at Campobello (1958-1959) and Advise and Consent (1960-1961). The rest is all movies and lots of tv (over 150 credits). He was especially useful in westerns, especially comical ones: 3:10 to Yuma (1956), Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Dirty Dingus McGee (1970), Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County (1970) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1961). And, one of his most highly visible gigs, as Chloris Leachman’s father-in-law in the tv series Phyllis (1975-77). As a kid I watched him with keen interest and enjoyment in this role. He was also a regular on the short-lived Mrs. Columbo (1979-1980), and several other high profile shows. Late in his career he was still appearing in big movies like The Grifters (1990), Dick Tracy (1990), and Arachnophobia (1990). His last credit was in 1995.

Vivian Vance of “I Love Lucy”: Gave As Good As She Got

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Sit Coms, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2017 by travsd

Vivian Vance (Vivian Robert Jones, 1909-1979) has a birthday today. I wrote about Vance’s three I Love Lucy co-stars ages ago; there’s a reason I’m only getting around to her now. Her background was quite a bit different than Lucille Ball’s, Desi Arnaz’s or William Frawley’s. Though she did appear in Broadway musicals, unlike the others she was not a creature of vaudeville, night clubs, or dance chorus lines. She was studious, serious about her art.

She was originally from Cherryvale, Kansas, where one of her childhood friends was Louise Brooks. Later she moved to Independence and studied drama with William Inge and Anna Ingleman. Next came Albuquerque, and then finally, New York, where was able to study with Eva La Gallienne. 

Her first Broadway show was Music in the Air (1932-1933); she was in the vocal ensemble. Then came two Cole Porter hits. She was in the original production of Anything Goes (1934-1935) as Babe, and as Ethel Merman’s understudy in the lead part of Reno Sweeney. (See photo above; that is a good match for an understudy). She was also in Porter’s next show Red, Hot and Blue (1936-1937), also with Merman, as well as Bob Hope and Jimmy Durante. She replaced Kay Thompson in Hooray for What (1937), and continued to work steadily on Broadway throughout the next decade, culminating with a revival of The Cradle Will Rock in 1947.

“Hands off, Grandpa!”

She moved to Hollywood after that, getting one tv part and two small roles in movies before she was spotted in a play at La Jolla Playhouse and cast in I Love Lucy (1951-57). Typically this “fourth spot” in a two pair sit-com group dynamic is the weakest one, a “last but least role” (e.g. Joyce Randolph in The Honeymooners). But Vance was bursting with liveliness and personality. To this day she has a huge fan base; she’s certainly as beloved as any of the other three. (Well, to be fair, who’s going to bat for William Fawley?)

A smile to light up a room

There was a certain awkwardness to her casting, however. Lucy was only two years younger than she was; and Frawley was over 20 years older than she. To be named “Ethel” is like a code word for “frumpy friend”. Vance had a matronly appearance and was filling out at this point in her life. Many assumed she was of Frawley’s generation, an impression helped by the occasional allusions on the show to the pair’s “vaudeville days”. Vance’s sharp way with a line, and her hilarious dismissal of Fred’s wishes on most occasion was a key part of the show’s formula, and apparently rooted in some reality. The pair didn’t like each other. He was stung by her cracks about his age, so he decided to cast her as an inexperienced, untalented greenhorn, and berated her on that basis. At that point she had been in show business for 20 years, but Frawley had been performing for over 40. So she called him a dinosaur; he called her “a sack of hammers”. This was offscreen. They disliked each other so much, Vance turned down a chance to co-star in a sit-com with Frawley. She was that glad to be rid of him.

As so often happens to tv stars, the public forever closely associated Vance with the part of Ethel, and most of her work going forward was to be Lucy-based: The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1957-1960), The Lucy Show (1962-1968), Here’s Lucy (1968-1972), and Lucy Calls the President (1977), one of her last roles. But she did occasionally get other work. She was a semi-regular on The Red Skelton Hour (1960-1964), she’s in the Blake Edwards comedy The Great Race (1965), and The Great Houdini (1976), the made-for-tv bio pic starring Paul Michael Glaser of Starsky and Hutch. 

She was only 70 when she died of cancer.

Estelle Getty: Comedy’s Grandma Moses

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2017 by travsd

We’re in the midst of a Golden Girls Renaissance these days; it seems like entire cable networks are devoted to showing it in reruns. I’m sure this is why it occurred to me to do something on Estelle Getty (Estelle Scher, 1923-2008). When Golden Girls originally aired, I frankly wasn’t much inclined to look at a sit-com about a bunch of old ladies, much as I loved and respected some of the cast members. But in recent months, I chanced to tune into some of these tv marathons, and, discovered that, damn, the writing and acting on the show is so jaw-droppingly funny. And yes, it’s significant that the show’s about a previously overlooked demographic (female senior citizens), blah blah blah, but why waste your time if it isn’t very good? But it was very good.

Getty, people delight in pointing out, was actually younger than Bea Arthur, who played her daughter. But she was petite and compact, and earthy and urban in that first generation immigrant way, which gave one the impression that she was from an earlier generation. And her professional background was very old school. She is said to have gotten her start doing Yiddish theatre, and performing in Catskills resorts.

She was nearly 40 when she got her first big break, playing the mother in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway (1982-1985). At the same time, she began to get small roles in movies like Tootsie (1982) and Mask (1985). The Golden Girls debuted in 1985; that show and its sequels and spin offs kept her employed for a decade. And Getty was pretty great on the show, although, I will say my comparison to Grandma Moses is apt in ways beyond her mere age. Like the famous folk painter, she was a “natural”. She worked in the role because she was perfect for it and she could deliver a funny line. By comparison, Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan were histrionic professionals, who could chew scenery and manufacture tears by the bucketful. (Betty White is also an actress but her character on the show, like Getty’s, was more of a joke machine). Getty could do this one thing, and people loved her so much she became a surprise star as a result of the series, even winning an Emmy in 1988. But, I think you’ll notice, in scenes that require depth and pathos, she was uncomfortable with it. She’d much rather bark a salty line.

Getty continued to do guest shots on television until the turn of the century, and was in a couple of notable movies. Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot (1992) with Sylvester Stalone has been excoriated by critics as one of the worst movies ever (it earned an astounding 4% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes). And she played Grandma Estelle in the modern family classic Stuart Little (1999). When she passed away, three days prior to her 85th birthday, she was finally reaching the age of her Golden Girls character, which she’d begun playing when she was only 62.

Benny’s Bride: The Elusive Mary Livingstone

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2017 by travsd

On this day was born was born the funny, if accidental, comedienne Mary Livingstone (Sadie Marcowitz, sometimes shortened to Marks, 1905-1983).

Livingstone grew up in Vancouver. The lore is that she met Jack Benny when Zeppo Marx brought him to a Passover seder at her family’s house circa 1919. For many years it was generally believed that Mary was a cousin of the Marx Brothers, probably on the strength of this episode and the similarity of their surnames (the Marx Bros occasionally spelled their last name “Marks” during their stage years), but it appears now not to have been the case. At any rate, she became something of a Benny groupie, purposefully crossing the comedian’s path many times until he began dating her. They married in 1927.

She appeared with him many times on the vaudeville stage, still under her given name at first. Her role in these years was more like the popular “Dumb Dora”, after the fashion of Gracie Allen.  In 1932, Benny got his own radio show, and Livingstone was to become part of his stock company, along with regulars Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, Kenny Baker (later replaced with Dennis Day), Phil Harris and many others. As such she became one of the best known personalities in the country. Her radio character was funny, acerbic and dry; she was perfect for Benny’s show.

Livingstone remained part of Benny’s radio cast until his show went off the air in 1955. She also made scores of appearances on television, on Benny’s program and others’ throughout the 1950s. The irony of this very public person’s life was that she was afflicted with stage fright, and was only able to perform through a great effort of will. Her joining Benny in vaudeville and on radio occurred in both cases because she was asked to fill emergency vacancies. She hadn’t sought a performing career at all. She retired in 1959, soon after Gracie Allen. Livingstone seems to have been a very tense, highly strung woman, not well liked. After hearing her performances, where she jovially banters with the top stars of the day, one is surprised to read that long-time colleagues and social friends like Lucille Ball and George Burns and Gracie Allen and even her adopted daughter Joan didn’t really like her, finding her cold, hard and distant. Her fans didn’t see her that way at all. She outlived Benny by nearly a decade, passing away in 1983.

To learn more about show business history, including vaudeville veterans like Mary Livingstone and Jack Benny, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Andy Griffith: Good Cracker

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2017 by travsd

Andy Griffith was born on June 1, 1926. Look at that face! It seems strange to exist in a world without him. He and his best known character seem like Benjamin Franklin or something, part of the bedrock of America. While he occasionally played villains (in fact, his best known role, apart from Andy Taylor, was a villain), Griffith seemed to radiate decency, a good heart, and sound judgment — our fantasy of what we’d love a small town sheriff to be. (As opposed to the dude who catches you in his speed trap, glares at you impassively through his sunglasses, chucks you in a cell when you can’t pay his “fine” and then kicks the shit out of you while calling you a “Yankee”).

Griffith defied the Southern stereotype in all sorts of ways. Born and bred in rural Mt Airy, North Carolina (on the Virginia border) he discovered singing, acting and playing musical instruments when in high school and was strongly encouraged by some wise teachers in those pursuits. Later he attended the University of North Carolina. Something clicked into place when I read that he appeared for several years in one of Paul Green’s historical pageants called The Lost Colony. I have yet to blog about Green, an interesting figure whom I learned about through my studies of the Group Theatre. Green’s play The House of Connelly was the Group Theatre’s first production. It was one of the things I was thinking about when I named my play House of Trash. 

In the 50s, Griffith first gained widespread notice as a comedy monologist and storyteller in nightclubs. His 1953 comedy record What It Was, Was Football became a popular seller.

This led to him being cast as the lead in the tv, Broadway and film versions of Ira Levin’s No Time for Sergeants (tv and stage versions were 1955; film was 1958). His character in the story was a cheerful rube and bumpkin, which formed much of the basis for the Andy Griffith spin-off series Gomer Pyle, USMC. 

In 1957, he enjoyed what ought to have been a cinematic breakthrough. He was cast as the lead in Elia Kazan’s amazing film A Face in the Crowd. Written by Budd Schulberg, it’s a political story about a seemingly affable good old boy named Lonesome Rhodes who becomes enormously popular on records, television and in films as a folk singer…but then becomes power mad, not just for success in show business but for political office. He’s a crazy demagogue using the power of television just as Huey Long had used radio a couple of decades earlier. It seems clearly inspired by the phenomenon of Elvis Presley, who had no such political designs, but might have been a formidable and damaging force if he had. This dystopian vision would see a later incarnation in the 1968 acid nightmare Wild in the Streets. And then, in 2016, the nightmare became true when a ruthless tv reality star became President of the United States, which is why interest in A Face in the Crowd has been increasing over the last several months, just as copies of The Origins of Totalitarianism have been flying off the shelves.

Anyway, Griffith is incredible in it, just an explosion of raw, animal power. People didn’t know what to make of the film at the time; reviews were mixed. In some ways it might have seemed a career killer for Griffith to play a character so similar to himself, and yet so ugly. (For another example, there’s Milton Berle’s 1949 Always Leave Them Laughing, where Berle’s character is a total jerk who seems oddly like…Milton Berle).

Griffith’s electric performance did not lead to a stellar movie career, but Griffith did come to dominate television for three and a half decades. He had a guest shot on Danny Thomas’s Make Room for Daddy in 1960 in which he played a southern sheriff. This led to his own series, (produced by Thomas and Sheldon Leonard), The Andy Griffith Show, which ran from 1960 through 1968 (Griffith left in 1967).

This show (in re-runs) was a major staple in my home when I was growing up. It’s mesmerizing, not just for the terrific writing and acting, but for its level of FANTASY. In a way, it is just as unreal a TV show as Bewitched or I Dream of Jeanie. It takes place in an idyllic Southern town called Mayberry, North Carolina, clearly based on Griffith’s home town of Mt. Airy. But while it takes place in contemporary times (the 1960s) the town’s quiet, isolated nature feels as though it were happening in much earlier times, decades earlier. People seem to spend all day sitting on porches in rocking chairs, swatting flies, catching fish, having picnics. Most episodes, a stranger will drive into town, stirrin’ up trouble of one kind or another, interrupting the placid stillness of this rural Shangri La.

The only kind of people who DON’T drive up, or live there to begin with, are BLACK people. And this would be exceedingly odd in a North Carolina town, would it not? Furthermore, the entire show aired during the Civil Rights Era, when interracial strife was happening throughout the country. The omission is glaring; it speaks volumes. But the creators of the show were on the horns of a dilemma. More than one actually. This was a time of transition. America was ostensibly past the era of overt, intentional racism in entertainment, the ridiculing of African Americans, the hiring of actors like Stepin Fetchit or Mantan Moreland to be the butt of jokes. And Griffith was a liberal; that wouldn’t have been his style anyway. (He later campaigned for Barack Obama). But, unless you did a period show, there’d be NO WAY to include African Americans without talking about the changes going on in the country (as in later shows like I’ll Fly Away or In The Heat of the Night). And that was far beyond what anyone in tv was ready for at that stage. It wasn’t until the advent of All in the Family (1971) that that line would be crossed. And yet you couldn’t NOT talk about it either! How do you show black people in a Southern town without showing racists? That would be even more of a fantasy! So the solution seemed to be to set the show in an alternate universe where there were NO black people in North Carolina. The unintentional (I think) by-product ends up being just as racist in the long run. The producers didn’t just avoid controversy — they wrote black people out of the story of America. There’s something Orwellian about it.

Griffith said in later years that he was embarrassed about his acting in the first couple of seasons of the show, which hearkened back to the country rube he had played in No Time for Sergeants. But eventually he found his stride, which was, as sheriff, was to be the straight man in a town full of crazies. He kept his cool, and let everyone else in town be the nitwits. In this, he set a template that would be riffed on in many a later show: such as the titular character in Barney Miller, or Alex Reiger in Taxi. The job is to be the sensible guy, who solves everyone else’s problem’s. His genius comedy partner was Don Knotts, whom he’d worked with in No Time for Sergeants. As Deputy Barney Fife, Knotts job was to go overboard, and LOSE his head, and the chemistry and the acting between them was stellar. Other characters included Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier), his son Opie (Ron Howard, who became one of Hollywood’s top film directors), Floyd the barber (Hoard McNear), Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), Goober (George Lindsey), County Clerk, Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson), Otis the town drunk (Hal Smith), Emmet the handyman (Paul Hartman) and the crazy hillbilly Ernest T. Bass (Howard Morris) and many others. It all adds up to something like Our Town. But we regret that it exists in a parallel universe that only includes Anglo-Saxons. Which I guess means it’s not YOUR town?

Griffith left the show early and very much on purpose so that he could pursue other projects. Other series were tried, and failed. He was in a lot of memorable tv movies, though. He’s in the notorious anti-drug film Go Ask Alice (1973). He played a cop who actually solves crimes in Winter Kill (1974). When he was cast in movies for cinematic release, they tended to cast him as parodies of himself, as in Hearts of the West (1975) and Rustlers Rhapsody (1985). And of course, he became the highly visible pitchman for Ritz Crackers, inspiring the title for this post. We thought that campaign was hilarious when it came out, both for how it played on Griffith’s persona, but also became of the lameness of the slogan. But ya know what? We did imitations of it incessantly — and that is what advertising is all about.

Then, amazingly, his career got another burst of wind when he played a small town southern lawyer in Matlock (1986-1995). This show aired precisely when I was watching very little tv. To this date I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an entire episode. Although, my former brother-in-law, who was a musician in the L.A. area, was hired to play guitar in the background on one episode, and got to chat with the gracious Griffith, who played guitar himself — as if you didn’t know.

Griffith passed away in 2012. His last screen credit was in 2009.

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

The Many Roles of Melvin Allan, I Mean, Allan Melvin

Posted in Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2017 by travsd

allan_melvin

Today is the birthday of tv character actor and voice-over artist Allan Melvin (1923-2008). Don’t shout out just yet where you know him from — the odds are quite good that you know him from more than you are remembering where you know him from.

After attending Columbia University and fighting in World War Two, Melvin won first place on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (he was skilled at impressions, among other things.) His break was a role in the original Broadway production of Stalag 17 (1951-1952), which lead to his getting cast as Henshaw on Sgt. Bilko (1955-1959) with Phil Silvers:

allan-melvin-03

Then he was the voice of Sgt. Snorkle on the short-lived 1963 Beetle Bailey cartoon show (and wrote two episodes!):

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He provided the voice of Magilla Gorilla on various Hanna-Barbera cartoon shows from 1963 through 1994. Can you match the voice with the visage?

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Then he found himself back on another service comedy, as a semi-regular on Gomer Pyle USMC (1964-1969), playing Charlie Hacker, Sgt. Carter’s rival:

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In 1969 he provided the voice of Drooper (the lion) on The Banana Splits:

dropper

Next he was Sam the Butcher on The Brady Bunch (1969-1974), which I’ll just bet is his best known character nowadays:

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And also he was Barney Hefner on All in the Family (1971-1979) and Archie Bunker’s Place (1979-1983).

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This must be some kind of record for being a series regular, right? (I ask rhetorically, I’m uninterested in learning the factual truth about who the record holder might be). And we haven’t even gotten to all the shows on which he (or his voice) did frequent guest shots (The Flintstones, The Andy Griffith Show, Love American Style), and dozens more. And all the tv commercials.

He just had the perfect face and voice — “ordinary” is what they used to call it, but that’s wrong, because actually his persona was far more memorable than so many so-called “leading man” types.  If you’re bland and forgettable, isn’t that ordinary? Anyway, you know his face and voice. You should know his name: Melvin Allan — I mean, Allan Melvin.

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