Saturday, August 25, 2012

An Interview with Ben Starr - Part Two

Kliph Nesteroff: We were talking about some of your contemporaries in the comedy writing field. Charlie Isaacs, whom you worked with on The Martin and Lewis Show and the Al Jolson program, was a chief writer for Eddie Cantor. Eddie Cantor had a reputation for being a bastard to his writers.

Ben Starr: Oh, yes. Right. Eddie Cantor had a radio show right before TV. Somebody recommended me so I wrote a half hour show for him. He liked it very much. I got a call that he wanted to meet me on one of the studio stages. So I went. He told me how great I was and was shaking my hand - and the entire time he was shaking my hand he was looking to see who else was around. The show I wrote for Cantor involved a short guy - and that was the genesis for my play Small Packages.

Kliph Nesteroff: You also wrote for the sitcom I Married Joan.

Ben Starr: Yes, that was the beginning of filmed television. I wrote a few of those and that got me going. As a result I was hired to go to New York to do The Jack Carter Show. Joan Davis was good. And speaking of Eddie Cantor - she and Eddie Cantor, as bizarre as it sounds, had a big love affair.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh really? Cantor had a reputation for shtupping a ton of girls behind his wife's back.

Ben Starr: Yes, right. Knowing both of them - Cantor and Joan Davis - it was like really? The picture of Eddie Cantor in bed with Joan Davis... ugh... this is something you don't need!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Ben Starr: They had a big thing.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you ever on set for I Married Joan? Sherwood Schwartz told me that when he worked on the program she would demand line changes while they were shooting. Schwartz said the writers took turns having to be the poor bastard stuck on set trying to appease her.

Ben Starr: I'll be darned. Sherwood did me a great favor. Sherwood recommended me for a show he was doing. He was leaving to do a pilot he wrote called The Brady Bunch so I became story editor for My Favorite Martian. I then left to write The New Phil Silvers Show. They did ten shows and I wrote five of them - because I would get in at nine in the morning and start working. 

A lot of the guys would waltz in at quarter to twelve and say, "It's time for lunch." You know? There are certain guys that just can not sit down to write unless it's night. They want to live the day and they start writing at ten at night. They'd come in and say, "Jesus, I wrote until two in the morning!" But it was because they didn't start until ten o'clock. I like to get right in and do it. I know I'm a freak in that way. I love writing. It's an adventure. 

The idea that I can take what used to be a blank page or a blank screen and create something, write it, and lets say it gets bought and produced and I made it possible for people to get jobs? And it'll make a lot of people laugh? I am intrigued by that whole process. Why shouldn't I sit down everyday and write? It's what I do.

Kliph Nesteroff: How was the experience of writing The New Phil Silvers Show? Nat Hiken had no involvement in that.

Ben Starr: No, but that was a fun show. We had a guy - Rod Amateau. Rod was the producer - director. Phil was a sweetheart, a real sweetheart. It's so great when you're writing for someone who delivers, so I had a blast. We worked at 20th Century Fox. I'd come in the morning, pitch ideas, get the go ahead and sit down and write a script.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was a guy named Lawrence Marks that wrote for it...

Ben Starr: Oh, Larry Marks. Fat Larry! Fat Larry was in charge of the writers. His office was next to mine. We called him Fat Larry for obvious reasons. In radio, when Fat Larry showed up to be interviewed by Groucho Marx, Groucho said, "I hope we aren't paying him by the pound."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Ben Starr: Fat Larry was in charge and my office was next to his. He was an interesting guy. Because of his size he had a different view of life. That size thing - it was something that worked. He had an offbeat approach to comedy that worked for him.

Kliph Nesteroff: Phil Silvers was, by every assessment, fun to write for. But the most notorious abuser of comedy writers was a man you were hired to work for in 1954 - Red Buttons.

Ben Starr: Oh, God. Yeah. That was an interesting thing. Larry called me to team up. We were both with the Morris office. They hired us to write for Red Buttons' new show. It was to come from New York on X date. The pay was great. I was making plans. I had a house, a wife and one or two kids. It involved going east because that's where the show was. The guy who was going to produce it was named Ben Brady. I did not like this guy. 

He was an attorney who became a producer. He was a liar. I didn't trust him and I didn't like him. At any rate, we were invited to come talk to Red Buttons about the show. We started telling him about the kind of characters we were toying with. He said, "Okay. Be sure the guy is this but he is also that." Whatever character we talked about he said that. 

I said to Larry, "Good, but bad? This guy wants both sides of everything? It's impossible." He wanted a character that was tall, but short, y'know? "I want a character that is funny, but not so funny that..." "For the marine character I want him to be tough... but not so tough that..." For everything. 

I saw in two seconds that this was not going to work. This was why his other show had been canceled, I thought to myself. You can't deal with him. And the producer Ben Brady, who was supposed to go to New York with us, was saying, "No, no, he means this and that." When Larry and I were alone I said, "I don't know about you - but I ain't moving to New York. Red Buttons is crazy and Ben Brady is a liar." Larry was very close to Ben Brady, but he agreed there was no way we could make it work with Red Buttons. 

So we go to the Morris office. We were called to George Gruskin's office. Ben Brady was there, but Red Buttons wasn't. That week there was a story on Larry and me in TV Guide. We say, "We're not going." Gruskin says, "Well, you have to." Ben Brady says, "You have to." I said, "No, I'm not going to go because Buttons is crazy and you're a liar!" Larry didn't say anything. We didn't go and that was the end of that. Our picture was in TV Guide and a story about us going east, but you gotta either live your life or you don't!

Kliph Nesteroff: And then you wrote for Red Buttons again much later on a forgotten sitcom called The Double Life of Henry Phyfe.

Ben Starr: Yes. At one point Buttons was free and it was a different kind of show. It wasn't a stand-up show and by then he had done Sayonara. That changed everything. I submitted ideas and he bought a couple from me and they did it some place. I got to know Buttons a little more and he was a different guy by that point. He was nicer. He became a nicer person, there is no doubt. My group, my lunch group, which used to meet at the Friars Club on the West Coast... once in a while Red Buttons would come and join us. 

Buddy Hackett used to join us. Hackett was a funny guy. One day he joined us for lunch and he said, "I was in my house and I heard my dog barking. I went outside and there he is - he's chasing a car. I ran after the dog, 'Come back! Come back! You'll get hurt!' Then I thought, 'What the hell am I doing? I don't have a dog." Hackett was funny. He got away with a lot of risque stuff in Las Vegas because the delivery was so innocent. He wasn't like Rickles who comes on strong. Hackett was funny and he had the face for it. He could say off color stuff and get away with it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now you worked as a primary writer on The Jack Carter Show on NBC - 1950-51.

Ben Starr: That was something. If you got through that... I used to say to people... I was in World War Two and I was a navigator on B-17's. I did thirty-five missions and we got shot down. All kinds of crap happened. I said, "If I can live through that... and Jack Carter... nothing phases me."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Ben Starr: I could walk into the office of the President of the United States and it wouldn't bother me. It would be nothing because [of my experience with] Jack. Jack, first of all, is a talented guy. Jack Carter will never need an enemy as long as he can look in the mirror. This was our routine. I was called to replace the guy who was head writer of The Jack Carter Show. When I got to New York they were working six days a week. They'd be off Sunday. I changed that to five days a week. 

The show went on Saturday night right before Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. We'd be off Sunday and come back Monday. Monday morning at ten o'clock we'd meet in a room at the Edison Hotel. The writers were myself, Larry Klein, Marvin Marx and the producer Ernie Glucksman. We would start pitching ideas for sketches. It was a one hour live show during which we did a monologue, two sketches and a production number. 

We'd pitch all day, go for lunch, come back until eight o'clock at night. Jack would turn everything down. We'd come back Tuesday at ten o'clock. Same routine. Everything we pitch - Jack turns down.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Ben Starr: Same thing Wednesday. By now, Ernie Glucksman was a basket case. He's producer and nothing has been accepted. When we finally agreed on the sketches and knew the kind of people we needed, Ernie would call the Morris office in California and say, "We need the following actors to fly in and be here for Thursday morning to start rehearsal." The next day! 

So he would be sweating by Tuesday night. Wednesday we knew in our gut that Jack would have to accept a couple sketches - or else the show doesn't go on. We would have to pitch it and write it and bring it in Thursday morning to start rehearsal for Saturday broadcast! So, in the course Jack would approve two sketches. Now it's eight o'clock at night and Ernie's hand is shaking and he's ready to pass out. We had a running joke: "Tell him to get Kay Francis." She was an actress from way back. 

We'd go home to wherever we were renting an apartment in New York. Each writer would go home and at about ten o'clock I would start writing. We would write all the jokes for Jack's monologue. Ten o'clock the next morning, Thursday, we're there at the Edison Hotel and there would be the stars that were flown in over night from the Coast - and they had no idea what they were going to do. Now we would rehearse Thursday and Friday. 

This is what would happen every week. We'd get to the Hudson Theater. Almost every Saturday, the morning of the show, this is what would greet us outside the theater. Jack would be there. Ernie Glucksman would be there. An agent from the Morris office would be there. Pat Weaver would be there. And the steward, who was the union guy for all the guys that put up the sets, would be there. Nobody would be building any sets in the theater. Why? Jack had insulted all the hammer guys who construct our sets.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Ben Starr: Jack would have insulted them. And we were all waiting for someone to arrive with a case of champagne.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Ben Starr: The case would arrive and they would give it to the steward. Then everybody would go in and start rehearsing! This was Jack.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Ben Starr: He was very talented. Jack is a real talent. He can do voices, he's a good actor... but he's Jack!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Ben Starr: (laughs) You know? So what can you do? I used to drive him crazy. We'd be up in the room at the Edison Hotel all day and he hasn't accepted anything. I get up at the window and look out as if I'm looking far out. He'd say, "What are you looking for?" I'd say, "I'm looking for the West Coast."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) Oh, ouch.

Ben Starr: "Because I can't wait to get back there." You know? Anyway, the show was well-written. I didn't know Sid Caesar then, although he is a friend now. You know, you get ideas for sketches from newspapers or whatever. Sometimes we would come up with an idea and the guys on Your Show of Shows would have come up with the same idea. 

They didn't know it and we didn't know it. We'd write a sketch and they'd write a sketch and at the last minute we'd get a call, "Hey you guys can't do that sketch cause Sid's guys are doing that sketch." And Sid was king so... it kept you busy, but you really learned to write under pressure.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jack mentioned you had guest stars on the show because they had stormed off the Milton Berle show the same week.

Ben Starr: Yes and we had Berle on once or twice. Berle liked Jack. Lucky for Jack. That helped because Jack's reputation... you know. Jack was making a lot of money, Jesus. He'd walk around with cheques folded up for... what back then... must have been a fortune. Jack is one of the world's great complainers.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Ben Starr: Boy, really.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, I know Jack pretty good.

Ben Starr: How do you know Jack?

Kliph Nesteroff: I did an interview like this with him about sixteen months ago and he was very flattered that I knew so much about his career. We did a series of them. Jack is maybe the funniest guy in conversation.

Ben Starr: He's funny! He is truly funny! Yes, he is very sharp.

Kliph Nesteroff: And he's a walking history of show business.

Ben Starr: Absolutely!

Kliph Nesteroff: You also wrote for the television version of Duffy's Tavern.

Ben Starr: Oh, yes. The very beginning of Duffy's Tavern. Ed Gardner was the star and Ed Gardner was a fucking animal.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Ben Starr: He was a fucking animal, this guy. The character he did was funny, Archie the manager. I still do a line he used to do in his show. He'd say, "Eddie, get me some coffee." And then he would say, "This coffee is just the way I like it. Nice and tepid." Anyway, Gardner was an animal. We started doing that show at Hal Roach Studios in Culver City. At lunch time the writers and I would go in the little restaurant they had. Every once in a while Gardner would be there. 

He'd go behind the counter himself. He'd pour himself a bowl of soup and then he'd get a scoop of ice cream and put the ice cream in the soup. I said, "Ed? You put ice cream in your soup? What's that all about?" He said to me, "What's the difference!? They all go down in the same place!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Ben Starr: He had a son who was really gonna be the son of Ed Gardner. We were at Ed's house to discuss a script and his son was standing at the door with a plate. Ed whispers to us, "Don't touch anything." 

The kid walks in and says, "Here, dad. Here's a nickel for you." It was on the plate. Gardner takes the plate and says, "Thanks. Now get the hell out of here." Ed says to me, "You know what my son does? He heats up the nickel. He puts this nickel in the oven and heats it up in the hopes that I will touch it and burn myself." This was Ed's kid doing this! Ed explained that his son was mad at him "because I keep the good ice cream for myself." 

He once told me he had a house on Sunset Boulevard. Nice house. He was putting it up for sale. He called a real estate person and said, "I wanna sell my house." He had her look at it and asked, "What do you think I could get for it?" She said four hundred thousand or something. So, later in the day he calls her and he disguises his voice. He says, "Hi, I'm looking for a house." And he describes his own house.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Ben Starr: He says, "How much do you think a house like that would be worth?" She says, "Oh, around six hundred thousand dollars." He says, "You're damned rights six hundred thousand dollars, you bitch!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)


Michael Powers said...

God, I wasn't disappointed by Part 2 either. Hope you talked with this fellow more; can't wait to read it. He doesn't seem to mince words.

Mark Murphy said...

Bravo again, Kliph.

It's interesting how Ben Brady's name keeps coming up in the history of early television.

He was the producer of "Perry Mason" (for one or two seasons, I think), and he produced Johnny Carson's first prime-time variety show for CBS in the 1950s -- the show that flopped.

I believe Carson was quoted in later years as saying that one thing he learned from the 1950s show was that he should do what HE wanted instead of following recommendations of people like Ben Brady.

Somehow I suspect that, as Mr. Buttons might say, Ben Brady "never had a dinner."