Bernie Kopell: K-l-i-p-h? What the hell kind of a spelling is that?
Kliph Nesteroff: One of your earliest television gigs was on The Jack Benny Program.
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
I read for Pablo without even knowing if I could do that kind of an accent. I decided to do an impression of Jack Paar's orchestra leader Jose Melis with a little bit of Bill Dana's character Jose Jimenez thrown in. I didn't care about it. I was just annoyed. I went in - and I nailed it. I got the part! It changed my life for the next five years. I got cast on television frequently to play Latinos. Now, I must apologize to all my Latino and Latina friends because this is not the kind of role that should ever go to someone like me, but that's what they did back in the early 1960s. I had great fun doing Pablo on The Brighter Day. I had to threaten a blind lady. Harvey Korman was on the show playing a detective. He thought I was Mexican. I defer to my Latino friends who in the late sixties took a very principled stand: nobody plays Latinos but Latinos. I agreed. I said, "You got it," and I stopped doing those roles.
Kliph Nesteroff: The Brighter Day was a soap opera.
Bernie Kopell: Yes, it was a soap opera. The director was a very flamboyant man named Herb Kenworth. They had me playing a pilot on a Latin American airline and I thought it would be funny if I combined my previous Latino character with Herb Kenworth's flamboyance. It turned out to be so funny that it led to my gig on The Jack Benny Program. I got a new agent named Hal Shaffer and he had more chutzpah than anyone I had ever met in my life. He would say, "Okay, let's go to Universal." So we'd go to Universal - uninvited! We went to Jack Arnold's office and he had us thrown out.
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Bernie Kopell: So we went to Bob Edmonson's office. Hal Shaffer is going, "You've got to see Bernie Kopell! Bernie - show him that character!" I did and then Edmonson got on the phone, "Mr. De Cordova - I think I've got you that Spanish character!" He took us to the office of Fred De Cordova who had been a top director at Universal and was now the producer of The Jack Benny Program. That's how I got the job. It was so exciting for me to work with Jack Benny.
Kliph Nesteroff: You did two or three episodes. The episode I saw you were playing a bank employee and George Burns is in the same scene.
So there's a drum role and I shoot and there's this jerky movement. Jack looks at the cut-out and there's now a hole in it. He looks at the camera and says, "Amazing!" I ask for another drum roll and this time I shoot again and he does the jerky movement. Jack goes, "Incredible!" And I say, "And now ladies and gentleman, I will empty the chamber of my gun and my brother will dodge all of the bullets!" The brother does all these insane movements and then finally stands still - and topples to the ground - dead. Jack Benny walks over to this corpse, looks at it, and then looks at the camera. He says, "Well... I guess they weren't quite ready yet for the big time."
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Bernie Kopell: Afterwards he said to me backstage, "How is it that you knew your lines so well, you son of a bitch?" I said, "Well, working with you Mr. Benny I rehearsed very hard because it means a lot to me." He made this, "Oh, stop it," gesture with his hand. He was very modest. He had the great sense to surround himself with all those great people like Frank Nelson and Mel Blanc. He was great at setting up the comedy for all these great people. It was done for CBS and taped at Universal in front of a live audience in 1962. It was a tremendous thing for me.
Kliph Nesteroff: You were mostly a television guy back then, but you ended up with two lines in the Fred MacMurray western The Oregon Trail.
Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned that great character actor and obviously you are one of the great character actors from your generation...
Bernie Kopell: Can you say that louder, please?
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) The great thing about these sitcoms from the 1960s is that even if the shows themselves don't hold up they're full of great, distinctive character actors. I saw you in an episode of McHale's Navy and that program had people like Carl Ballantine and Joe Flynn...
Bernie Kopell: I have one main memory of that. Ernest Borgnine was one of the nicest human beings ever and I later worked with him again on The Love Boat. On McHale's Navy I was supposed to be a Major who is running after Ernie because of something he has done. The door is locked and he's hiding behind the door. Between takes Ernie says, "I've got a great idea. You pound on the door and you pound so hard it comes off the hinges and your body falls down to the ground right on top of it! It'll be a great bit for you!" Well, you don't argue with an Academy Award winner. Being the idiot that I am - I did it and it gave me whiplash! That whiplash problem is with me to this day!
Illustration by Drew Friedman
She continued this exhibitionist behavior throughout the whole show. Ernest Borgnine was playing her husband and he put up with it, he put up with it, he put up with it. There was one point in Capri where it was very difficult logistically. The crew had to pick up all the equipment and get it off the ship because after our shoot that morning, that same ship was actually leaving the port. It was a very tight schedule because of it. And it wasn't possible to dock, so all the actors and crew had to take these small boats back to shore. We get there and she was ranting, "I hate this script! Change it! This costume is no good! No, my hair can't be done like that." Well, Ernie just ripped into her with every foul word you could possibly imagine. I think that's what she was looking for because after that she went ahead and did it. It was totally unnecessary for her to disrupt everything, but that's just the way she was.