Thursday, September 27, 2012

An Interview with Will Jordan - Part Nine


Kliph Nesteroff: There seems to have been a hierarchy of comedian hangouts in Manhattan during the nineteen forties and fifties. There was Hanson's Drugstore and the B-G Coffee Shop, then the next step up you have the Stage Delicatessen and the Carnegie Deli...

Will Jordan: The next step up was Lindy's. You would go to them, but it would cost more and you had a different people. You had people like Berle and some of the people from the Stage would go there too.


The Stage Delicatessen was a little less pretentious. You had less of a chance to hang around there. Groups of ten couldn't get together in the Stage. There wasn't room for that. Hanson's you could stand in front or around. Lindy's, of course, was bigger. You could stand around the tables and there was more room. You had all the characters that were waiters at Lindy's.


The story that happened to me with Hans [Hanson] was... he kept telling me, "Kvit hangin' around! Kvit hangin' around!" We really did clutter the entrance. Then he sees me on The Ed Sullivan Show and he says, "Vas dat you last night?" I said, "Yeah." He says, "You can hang around."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Will Jordan: Funny, I came in one day and there was Victor Borge taking cash [behind the counter]! I thought that was hilarious. I never got to know Borge. Borge was sort of disliked by the comedians. Youngman thought, "Ah, he's not a true comedian." Borge was nice to me and he said, "Why is he saying that?" I said to him, "Because each one of us believes that in our lives we are more earthy than everyone else. We suffered more."


It was just pure bullshit. Jack E. Leonard was a very talented man and he said incredibly egotistical things. He said, "I'm a true comedian." What the hell does that mean?

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Will Jordan: He was very funny. He was physical, he could dance, he could sing a little, but he couldn't act. He would have been nothing in a Broadway show. Jack Carter wasn't good as an actor. Jack Carter in Mr. Wonderful, his big Broadway hit, just did his act. When he did sketches, Ron Clark will tell you, it was never anything. He was reduced to doing walk-ons on Redd Foxx. He wasn't that good.


The other actors that were ex-comedians like Danny Dayton... Dayton did an act briefly with Joe Silver. When they did little bits with Redd Foxx they were better. You see, Jack Carter had this voice. He had this tremendous voice. The voice became better than the actual talent. Not that they weren't all talented - but in different ways. Jack Carter's voice was just... it was an avalanche!


He did become very good as an ad-libber, but that came later. In the beginning he was a mimic. Morey Amsterdam was nothing but jokes, a bottomless pit. When Morey was on Can You Top This he was really doing those jokes. It turns out, Milt Moss tells me, Can You Top This was rehearsed. I was kind of sad to hear that, but it was still a wonderful show. You familiar with the show?


Kliph Nesteroff: Only slightly.

Will Jordan: It was rehearsed. I thought Joe Laurie Jr. was magnificent and Harry Hershfield. Poor Senator Ford wasn't much. I got to know [Peter] Donald. He was a kind of stressed out guy, broke, and practically sleeping in the streets. I don't know what he did with all his money. He couldn't write a joke, but he was a great story teller. Fred Allen loved him. The bit they did together on The Fred Allen Show...


You hear them both going together at the same time doing a Barry Fitzgerald type voice. Peter Donald could reads lines beautifully. He read the joke that was sent in by the listeners and he was equal to the others only he wasn't a real stand-up comedian. He was marvelous. He dressed very well. God, it was so sad to see him degenerate. I don't know why he kind of stumbled into nothing, but he was a nice man and very talented. I remember he was living with this girl. This poor slob of a girl whose house was completely deluged with roaches. We all said, "Peter! What kind of a life?" I don't know if it was because he was alcoholic.


One of the stories I heard was that Jackie Gleason was broke. Jack Haley, another very unpleasant man, saved Gleason near the end. Gleason was broke. Gleason spent all his money on these huge parties and he bought this huge home and everything else. Of course I never knew Gleason, so I can't tell you that for sure. Haley was in many ways similar to Peter Lind Hayes. He [was hard on] his kid and everything. Peter Lind Hayes kept pushing his kid into computers and everything like that.


Jack Haley's son was one of the proteges of David Wolper. The other protege was Andrew Solt. It showed with Jack Haley Jr, but with Andrew Solt - I don't know. When I went to do that [television special about Ed Sullivan] I said, "A man with a pigtail!? You own Ed Sullivan's shows?" Something told me that didn't feel right! Then, of course, the Sullivan shows were dominated by the rock acts near the end. People forget the Sullivan show started in 1948 when there was no rock.


I spoke to Sullivan about that. I asked, "Who was your favorite act?" Can you finish this for me? What did Sullivan say? Who did he think was the best? I can only tell you it was unexpected. Although, if you know Sullivan then probably not.

Kliph Nesteroff: I would guess a Louis Armstrong type.

Will Jordan: It was Jack Dempsey.


I thought that was fascinating. When I asked his associate Carmine Santullo who appeared on the show the most... boy, what a surprise that was too. Nobody else came within a million miles.


People guess, "Was it Topo Gigio?" Nowhere near. Not even in the top ten. And it wasn't Jack Carter. And it wasn't Wayne and Shuster or Senor Wences. More than all of those - but not at the top - was Ricki Layne and Velvel. The one that was on it the most was Teresa Brewer. She must have been on a hundred times.


Kliph Nesteroff: Isn't that funny - because everyone always talks about how one appearance on Ed Sullivan would put you over the top.

Will Jordan: Julia Meade got very angry when I said it was better to be on Steve Allen. She got very angry. I said, "Julia, I owe everything to Ed Sullivan, but what I'm saying is still true." There were [also] people that did The Steve Allen Show that did not make it. We mentioned Steve and Eydie, but who was the girl opposite Andy Williams? Pat Kirby.


She was gorgeous and she never really made it. Dayton Allen didn't make it, but Dayton Allen turned down California. Everyone else went to California. Dayton Allen was very, very funny. Made a million commercials. Milt Moss turned down Broadway shows to get more money in the Catskills. I said, "Milt! Who cares about the Catskills? You were going to replace James Coco in The Last of the Red Hot Lovers?" I would have paid them to give me something like that just for the prestige. I couldn't believe Milt Moss would do that, but then he got the biggest commercial in the world, "I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Thing" for Alka-Seltzer. He should have got someone to submit him for roles like Louis Nye, who was in Doris Day movies. He just wanted the money. Dayton Allen must have been the same way. How can you not go to California when you're [a cast member of] The Steve Allen Show?


Most of the time Steve Allen did not beat Ed Sullivan in the ratings. Only time Sullivan was beat was when The Colgate Comedy Hour was on with Martin and Lewis.

Kliph Nesteroff: Let me ask you about some of the other people that were in the same genre as you, other impressionists...

Will Jordan: Sure.

Kliph Nesteroff: George Kirby.


Will Jordan: Great guy. Screwed up his life with drugs. Steve Allen got the money to bail him out. Everybody was on his side. He gets bailed out, he gets his career back and he not only goes back to drugs, he becomes a pusher! They did a tribute to him when he was dying, near the end. It was when I was in Las Vegas doing an unsuccessful job at Harrah's. He did great impressions, but I didn't think they were consistent.


When he did Ella Fitzgerald it was marvelous and when he did Nat Cole and everything else. But then he would do white people and it wasn't good, but the audience would applaud just as much. He would do Gleason. He loved to do Archie Bunker, but it wasn't that good. It wasn't bad, but... Of course, he sang well and he had a million tricks. He was around for years. He was in jail for years.


He could do anything. He could play piano. He could do dramatic readings. Very all around talented guy, amazing guy. I used to kid him about his hairpiece. I would say, "Years ago Black hairpieces were terrible. Earl Fatha Hines looked [awful], but now Nipsey Russell's hairpiece and your hairpiece look so great!" He laughed at that. He was always good to me. On the Kopykats show none of the other mimics ever came over and said anything to me.


I'd be getting ready to do Bing, putting on the hat and getting into the feeling of it and Kirby would come over to me and say, "You're really cooking." None of the others would ever be that gracious. He was just a very, very nice man and still he had his weaknesses. He had the drugs and everything else and it was very strange.


He was a nightclub act and a Chicago boy. He was much older than the rest of us. I asked him, "What was the first impression you ever did?" You'll never guess this in a million years. I thought he was going to say Amos n' Andy. No. Kirby said, "The first impression I ever did was Edna Mae Oliver."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)


Will Jordan: We did The Mike Douglas Show together and Kirby was a cook. He had Mike in the kitchen and everything. Just wonderful.

Kliph Nesteroff: One of my favorite episodes of I've Got a Secret features George Kirby. They introduce Pearl Bailey to the panel and ask them to put on their blindfolds. Pearl Bailey then leaves the stage and George Kirby sits down and answers all of their questions as if he's Pearl Bailey. The panel never figures it out.


Will Jordan: He was very, very good. Jackie Gayle - who certainly wasn't a mimic - did an equally good impression [of Pearl Bailey]. Some of these people could just do one or two impressions. Shecky is not an impressionist, but Shecky's impressions... he did Danny Thomas and I never heard anybody else do that.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, amazing.


Will Jordan: And he did Sophie Tucker. Danny Thomas was natural for him. A Chicago star. Then, of course, Joe E. Lewis. Although, Joe E. Lewis was a New York comedian who became famous in Chicago. He never lost his New York accent. Joe E. Lewis was pure New York, but he connected in Chicago. The two best loved comedians were Jimmy Durante and Joe E. Lewis.


What is interesting is both of them were not attractive. They were both extremely well-loved in real life. Extremely well-loved. But their sex life... Durante couldn't get laid without some kind of help, but Joe E. Lewis who was equally ugly... his wives were gorgeous! His bad looks didn't hurt him at all. I was sitting with Joe Franklin and we were doing a trivia question. I said, "You're going to think there are ten answers, but there's only one answer to this. One person that was: Major star in vaudeville. Major star on Broadway. Major star in film. Major star on radio. Major star in television. Major star in nightclubs." I asked Joe Franklin. He tried to say Jack Benny. 


It was Jimmy Durante. Clayton, Jackson and Durante [in vaudeville]. He and Ethel Merman were billed equally over Bob Hope in Red, Hot and Blue [on Broadway]. Radio? Well, what Durante majored in was radio. That's where they started to mimic him. He was so big in movies that when the movie was bad - they would put Durante in it to do a walk-on to save the film. Then of course on TV - his first TV show was written up as one of the great events. And after all of that he was the major star at the Copacabana. No one else ever did that. There were times when he wasn't as big as others, but no one was consistently that big. The only thing he wasn't as big in was records.


Kliph Nesteroff: What can you tell me about an obscure old comedian named Lenny Gaines?

Will Jordan: Last time I was in Hollywood I saw Lenny Gaines. Lenny Gaines was another good friend of Eddie Fisher's and he did an act and he flopped badly. He played the Gatineau Club. But he was so funny in real life. He hung around for years, everyone loved him and they kind of supported him. Years later he does a straight performance in New York, New York with Liza Minelli. He was quite good. Lenny Gaines.


He used to ask me to call up Sally Marr, Lenny Bruce's mother [for a date]. Lenny Bruce's mother was a doll. She was very sweet. Lenny had just died and I was in California. They were throwing lines at her and she didn't laugh. She said, "There's been a tragedy in the family." She handled it very well. She had an act called Sally Marr and Her Escorts. One of the escorts was Jackie Gayle. Jackie Gayle was very talented. And how many comedians were musicians originally? I think that's interesting. Charlie Callas. Mel Brooks. Sid Caesar. Joey Bishop played clarinet, if I'm not mistaken.


Kliph Nesteroff: Sure. Herkie Styles, Jack Benny, Johnny Carson, Bill Cosby all played instruments. What was the relationship between Sally Marr and Jackie Gayle?

Will Jordan: He was the act. Sally Marr and Her Escorts. He was one of the escorts. He was probably doing more comedy than he should have. It was primarily music. They would support her. He was very funny, but he could be very nasty at times. He did say one thing I thought was very cruel, but very funny. They were at some event with Sinatra's widow, Barbara Marks. As you know she was this beautiful girl and she had no real great qualifications.


She was doing this ceremony at Sinatra's estate and being very pompous. Gayle yelled out, "You're running this show and what's your claim to fame? You fucked Zeppo!" Very funny. And true. You ever hear any lines from Jackie Gayle's act? He had some great lines, very bitter and everything. A typical line would be about... he's in the South and he's worried about racial... how they're gonna treat Jews and everything. He says to the Southerners, "Where do the Jews hang out here?" Guy says, "See that tree?" Typical Jackie Gayle joke.


Kliph Nesteroff: He had a great rhythm.

Will Jordan: He did me some favors. They did some sort of a show at The Playboy Mansion and he was very tight with Hefner. He got me on this show. I forget what I got for it. Thousand bucks or something. When the show came out Pat Morita was on it. He wasn't that good. He was a good actor, but... 


I take that back. He was good. But I would say, without too much modesty, my spot looked better. When the show came out - I got cut and they put in Pat Morita. I asked Jackie why and he said, "Because Pat Morita is now hot in movies."

Kliph Nesteroff: People forget Pat Morita was a stand-up comic. Something I stumbled upon recently was that in the late forties Joey Bishop teamed up with Jack Soo as a comedy team.


Will Jordan: That I did not know. There was an act called The Bishop Brothers. His brother's name was Rummy Bishop. Joey Bishop's real name was Gottlieb. But finish what you were saying, I interrupted.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, there wasn't much to it. I just found a note that said the comedy team of Jack Soo and Joey Bishop had announced they were breaking up. Surprised me. Jack Soo was a king of deadpan.


Will Jordan: I didn't know he was a comedian. That is interesting. Speaking of people you didn't know were comedians... two comedians were romantically linked to Diana Dors. One of them was [Richard] Dawson and the other was... a tall, English guy that was a mimic and a comedian. Can't think of his name. He was featured in Pennies From Heaven. He played the inspector and everything. On the Como summer replacement show he starred one summer - like the English comedian that was featured with Judy Garland - Max Bygraves. I remember this guy because he did impressions and he did Robert Mitchum.


He did it like I did. I thought, "It's not possible that a guy from England saw my act." Joe Baker was the one English guy that was required by law to be on Kopycats when it was filmed in London. We had to use one English performer. He was a very nice and very talented guy. He told me that I'm known in England. I said, "I'm known in England!?" He said, "Your album, Ill Will." I said, "It was a flop." He said, "It wasn't a flop in England." I couldn't believe it. He said people played it all the time in England. Chuck McCann believes Peter Sellers stole his material. That is very far fetched.


I'd never heard before that Peter Sellers stole material, but then I don't know anything about it. But I do know the English were famous for stealing. The story goes that when a great American performer would leave England, all the English comedians would be on the pier and give him gifts. He'd say, "Why are you giving me all these gifts?" They'd say, "Because now that you're going back to the States we're going to pinch your act!"


Joe Baker told me that being an American was the greatest way to get laid. He said in order to get laid the English comedians would pretend to be American. They'd get empty packs of Lucky Strike and fill them with English cigarettes in order to make out with the English broads. In that great film This Happy Breed, one of my favorite films, there's a great scene where Noel Coward captured something so tremendous.


The scene shows two English people looking at the very first American talkie film. Broadway Melody or something like that. And they're completely in a trance looking at the screen. They're saying, "I don't understand a word they're saying." "Yes. But isn't it marvelous?" That's Noel Coward's brilliant perception. That really says it.

Kliph Nesteroff: We mentioned Shecky Greene earlier. When did you first get to know him?


Will Jordan: I saw him in Chicago when I played there. In a sense, Shecky was the first lounge act because he played lounges before they were called lounges. He literally stood on the bar in Chicago. He was training for lounges before it was popular. Shecky could do anything and yet I saw him on a Hollywood Palace and he was dreadful. Again, it's the same old story. These are the greatest people in the world and then you see them do something and you think why did you do that?


Maurice Chevalier who was, you know, a very cheap, selfish man was playing the Dunes [Hotel in Las Vegas]. And he comes out there in a cowboy hat and he's bombing. They're all saying, "What the hell are you...? We've got a million cowboys here." He didn't want to do his medley. Here we're waiting to hear it. What are you doing!? That's what we want to hear! You know?


Of course, later on, after Gigi, then he had a whole new thing, "Thank heaven for little girls." When he did his Broadway show he did what they wanted to hear, but in Vegas I don't know what he was thinking. Another interesting true story is about Joe Glaser, a real tough agent.


He was a very big crook who stole money from all the Black performers. He would get them ten thousand and give them five. Stories of that kind. Stories of his selfishness... but he was a great agent. He was the biggest booker of Louis Armstrong. Anyway, he sees Noel Coward and says, "Who's booking you for Vegas?"


Noel Coward says, "Vegas?" "You'd be great in Vegas." Glaser was right, but Noel Coward certainly didn't think so. He says, "I'll get you a tremendous amount." He got him the booking and it was a sensation. Sinatra and Dietrich were at the opening at the Desert Inn. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You also played the Desert Inn at one point.

Will Jordan: Physically it was a good room. I played the Desert Inn and I played the Sands.


I was fortunate because those were the two best rooms. Of course, that's all gone now. Then I played the Last Frontier and that wasn't as good. Aside from the audiences you also had the shape of the room. There were many ridiculous reasons why a room was good. If it had a lower ceiling it was a better room. I don't know why. Anyway, Noel Coward was a sensation and some of that is on tape - and of course the album.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes.


Will Jordan: So now he's a huge success and Sinatra is there and Dietrich. For a guy that really shouldn't fit in in Vegas - he was a sensation! Now Glaser goes back there... and this is supposedly true... he says, "Noel, they say you're a queer." "Yes, well, they say a lot of things about me." He says, "Look at these girls! Look at these beautiful bodies! You mean to tell me - whatever you are - you wouldn't like to screw that gorgeous blonde over there?"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Will Jordan: Noel says, "No, no, no." Joe Glaser says, "Why!? I don't understand gays! Why! Why wouldn't you want to screw that?" He came up with a great line. He said, "All that indoor plumbing." That sounds like Noel Coward. I never met him. I would have liked to.


Kliph Nesteroff: That album has a classic cover of him standing out in the desert holding a cup of tea.

Will Jordan: Dick Cavett interviewed Noel Coward and the Lunts - and he never played that show again. He keeps playing Hitchcock, Groucho and Mitchum...

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, well, he doesn't keep showing them, he sold those twelve episodes to Turner Classic Movies and they're the ones airing them.

Will Jordan: Yes, but he picked all the wrong ones. And he played the ones with rock and roll with... I don't know the names...

Kliph Nesteroff: Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and...

Will Jordan: Yes, well, that's where all the money is, but nevertheless he's supposed to be... supposedly intellectual and intelligent...


Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, well, it would be great to see them all again. You put out a comedy record on Roulette Records, which was run by Morris Levy. He also owned a nightclub called the Roundtable and upstairs was a place called the Rat Fink Room, which featured a comedian named Jackie Kannon.

Will Jordan: Oh, yes, I knew Jackie, yes. Jackie Kannon was very talented.

Kliph Nesteroff: Originally from Canada...

Will Jordan: Oh, yes, near Detroit somewhere, right?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah, Windsor.

Will Jordan: Oh yes, I was there. That was a very interesting, pleasant experience. I played some clubs in Detroit. They would have us booked on radio shows in Canada to plug the nightclub in Detroit. They would rush you over the border to Windsor to do this big radio show and then you'd go back. It was only twenty minutes. The joke was that the performers were saying, "Oh, it will be great to get back to the States again!" Twenty minutes away.


Windsor. That was one of the clubs I wanted to work. The Elmwood Casino in Windsor. Jackie Kannon was very talented, but he was more of a businessman. He would say certain expressions that would sound - not what a comedian would say. Let me give you an example so you know exactly what I mean. A comedian who is doing a new bit would say, "I'm going to try a new bit this show." What Jackie Kannon would say, "This show I'm doing a new number." That was out of character for a comedian. A comedian doesn't say, "I'm doing a new number." That's what a singer says. He was very careful with his material.


He was the last of the Joe E. Lewis types that did parodies. So sad that that has disappeared. Nobody does parodies anymore. Of course, Joe E. Lewis was the master and he had this guy that wrote for him. He was one of these writers, like Earle Doud, who would write brilliant one minute and bad the next because they didn't want to work that hard. Brilliantly talented people that had to exert themselves, but they didn't want to go through the effort so they would do crap. Like Mario Puzo. He does The Godfather, Godfather Part Two, collaborated Godfather Part Three and then put another book out near the end they say was tripe.


And yet, was it George M. Cohan who said, "You're as good as the best thing you have ever done." Either he or Billy Wilder said that. I wish that was true with me. I like that. Puzo was really.... if you ever see the biography of him... what a short, fat, ugly little slob. He was a piece of shit all the way and then he spent three years, he said, "I'm going to write a piece of shit book. Cowboys and Indians. I'm going to call it The Godfather." He thought it was the worst thing he ever did. I'm always amazed by self-perception. There were two or three performers I knew who were also cartoonists.


James Mason, in his autobiography, he drew a picture of himself and he was quite a good artist. He draws this caricature with these big thick lips and this is how he saw himself. Of course you're familiar with all the guys at Playboy. Remember there was a cartoonist named Shel Silverstein?

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure, yeah, he wrote lyrics as well.

Will Jordan: Of course, very talented. I have nothing to say about that. What interested me was his perception of himself. When he drew himself he looked like a gorilla. In real life he looked like a skeleton, like he weighed ninety-eight pounds. These frail, skinny fingers, but he drew himself as this real Joe E. Ross looking guy. That fascinated me. His perception of himself.


James Mason, this extremely handsome man, and in real life he was even better looking. Another thing about Mason he was tall, very tall, and yet look how he drew himself. Peter O'Toole and he both said something. "Who was the greatest actor?" They both said the same one and no one had ever heard of him. They said the best actor, the most underrated actor, was Wilfred Lawson. Do you know who that is?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.


Will Jordan: I was fascinated by that. Wilfred Lawson was the guy that played Doolittle in the original Pygmalion with Leslie Howard. Everybody that knew him said he was the greatest snake in the world. His gestures. I looked at him again and I said, "I just saw somebody doing this. The gestures!" Things with the hands and the way he would frame his face - and then I realized where I had seen it. Albert Finney in The Dresser. Albert Finney is doing a perfect imitation. They keep talking about this guy Wilfred Lawson, who died fairly young. It's those people that were considered great, but because they didn't make it in films or anything... If you weren't in a big movie you didn't exist. Can you imagine if we all thought that way? What are we going to think? All the great people in history who lived before there were movies were not important because you didn't see them in a movie? That's ridiculous.


Kliph Nesteroff: There are also those actors that were great in theater that didn't translate to movies - so even then with a record of them it doesn't necessarily...

Will Jordan: That's true, that's true, you have one there. Yes. I'm more concerned with the fact they were not given the right opportunity. What about Judy Holiday? She made three movies and she bombed. Born Yesterday was not her first movie. She was in Winged Victory. She was nothing without the proper vehicle. You have to consider that too.

Kliph Nesteroff: In terms of stand-up comedians... a lot of guys I talk to gush about Shecky Greene and how great he was, but then you see him do something on TV and it doesn't...


Will Jordan: Mel Brooks didn't let him... he let Dom DeLuise go crazy, but he didn't give Shecky anything in the History of the World Part I. He had Shecky as a Roman soldier? What the hell is that? That's not where Shecky is good. Shecky does the great, great joke, "Sinatra saved my life." You know the joke. That's Shecky. That's when Shecky is great.

Kliph Nesteroff: He might be a victim of that same concept where you have to see him live to appreciate his brilliance. It doesn't translate to a five minute television spot, it doesn't translate to a character in a movie.


Will Jordan: I think when it comes to people that are that talented - it's something to do with the way it is done or not done. How about Warren William when he's lousy? As you said - and he's not in a lot of good films, but he's terrific... I have a friend that thinks Lionel [Barrymore] was better than John. I said, "Well, Lionel was pretty damn good, but... better than John? I don't know about that." I think John Barrymore was probably the greatest of the twentieth century.

Kliph Nesteroff: Even during John Barrymore's downslide he's great. Whereas Lionel Barrymore's down period is not great - it's monotonous. It got to point where every role he played was exactly the same.


Will Jordan: Louis B. Mayer was giving him morphine to keep him alive. Louis B. Mayer wanted that prestige of the Barrymores and so did the great guy who died young, Thalberg. Mayer was jealous of Irving Thalberg's great talent. When Thalberg died, the biggest mistake, of course nobody agrees with me, was replacing him with Dore Schary. I mean what the hell was Dore Schary? He wrote something that should have been great and it wasn't great - Sunrise at Campobello. Ralph Bellamy was well-cast and it was a great subject, but it's a bad, nothing play. It's boring. And that was Dore Schary. Everything Dore Schary was lousy. 


Kliph Nesteroff: I don't agree, but Dore Schary as head of MGM - that wasn't really MGM stuff, if you know what I mean. The stuff he did for RKO was RKO caliber and it worked. When he came to MGM it wasn't MGM calibre. It was RKO stuff under an MGM moniker and I think that's where your disparity is.

Will Jordan: Very well put. That's a very, very good description. You're right. So it should have been the original intention, which was Selznick. Of course, Selznick made a lot of mistakes. He made Duel in the Sun and that should have been much better. That should have been much better. He had everything but the kitchen sink in there and that was not good. Of course he was right when he said, "I'll never do anything [as good] again after Gone with the Wind."


And yet, look at what he did before Gone with the Wind. My favorite movie, which nobody talks about, Prisoner of Zenda. They made a remake, you probably know this, but it's very interesting. They made a remake and every single word is the same. Word for word. Very interesting. Stewart Granger wasn't bad, but I'm sorry after Ronald Colman...

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, you can't compare.


Will Jordan: There was never a human being that could read a line like that. No one ever. You listen to all the great poets, all the great actors, even Barrymore. Ronald Colman - that is the top of the line. Ronald Colman's readings, boy, you wanna talk about someones rhythm? Listen to Ronald Colman! He was great on radio, he was great on records. That great thing he used to do... did you get that in Canada?

Kliph Nesteroff: The Halls of Ivy?


Will Jordan: No, I mean, when he did the dramatic readings at Christmastime. Ronald Colman did the Juggler of Our Lady. That was poetry. The fact that he happened to be the handsomest guy in the world is unimportant. The funny thing is he made it in silent movies. One guy actually believes that Ronald Colman's voice was copied from Douglas Fairbanks Sr. That sounds completely nuts, but then I thought about it. Doug Jr, in his book, admits he copied Ronald Colman. As a mimic I was fascinated. He made a silent movie, very unexpected treat for me, and he does impressions. He imitates John Gilbert, John Barrymore and then he imitates his father. Silent.


Kliph Nesteroff: Never seen it.

Will Jordan: Oh, it's worth seeing. It shows you what you can do without sound. I'll give you an example of a great voice and a great actress. I'll tell you a woman that did the greatest things on radio and yet she did a TV show, didn't say a word, and was just as good. How many times has that happened? Agnes Moorehead. She did Sorry, Wrong Number. With all respect to Barbara Stanwyck, Agnes Moorehead was very hard to beat. But what about the Twilight Zone where she doesn't say one word? How's that for acting!


Kliph Nesteroff: She was great and with Sorry, Wrong Number - she's doing this great performance once for the East Coast and then again for the West Coast...

Will Jordan: The rumor goes she used to give sex shows for Orson Welles. She was gay or bisexual and her lover was Debbie Reynolds. Debbie told Eddie Fisher that if he ever mentioned it that she would kill him. In both of his autobiographies he does not mention it - but he did mention it to the biographer that he fired - Herb Goldman - who wrote the great books on Jolson and Cantor. He was the editor of Ring Magazine. 



He did tell Herb Goldman that Debbie did have an affair with Vic Damone's wife, Pier Angeli. She came in one night and I can tell you, she was gorgeous, no question about that. The story goes - again this is rumour now (but when I hear it two or three different times there must be some truth to it) I do believe she was bisexual. But in order to keep Orson entertained she would have sex shows between women. I think Orson would have been amused (laughs). He never struck me as super macho, but I never heard that Orson was gay. Look at his wives. None of his wives looked like... oh, well, why get into this...

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)



Will Jordan: Anyway, I did a television show with her in Los Angeles, a George Jessel show. At that time I was not in tune to how really interesting Jessel was. Much more interesting than most people say. He was a very incredible guy, actually and [Agnes Moorehead] was there and she was so nice and so beautiful. I know people think she was ugly, but at this point she was not ugly. You saw her when she was older - you didn't see her when she was younger. She was stunning. When she worked for Welles he didn't make her look attractive in Citizen Kane or Magnificent Ambersons. She must have been tremendous and, of course, they all loved her. I sent away for the a book about Don Ameche. I'm interested in that because that is the whole world of Chicago radio. Everything came from Chicago.



Kliph Nesteroff: He was an announcer initially, right?

Will Jordan: He was, but he sang and, of course, he had the look-a-like brother, Jim. Nice looking kid too. That was a case where being the brother was not a help. When was it good that you looked like someone? Rosemary Clooney's sister was no good. George Maharis had five brothers with the same face and none of them could work. On the other hand Tom Conway...

Kliph Nesteroff: George Sanders, yeah.



Will Jordan: Being his brother was a help. So, you don't really know. Steve Forrest was the brother of Dana Andrews. Not as good as Dana Andrews, but a wonderful, great deep voice. I love those guys. Another guy, bit of an egomaniac, was Gene Barry. Had a nose job and an ear job - and another great, deep voice. Egomaniac. What I liked about him was he went out and did the great play Idiot's Delight, which was of course done by The Lunts. Do you know the story in Idiot's Delight?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.

Will Jordan: It was remade as the movie Les Girls. Have you seen that?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, Gene Kelly.



Will Jordan: The guy with the troupe of dancers. So, Lunt said, "I want to play this wiseguy." This New Yorky wiseguy in showbiz. So he studied Milton Berle. Now what I would pay to see Alfred Lunt in a Broadway play imitating Berle! Now, when they do the movie they get Gable - only because he's the number one star in the world. He was completely miscast. He could play a New York wiseguy, but he was very unmusical. So they needed to get an image for Gable, so as the basis he used Harry Richman and [in the film] he's doing Puttin' on the Ritz. 



The choreographer was done by a gay. Forgive my anti-gay remarks. I don't mean them as wickedly as they sound. I'm only saying anti-gay things when I feel it prevented something from being as good as it should have been. The idea of doing Harry Richman was not a bad idea, really, because Richman was the personification of nightclubs. Although Richman imitated Jolson, I don't even think Jolson ever worked a nightclub. All the reviews of Jolson said, "The Great Vaudeville Star." This is so insanely stupid. Jolson was nothing in vaudeville.


He was the number one Broadway star and everyone still says vaudeville. If he was that big in vaudeville why did he have to audition to get into a Broadway show. He was good in vaudeville,  but not that good that he could star in a show? It's what he did on Broadway that made him good. Anyway, they get a gay choreographer to give Gable the dance. And what do they give him? Bumps. However you consider it, men don't do bumps (laughs) unless you're imitating a woman. It doesn't look right and here's Gable, the most masculine guy in the world, doing bumps. Here's where Gene Barry comes in. Gene Barry goes out in a company of it. Gene Barry is not doing it as Alfred Lunt did. He is not doing it as Gene Kelly did it in Les Girls. He's doing it like Harry Richman. The minute I heard that I said, "Now I like Gene Barry." I thought Harry Richman was ludicrous and over the top, but to me he was the embodiment of "showbiz!"



He was just so full of life. He made two films. He made one very good film in England with that great female impressionist Florence Desmond. Boy, was she great. In one of the Berle shows she did something that is unbelievable. She imitates Claudette Colbert. Now that's talent. She did Bankhead, which I found to be a bore, everyone could do it. She did Durante, which some women do. Rose Marie did it. A woman doing Durante is a complete bore. They're applauding because she's hurting her throat. To me that's meaningless. The gays imitated Tallulah Bankhead, but when Florence Desmond does it - it is flawless. 



Jack Carter did something and I was really surprised to find out how good he was visually. He did a little sketch with Ed Wynn and he looked like Ed Wynn. Of course, he did the voice and that's not hard to do. Half the cartoon characters you see are doing an imitation of Ed Wynn. Paul Winchell, a very nice man, his Knucklehead Smiff was Ed Wynn's voice. I was looking at a Marx Brothers movie right after an Edgar Bergen thing and the character of Harpo is the same character as Mortimer Snerd - the dumb, blonde swede, but two developments of it. 



Joe E. Brown, another big thief. His big bit "Mousie" he stole from the guy who originated it is from Wheeler and Woolsey. Wheeler did that originally. They made a lot of movies, but they didn't come across. The other great guy on the stage that didn't look that good in movies was Bobby Clark.



Kliph Nesteroff: Wheeler and Woolsey and Joe E. Brown both made a lot of terrible movies for RKO.

Will Jordan: Bert Lahr said when you did a play on Broadway the road company would go on the road with it, but not with the main star. So it would always be the road company guy who would get the first crack at Hollywood. Now, that's what Bert Lahr said, but I don't know the play [he was referring to] and I don't know all the details. The gist was that Joe E. Brown did one of Bert Lahr's plays and he went to Hollywood and he got discovered. Lahr says this in Notes on a Cowardly Lion. He says, "Joe E. Brown copied my mannerisms." If you look today you can't see that. That doesn't mean it's not true. We don't know what Joe E. Brown did. Joe E. Brown was a different kind of guy than Bert Lahr. Joe E. Brown identified more with Buster Keaton because Joe E. Brown was more of an acrobat than a comedian. He thought more in those terms, but Joe E. Brown made it as a comedian without the acrobatics.



Kliph Nesteroff: Their face does have a similar look.

Will Jordan: I had to do some of the dubbing in The Night They Raided Minsky's [when Bert Lahr died during production of the film]. I don't know if they ever used it. All of these mimics who had been doing Bert Lahr came in and I beat them out. They asked, "How did you beat us out?" I said, "Well, you were all doing your acts. I was listening to the outtakes." They were doing, "Cuh-hut it out, cuh-hut it out, I'm the Cowardly Lion." 



But that's not the way he sounded. I tried to match up with the outtakes. I beat them out simply because they didn't do their homework - but the two guys that were doing Bert Lahr were excellent mimics. It's just that they didn't... they weren't flexible enough to get in the mood of dubbing. So I worked a little on Bert Lahr's voice and there were certain definite ways to do it. You couldn't imitate him over the top because he was over the top. You couldn't exaggerate Bert Lahr. It's like trying to exaggerate Groucho. How can you? He's completely over the top as it is. You know?


8 comments:

Barry Mitchell said...

Eli Basse wrote Joe E. Lewis's special musical material. I've also seen his name spelled "Bass."
Sometime in the mid-to-late 1970's I saw Basse speak at the 92nd Street "Y" in New York City. I remember one of the parodies he wrote for Lewis was to the tune of "Mammy's Little Baby Loves Shortnin' Bread." The parody was, "Rosie's Little Nosy Needs Shortnin' Bad."
Basse also wrote genre-parodying, Yiddish-inflected comedy tunes that became standards among Borscht Belt comedians: "Hamantash Lane" and "Coney Island Calypso" to name just two.
Very clever stuff -- especially when Basse would rhyme Yiddish words with English: "I'm going back where life's a bubble/and the magnolias smell like knubble (garlic)/ at Number Four, Hamantash Lane." (Hamantash, pronounced hoomentash, is a triangular cookie with a dollop of prune or apricot jam, or other fruit filling, in the middle. It is a treat consumed during the Jewish holiday of Purim).
I remember you mentioning Sid Gould in previous interviews. Sid Gould recorded Eli Basse's original comedy tune, "Morris," on the Coral label.

Anonymous said...

whew; I just got another solid show bizzy fix. Thanks!

Debbie Does Agnes?

Anonymous said...

Lewis had several writers. Harry Harris was Joe E's primary parody writer for a long time (according to Irving Fein)

Bob Lindstrom said...

That interview went all over the place in the most sublime way imaginable.

Thanks, Kliph!

Patrick said...

Tiny, tiny nitpick: Sinatra's widow was Barbara MARX, who was -- of all things -- Zeppo's ex-wife.

Guy said...

Kliph,
I enjoyed this immensely. Thank you

Andy R said...

The 'tall English comedian' Jordan refers to is Dave King. He was a major TV and record star in the UK in the 1950s and became a very fine character actor in the 1960s - he was indeed the Inspector in the BBC's 'Pennies From Heaven'.

Bobby Wall said...

I'm thinking that, of all those you interviewed, Will Jordan has given more thought to these show business people and their careers, their successes, their failures, their foibles, what they do well, what they don't do well, who stole what from whom, etc. etc. than any other interviewee. His knowledge of show business people seems encyclopedic. He may not always be right, but he's given it a lot of thought and he's very entertaining and enjoyable to listen to. Another great interview, Kliph.