Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An Interview with Will Jordan - Part Six

Will Jordan: I never got to meet Jackie Gleason. At the famous Paramount Theater in New York they did The Honeymooners on that stage. I don't remember what the circumstance was, but I went backstage to see [Art] Carney. He said, "Oh, I've got to have you meet Jackie," but it never happened. I think I could have got along very well with Gleason. He liked Frank Fontaine. Aside from the fact that Frank Fontaine was a very big drinker, a very nice man and very funny, he was also a mimic. Several different places you can hear his impressions and he was very good. He had a very nice singing voice. He was originally discovered by Jack Benny. Jack Benny once said on the air, "I can't look at him!" Meaning that he would laugh so hard if he did. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Right.

Will Jordan: So, Frank Fontaine was not an unknown. He was signed to 20th Century Fox and he did do bits. It wasn't until he met Gleason [that he broke through]. Gleason changed the name of his character - from John L.C. Silvoney to Crazy Guggenheim.

Kliph Nesteroff: I...

Will Jordan: I don't know if I told you this yesterday. The rumor was that the character was really a sweepstakes winner from a 1930s news short. Frank took that and made it funny. The laugh and all that kind of stuff. When I played The Steel Pier in Atlantic City with him, the dressing rooms were huge and I was working there with the McGuire Sisters who had hundreds of dresses. Here comes Frank Fontaine - no costume, nothing hanging in these empty closets and no make-up (laughs). I said, "Where's your make-up?" He said (slurring), "I don't use no make-up!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Will Jordan: A very nice man. A very nice man.

Kliph Nesteroff: Gleason helped several performers come to greater prominence including Al Kelly and the Professor Irwin Corey.

Will Jordan: Yes, and he helped the guy... oh, I can't think of his name now. Had one hair sticking up and crossed his eyes. A real one-shot thing. When I got to be friendly with Dick Cavett, briefly we had the same manager...

Kliph Nesteroff: Jack Rollins.

Will Jordan: Jack Rollins, whose name you see on all the Woody Allen movies. Cavett said this guy came on to him. I said, "God, of all the people in the world (laughs) he looks the least gay." But I could understand why gays would like Dick Cavett. He looks like this cute little boy, but Dick Cavett wasn't gay. He was married to this beautiful... he's another one of these people that does one of these things that I find fascinating. Nobody agrees with me. They marry someone with the exact same face! The woman that Cavett married was this big, tall, beautiful dancer - her features were identical. Same shape nose and everything. I think people do this all the time.

Eddie [Fisher] and Debbie [Reynolds] looked alike and Steve and Eydie. It's amazing how many people look alike. I'm not talking about people that resemble each other with time. That's different. I'm talking about the initial attraction when you're falling in love with your own image. It does happen. Then again I've never fallen in love with a girl that looks like me (laughs), that's for sure! Anything somehow connected to impressions - I find fascinating. There's a book out there - I can't remember what it's called, but it's about "back-ups." Let me tell you what I mean. 

Don DeFore was a back-up for Jack Carson. That doesn't necessarily mean he copied him or that you think he looked like him. The back-up for Jane Wyman was Janis Paige. There were several others. A lot of guys wanted to be Barrymore. I got this straight from the horse's mouth. Frederic March told me, "My whole life was imitating John Barrymore." The one that really sounded and looked like him and was so underrated was Warren William.

Kliph Nesteroff: My favorite.

Will Jordan: One of these amazing guys that could be wonderful or terrible. Ian Keith was another. He was marvelous in The Crusades. He ended up playing Vitamin Flintheart in the Dick Tracy films. Great Shakespearean actor.

Kliph Nesteroff: Warren William is one of those actors that if he's in the film I'll watch it. I don't care what it is.

Will Jordan: Yes. He's not good in several films. Every once in a while the actors break out of character and do a little Shakespearean bit. In one of the Warren William films for a moment he breaks into Shakespeare for a bit and it's just wonderful. Another one, if you want to see just a split second of great acting in a movie in which it is completely out of place - the original Three Godfathers with Chester Morris. Watch Lewis Stone dying. A wonderful actor, Lewis Stone, who played Andy Hardy's father. He just does this great death, "Tomorrow... and tomorrow..." It's just magnificent. You just want to see this little clip. Sheer gold.

Kliph Nesteroff: Chester Morris was a horrible actor. I enjoy those awful Boston Blackie films with all my heart... but he's a terrible actor.

Will Jordan: Very big on stage though. Huge stage actor. Very, very big. Donald Cook was a giant on stage. The one that I felt had the greatest difference between stage and film, and I was lucky enough to see him on stage, was Paul Kelly. Paul Kelly on stage was a master. That did not come across in movies. He wasn't bad, but had you seen Country Girl on stage - marvelous. One of the greatest compliments I ever got was when we were doing the TV show Kopykats. I was sitting with a very nice man named David Janssen, who loved Clark Gable. The rumor was that he was Gable's illegitimate son. 

Extremely nice, modest man. His ears were actually bigger than Gable's. Someone said to me that if you imitate Clark Gable and Cary Grant at the same time, I thought it was a joke, but then I thought about it and they were right. If you put them together it would sound like David Janssen. It was true. Anyway, it's hard to explain this. They played a clip of me on Kopykats doing Gable. I had make-up on, but no prothsetics. He did not say one word, Janssen. He looked at the screen, then he looked back at me. That was the greatest compliment I ever got in my life. The look on his face. He was silent. He was so knocked-out by it, he didn't even talk.

Kliph Nesteroff: I want to ask you about another instance in your career. I read that you were on a program hosted by Robert Q. Lewis called The Show Goes On.

Will Jordan: All of those shows were spin-offs of Robert Q. Lewis being the man who substituted for Arthur Godfrey.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right.

Will Jordan: The others were Steve Allen and Peter Lind Hayes. The story goes, and it might be true and it might not be true, was that [CBS President William S.] Paley's second wife, who was this magnificent woman... her nickname was Babe and she was supposed to be the grandest, most wonderful woman in the world. She was against Paley hiring these old timers from radio like Jack Benny, Burns and Allen and Amos n' Andy. She said, "Get some college kids in there!" That was supposedly the reason all of these younger performers... Not that Peter Lind Hayes was that... he was onstage since the age of five and was very experienced - and also, not a particularly nice man either.

She was the one that inspired Paley, supposedly, to use these younger people. Now Robert Q. Lewis... one thing interesting about almost all of these people... and all the people on TV had it... I never saw this mentioned... almost everyone of these people... not all... ninety-nine percent... were all disk jockeys. All disk jockeys. Certainly Henry Morgan, certainly Robert Q. Lewis... Henry Morgan was certainly "radio" with that great voice... they all fared pretty good. Now, getting back to Henry Morgan...

Kliph Nesteroff: (gasps) 

Will Jordan: Henry Morgan saw me get up at one of these parties. He was sort of the secret lover of Yvette Schumer. Yvette Schumer was famous for the simple reason that she owned the gigantic trucks that carted Broadway scenary. It's a famous name in the theater: Schumer. She was married to someone else, but she loved Henry Morgan and was having some kind of thing. The girl that I used to know loved him too. Henry Morgan was very sexy, even though in my humble opinion that was the single worst nosejob in the history of the world. His nose looked like it had a clothespin on it, but of course he had that wonderful, wonderful voice. "Hello, anybody." I loved his voice.

Kliph Nesteroff: I find him fascinating.

Will Jordan: Very, very talented man. Very, very talented. Both Milton Berle and Henry Morgan had the same second banana...

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure, Arnold Stang.

Will Jordan: Arnold Stang. Now, that's amazing.

Kliph Nesteroff: Arnold Stang was one of the funniest men who ever lived. Didn't matter what he was doing, it was entertaining.

Will Jordan: Also not a particularly nice man, but he wasn't as unpleasant as the others. Here's something you probably didn't know. Women adored Arnold Stang. Every where he went, they practically attacked him. Can you believe that?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.

Will Jordan: This tiny little guy - a midget? A dwarf? What was he? He didn't look human.

Kliph Nesteroff: Arnold Stang was not a nice man?

Will Jordan: (silence) I better not say that. Let's just say he wasn't nice to me. I better not say that, I didn't know him well enough. But women loved him, God. They adored him. Wouldn't you think that looking like Clark Gable... but apparently there are a lot of women that would rather have a guy that looks more like a son. Some of that had to do with Sinatra's appeal. There had never been anybody, including Irish tenors, that I can think of, that looked like a little boy. Sinatra did... of course...

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, Will...

Will Jordan: He was very thin and everything.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Robert Q...

Will Jordan: They wanted to mother him. Now, Bing was certainly popular with...

Kliph Nesteroff: Will, you mentioned that you were at a party that Henry Morg...

Will Jordan: I read somewhere that Bing Crosby was the most popular man of the twentieth century...

Kliph Nesteroff: We were...

Will Jordan: I read that Will Rogers was pretty close...

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, but I wanted to go back...

Will Jordan: I think there was nothing bigger than Bing Crosby.

Kliph Nesteroff: Before we continue with that...

Will Jordan: Number one radio star, number one record star, number one film star.


Will Jordan: There may have been others that did similar things. Of course, it's all a matter of opinion. I was looking at the Will Rogers biopic...

Kliph Nesteroff: Robert Q. Lewis.

Will Jordan: It was not a good impression of his father that Will Rogers Jr. did. It was a very well-made film. I told you I did the morning show with Steve Allen and later with Jack Paar. Interestingly, both left the morning show and they both went to The Tonight Show. Very interesting. Years later I did The Will Rogers Jr. Show. Very nice man, not terribly talented, but still I became a semi-regular. They were doing a contest to find a Will Rogers lookalike. Now, there were many Will Rogers types.

Kliph Nesteroff: Henry Morgan.

Will Jordan: All of the folksy - Bob Burns, George Gobel, but they didn't sound like Will Rogers. There was a mimic, a good friend of Larry Storch's that did Will Rogers perfectly. Liberty Magazine started reprinting issues from the nineteen thirties and had a story about him. I can't think of his name right now. When they made the movie The Great Ziegfeld, one year after Will Rogers died, of course it had to have Will Rogers in it. They got a guy that looked like an elephant. Will Rogers was not big or fat. The guys name was Trimble. I have a reason for telling you this. I'm not just rambling.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Jordan is right about one thing, especially in one very clear cut case: the newlywed Vincete Minelli and his bride Judy Garland looked exactly alike. They practically shared the same head. Liza Minelli actually looks like BOTH of them.

Michael Powers said...

Most fascinating thing that Jordan talks about something that I see all the time but that most people don't believe exists, which is the phenomenon of people dating or marrying someone who looks just like them. I talk about this a lot and it's rare to find anybody who ever noticed it. A similarly obvious yet somehow elusive thing is the fact that for some decades now, most movie leading ladies' characters have male names in the film. "Steve" or "Butch" or "Danny" or "Max." It's a shock when the female lead's character is named "Mary" or "Cynthia." I have discussed this with a thousand people and nobody ever knows what the hell I'm talking about.