Tuesday, July 19, 2016

An Interview with Bernie Kopell - Part Two

Kliph Nesteroff: Some of the people that appeared on Get Smart whom I've interviewed - like Dick Gautier and Pete Barbutti - have nothing good to say about Don Adams. You worked with Don Adams frequently on Get Smart in what is arguably your most famous role.

Bernie Kopell: My experience, Kliph... you gotta get over that spelling, K-l-i-p-h... Jesus...

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Bernie Kopell: My experience with him was like a little bit of heaven. He was responsive to me. He liked that I helped set him up. We played off each other. This was the total opposite of my experience with Danny Kaye. The way those others describe their experience with Don Adams was sort of how I felt about Danny Kaye. Danny Kaye was a virtuoso on the stage but... We were in a sketch together on The Danny Kaye Show. He was a hero coming down from the hills of Mexico to help the villagers and I played one of his helpers.

I got a big laugh with my line at our first rehearsal in front of an audience. I did not know that it was against the law on The Danny Kaye Show for anyone to get a big laugh other than Danny Kaye. I felt something that seemed like an icepick in my forearm. He was grabbing me. I said, "Danny, what the hell?" I looked at him and he had blood in his eyes. His idea was: "You set me up - and then I get the laugh." It continued that way until I was ultimately fired. 

Danny Kaye's background was as a tummler. My parents saw him when they were on their honeymoon in White Roe Lake in 1932. He was a kid there and he was a tummler whose job was to amuse the guests and do shows on Saturday nights. Later when this kid grew up to be the star of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, he was a God in our home. When I started working with him I could barely speak because he was so huge in the minds of my parents. As a child I had done his shtick, pantomiming to records. But he turned out to be a very unpleasant human being and it was very uncomfortable.

Danny Kaye was embraced by the British royalty and he had a "special" relationship with maybe the greatest living actor - Laurence Olivier. I was shocked to discover he was all a facade. He was just unpleasant. There was a little girl named Donna Butterworth and Danny had a scene with her. He was doing that Pied Piper character and she was sitting on his knee. He was doing those jokes, "My nose is like the Holland Tunnel. You enter here and exit in New Jersey." The scene is over, the light goes off, they go to commercial, and he goes, "You little cunt." She was a child! It was astonishing that he would behave this way - but that was Danny Kaye.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you get the news that you'd been fired?

Bernie Kopell: Another sketch came up and I did my Latino accent. He didn't like it and he had me removed from the show. It didn't stop my career any. I went right from there and joined The Steve Allen Show. I refer to it as The Secret Steve Allen Show because maybe three people saw that series. "Shhhh.... Bernie's on The Steve Allen Show... don't tell anybody."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) During your time on The Danny Kaye Show was Paul Mazursky one of the writers?

Bernie Kopell: Yes, Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker were a writing team on that program. Their big claim to fame was the movie I Love You, Alice B. Toklas and then Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice. Paul Mazursky went on to become a major filmmaker, but I'm not sure what happened to Larry Tucker. Larry was immensely fat and he used to tell all kinds of fat jokes. "I don't want to say I'm fat but my vaccination had a three day reign." 

Kliph Nesteroff: You're also in a Danny Kaye film called The Man From the Diner's Club.

Bernie Kopell: Well, I just had a small bit and didn't actually have any scenes with him. Frank Tashlin directed it. I played a Western Union guy, but there's nothing to report on that. I rode a bicycle, delivered a Western Union message, and that was it. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Now back to that sorta obscure incarnation of The Steve Allen Show. Years ago I interviewed a guy named Don Sherman.

Bernie Kopell: Yeah, Don Sherman and I came on that show at the same time. He was a New Yawk - Bronx type guy and a stand-up who worked cruise ships for years. I was a sketch guy on that show. Steve Allen's associate producer was Dick Brill. He would throw these great parties with his beautiful, elegant wife Patricia in their home. I would do things I thought were funny at their parties. One time Dick wanted me to meet Edward Mulhare from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. It was a cocktail party with noise, noise, noise, clinking glasses and music. Edward was across the room and Dick yells, "Edward Mulhare! I want you to meet Bernie Kopell!" Mulhare can't really hear us and yelled back, "Barnacle Bill!?" 

Anyway, Dick walks me through the party and says, "Come on, I want you to meet Steve Allen's writers, Mike Marmer and Stan Burns." I went up and performed my pilot character and I did this character - Schwartz, the Richest Man in the World. I ended up doing it on the show. Steve Allen was the straight man: "It's been brooded about, Richest Man in the World, that you help out people less fortunate than yourself. Can you tell me who these people are?" I said, "Yes, they are all the people much less fortunate than myself like the Vanderbilts and the Astors and the Rockefellers." After I did that shtick Mike Marmer and Stan Burns started writing all kinds of things for me. Mike was a drinker and a smoker. Stan was a health nut who would lift weights and if he wanted to mix it up he would vacuum his home.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) 

Bernie Kopell: These guys were marvelous writers. They invented a character for me - Japan's Foremost Comedian. It was tremendous fun to do The Steve Allen Show because he was so welcoming. Steve would sometimes cackle right in the middle of a sketch. I asked him one time, "Steve, that line wasn't that funny. Why were you laughing?" He said, "I know it wasn't that funny, but you should hear the show going on in my head." He was a renaissance man. When he wasn't on camera he'd be talking into a tape recorder or playing the vibraphone. He was the most incredibly talented human being.

Kliph Nesteroff: Gabe Dell was on that series.

Bernie Kopell: Gabe Dell did the best Bela Lugosi of all time. He always came to work riding his motorcycle. He was a delightful guy. I sort of stole his Bela Lugosi later on. I think he died from some kind of drug situation. 

Kliph Nesteroff: How long did that version of The Steve Allen Show last?

Bernie Kopell: Well, I did thirty episodes and we did two 90-minute shows each week. We taped both of them in one evening. Steve regenerated himself in between by lying on a slant board. It was a delight. We taped it at Vine and La Mirada. We'd cross the street and go to Durando's, the only watering hole in the area. It was run by Dottie Durando and she liked to imbibe. Mr. Durando, a couple years earlier, bounced a rowdy customer who then later returned with a gun. The guy fired two shots and one went through Mr. Durando's heart, killing him instantly.

The other bullet went into the carpet. Dottie Durando, in her cups, would show off the hole in the carpet. Donn Trenner was the bandleader on that program and the band had people like Herb Ellis and Jack Sheldon. Donn Trenner would come in after everyone ordered and take a sample from your plate and a sample from the next person's plate. Nobody ever saw Donn Trenner order a meal. He only ate other people's food.

Leonard Stern had written for Steve Allen for years. He was now working on Get Smart. He called me one day and said, "Can you do a German accent?" I didn't know so I just said, "Yes, of course." You just want to accept that offer before they change their mind. Well, who wrote my first episode of Get Smart but my friends Mike Marmer and Stan Burns. They created this brilliant episode, my first, called A Spy for a Spy.

Right at the same time I heard from Jerry Davis who was producing the Marlo Thomas program. He invited me for lunch at Hal's Studio Cafe. This was the commissary where everyone ate at Desilu-Cahuenga. Jerry Davis was the Cary Grant of comedy writers. He wasn't that great of a writer, but he was great company and he dressed beautifully.

He was always on a subtle prowl for the ladies. It was always delightful to be with Jerry Davis. We had lunch and I was about to leave. He goes, "No, no, don't go yet. Bernie, before you leave, let's go visit Stage 8." That was where they were taping That Girl with Marlo Thomas.  

His idea was to get me to meet Marlo Thomas and the writers on That Girl. He had me do my shtick for them. That was a surprise and - boom - I was immediately cast as Jerry Bauman. So now I was thinking, "Do I have to make a choice? Do I have to choose between Siegfried on Get Smart and Jerry Bauman on That Girl?" I was confused as to what to do. But then I thought - maybe I can get away with doing both. I got very friendly with the second assistant director who made up the schedules. If I was scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday on Get Smart I would tell the A.D. I was only available Monday, Wednesday and Friday for That Girl. So I got to do both of them for five years. I never had a conflict with either one, although it was a very schizophrenic time for me. I was doing both those shows every week, but it was wonderful to have that work.


Yowp said...

I notice the mention of Jack Sheldon. I hope you had a chance to ask Mr. K. about being written out of "Run Buddy Run."

Kevin K. said...

Thank you to Bernie for confirming my gut feeling as a child -- that Danny Kaye in reality was a nasty guy. Always creeped me out.

greg6363 said...

Marmer and Burns were the creators of Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp with Kopell providing the voice of one of the characters. I'll have to look up which one.