Monday, November 26, 2012

An Interview with Will Jordan - Part Eleven

Will Jordan: There were mistakes I made... like trusting Jack Carter. The thing I couldn't control was - why did I dry up? What happened? I talk more like a researcher. You're not hearing anything creative. The two biggest bits I did ended up stolen. Frankenstein and Hitler were my biggest bits aside from impersonations. The very first act I did had no impersonations. I did a thing on the Frankenstein movie with sound effects. When I did the hunchback I didn't imitate Dwight Frye, I just did a voice. That was the way I was. 

When I worked the Blue Angel the first time, it was not good. The second time was better. I didn't want to do impressions, but without the impressions I didn't have enough material. I hadn't enough experience. What I needed to do was go to some really unknown, obscure town and use a different name so people wouldn't judge me. I wasn't ready for comedy. I needed to do what Lenny Bruce did. 

Get up every single day, keep working on it, working on it, working on it, until you finally develop your own style. Very few comedians had their own style to begin with. Comedy is the one talent that you can't rehearse. You can't do lines in front of a mirror. Many of these comedians... you have no idea how bad Joan Rivers was. 

You have no idea how bad Rodney was. You have no idea how bad Jackie Mason was. Awful. Rickles - not quite that bad, but completely different. Rickles would do a [bit about] a guy in a movie theater sneaking a smoke. Nothing could be further from what you see today. And Joan Rivers was just bad. I thought she had a great body. I said to her, "You have a great ass. You should talk about that." And she had her old nose, but she was just terrible. But! Every single day she worked. She got writers. Endless, endless work. Rodney too. Rewrites, rewrites. Rodney did impressions and he was a singer originally!

Kliph Nesteroff: And that was as Jack Roy...

Will Jordan: Jack Roy - and before he was Jack Roy he was something else. That is an example of intense work. Constantly. I didn't work that hard. I wish I had. I worked hard at impressions, but impressions are so unfunny. In order to make them funny you need an audience to inspire you and alone I was just a Xerox machine, a tape recorder, that's all I was, doing the voices. It is a kind of talent to shape your muscles to reproduce a voice. Rich Little was very good at it. The only difference between Rich Little and I was... when I did an impression and it was no good, I stopped doing it.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Will Jordan: Rich Little is not stopped by that. Rich Little can not get over how great he is.

Kliph Nesteroff: Ugh.

Will Jordan: He is overwhelmed by his talent. To give you an idea of Rich Little's ego, he would listen to tapes in his car and work on it. He didn't have humility and unselfishness. He would play a tape and then try to do Sinatra, which he did unbelievably bad. Unbelievably bad. Anyway, he somehow got the tape mixed up and Sinatra's voice came on and this egomaniac said, "Ah! Now I'm getting it!" Can you believe that? He heard Sinatra and he thought it was himself! You wanna talk about ego? How could this man have had this amazing career? 

There is some talent there, no question about it. I've never heard anybody who ever did Sinatra's voice. The closest thing was Vic Damone and Steve Lawrence and they weren't doing an imitation. For some reason imitating Sinatra seems to have escaped everybody. It is just out of everybody's range.

Kliph Nesteroff: I want to ask you about some other names.

Will Jordan: Sure.

Kliph Nesteroff: Joe Ancis.

Will Jordan: Ah, yes, that is such an interesting thing. Now, Ancis was really brilliant, but it's hard to see it. He won't do it in front of you. I asked Rodney, "But God, we've known each other for years." Ancis aside from everything else, being brilliant and a very big money maker and everything, he was handsome! I mean, you wanna talk about a guy that had everything? Unbelievably great guy. People would tell me various stories of things that he did. They say that one day he came in when all the comedians were around. He said, "Carry me! I'm too rich to walk!"

A brilliant guy - but - I never saw it. Then one day Rodney said, "Don't you know why? He's in awe of you." I said, "Are you kidding? He's in awe of me? I'm in awe of him." That happened with several people I knew. They wouldn't open up in front of me. In awe of me? Who the hell do you think I am? Nobody ever heard of me. There were many articles about Joe Ancis and there's no question - a lot of evidence. I still would have liked to have seen it first hand. 

Getting back to hard work... Rodney is an example of hard work. That was a man who really worked on his lines. When Johnny Carson stole one of his lines, oh boy. Although that's terrible, I don't think it's as bad as stealing a routine. The only way you could hurt Rodney was if you stole his character. But stealing one of his jokes - which is terrible - it's not life threatening. 

When you steal my Ed Sullivan, it's like stealing one of my children and you ruin me when you do that. Even when I imitate a hundred other people, how am I going to find that crazy chemistry that made the Sullivan a hit? It was because he was on TV for years and I was the first to make fun of him. Why wasn't there an impression of Steve Allen? Paul Newman was the biggest star, why wasn't there an impression of Paul Newman?

Kliph Nesteroff: Wait, what happened when Johnny Carson stole Rodney Dangerfield's joke?

Will Jordan: Oh, Rodney wouldn't do the show anymore. Later on he needed to and they finally made up. But I give Rodney credit. He had a lot more balls than I did. When he worked with Peggy Lee early on she said, "Let's get together." He said, "No, I'm not going to hang out with you to get famous." He was very, very proud. He had his weaknesses, but very proud. Of course I loved deep voices and boy, that was a natural, deep voice. He talked about that horrible father he had. Very, very wonderful. I asked him if I could break in my new act [at the comedy club Dangerfield's] and it didn't work there. 

That was not the place to do it. He said, "I'll give you twenty-five a night," and I said, "That's all right, I don't need to be paid. I'm getting five thousand a night doing General Patton [for corporate engagements]. Money is not the thing. I don't want to do Patton. I don't want to do Sullivan. I want to do Will Jordan. That's why I'm doing this shit." It was the right idea, but I just wasn't ready. And, of course, I was too old. It would take a lot of work. I would [have to] keep experimenting with a hundred different characterizations, rhythms and this and that until I found the thing that worked. Buddy Hackett didn't like to work [the way he did]. A lot of these people wanted to work far more literate, but the literacy didn't work. They became the dumb character. 

Of course, many of them were dumb, like Joe E. Ross, but many of them played these kinds of guys. Sheldon Leonard for example. A brilliant man and he played that [dumb] character, which he had been developing since the old days. Before the Method there was the Group Theater and that's where Sheldon Leonard came from and that was a great characterization. It was a great thing. I did that voice on a commercial once. I don't know why there weren't more people that imitated Sheldon Leonard, although they did use Sheldon himself in cartoons. It's not a hard voice to do. I thought he was brilliant.

The big rumor around him was, "Is he Arab or is he Jewish?" Of course he was Jewish, but his real name was Bershad and he helped Danny Thomas. Danny Thomas was a guy that was not Jewish, but had a Jewish name. Bershad sounds Arabic, but it was Jewish. For a second I wondered why he would help a guy that wasn't Jewish, although I admit it's all completely irrelevant. The story goes that at the very beginning Danny Thomas let the William Morris Agency think that he was Jewish to get Jewish agent support, Lastfogel and the big brains. 

Kliph Nesteroff: That's the crux of Shecky Greene's Danny Thomas impression. It's him doing a whole bit of Danny Thomas singing this Hebrew incantation and this Catskills crowd goes nuts for it. Shecky as Danny closes saying, "Thank you very much, you've made a Lebanese Catholic a very happy man."

Will Jordan: He also said, "You people helped me - but now that I'm a star - I don't need you!" (laughs) Typical Shecky. Very, very funny. The kind of thing that Danny Thomas did - and irritated me - he did a remake of The Jazz Singer. It was kind of strange casting, although, of course, Neil Diamond did it later on. At least Neil Diamond was Jewish and so was Jolson. Still, Thomas handled his career well. You know he was on radio? 

He did impressions of Eddie Cantor and everything. Did you know he was on The Lone Ranger show playing little bits? Well, it makes sense - Detroit. WXYZ, sure. That's where they did The Green Hornet, WXYZ. When I went there once, a lot of that was still there. The guys gave me a box of silver bullets and a couple albums and I met Fred Flowerday. When I went to Pittsburgh I saw part of KDKA. That was the first radio station. Very interesting. I would talk to these guys and they told me about the effects. 

They would stand on one leg to give them the feeling they were on a horse. Fascinating. This was one of the guys that did it. He was telling me about how those wonderful effects were done. He told me about a guy named Todd who was Tonto. Great Shakespearean actor with a fantastically resonant voice. Here's this great actor and all he says is, "Ugh, no." One sentence. However, he helped make Tonto a legend. Everyone knows kemosabe and all of that.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, you mentioned Joe E. Brown earlier.

Will Jordan: Yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: Apparently he is the one who convinced Jay Silverheels to move to Hollywood.

Will Jordan: Oh.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jay Silverheels was a lacrosse player. Joe E. Brown being the big sports fan that he was, had seen Jay Silverheels play lacrosse and wanted to cast him in some kind of shitty RKO film. And he did exactly that. He started playing Republic serials and things like that.

Will Jordan: I don't think he was in Republic serials, just on TV. Republic serials was Chief Thundercloud. Now that guy looked like a nickel. The one great serial - Lone Ranger 1937 - that's Republic. Now that guy really looked like Tonto.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right. Well, Jay Silverheels wasn't in the Lone Ranger serials - but he was doing other Republic serials not related to the Lone Ranger.

Will Jordan: Oh, yeah, okay. If you have ever seen the original Lone Ranger serials they are very interesting. Nothing like the radio show. The radio show was written by this guy Fran Striker. I think he also wrote The Green Hornet. The Green Hornet, it seems, was supposed to be the great grand nephew of the Lone Ranger. In the movie they went the other way. They were so obsessed with masks. The hero had a mask, the villain had a mask and in one satire they had a dog with a mask. The original serial was not that bad and the supporting players became big and not the Lone Ranger. 

Bruce Bennett, then known as Herman Brix, was the great olympic swimmer. George Montogomery later became a big star and married Dinah Shore. These were the rangers and with each chapter you never found out who the Lone Ranger was. His name was Alan King - obviously that was before [comedian] Alan King changed his name to Alan King. It's kind of nice for a dated serial of that type. It starts off with all of these rangers being killed. Each chapter another one of these rangers dies. One is still living. Tonto discovers him and nurses him back to health in the silver mine. 

That's where the Lone Ranger gets his silver bullets and everything else. Not quite the same as the radio show. At that time, if you go historically, they're all doing Zorro, they're all doing the Scarlet Pimpernel, it's the same character. In the day time he takes his mask off and he's a fag. It's like Clark Kent in Superman. At night they put on their cape or their mask and they become super. Same traditional gimmick still going on today. Now they have these movies of Spiderman that are unbelievable. You've got what looks like a fourteen year old girl playing Spiderman and Michael Keaton as Batman. What insane casting.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned Alan King... 

Will Jordan: Brilliant. Nasty. Nasty, brilliant man. He started off as a mimic too. He definitely improved. He did all the old stuff, but he had a lot of friends. He had a very powerful manager named Adler. Adler got him with Tony Martin and Tony Martin helped out a lot of comedians. Also not a particularly brilliant man, Tony Martin, but a very nice guy and quite a good voice. 

Alan King said he was six months younger than me. That could be true, but I'm just stubborn. I think he was older. All these people today - they all sound like kids, but Alan King sounded like an old man when he was a kid! Even before he got his nose fixed he had that very deep voice and a great command.  


Doug Brunell said...

Another great interview. Danke!

mackdaddyg said...

Interesting stuff, as always.

George Carlin mentions Will Jordan in his "Ed Sullivan" bit from the "AM/FM" album, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that's true mackdaddg. Carlin said all the comics either did the "will jordan" sullivan impersonation, or the "john byner" sullivan impersonation.

Years ago, on WBAI, I heard an uncut, r-rated tape of a young Alan King performing at a Friar's Club roast for Humphrey Bogart. King was introduced like he was some kid just starting out, so it must have been years and years ago.

I didn't know Joe Ancis was handsome. I always thought one of his hangups was that he wasn't as "pretty" as Lenny Bruce. He was terrified to face an audience, but could crack up the professionals offstage.