Friday, March 11, 2011

An Interview with Bill Persky

Kliph Nesteroff: I had heard that while you were in college you were doing impressions and had started a little act of your own. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about that.

Bill Persky: Well, I started doing entertainment at fraternity parties and people liked it. I was doing impressions. That was back in 1951-52. Many years later I spoke to my daughter's high school class and I mentioned that I had been an entertainer in college working in nightclubs and I did impressions of actors, most of whom are now dead. When the school paper came out it said, "Dana [Persky]'s Father Does Impressions of Dead Actors."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Bill Persky: At any rate I just worked in a few clubs and I did some larger university parties. Then I started writing and in college, a roommate, he and I started writing together. We wrote a show for the school, a big musical that was chosen by Life magazine in 1953 as the outstanding college show of the year. 

They came up and did all sorts of interviews and pictures, but we never made it into the magazine. The star of that show was actually Peter Falk and Bob Dishy. The director was Jerry Leider who went on to be a very successful man. 

Kliph Nesteroff: To be fair, Rich Little still performs and all of his impressions are of dead actors.

Bill Persky: Right, of course. I remember Carl Reiner once went up to Rich Little and said, "Hey, Rich! Who are you?"

Kliph Nesteroff: Your sister was married to Paul Grossinger of the Catskill Grossingers. Did that relation have any bearing or influence on you in terms of getting involved with comedy and show business?

Bill Persky: That's right. Oh, God yes, that was the start of it all. She went to a book party for the book by Joey Adams, the stand-up comic. He'd written a book called Nights of the Clown Table about the table at Toots Shor's where all the comedians sat. Anyway, there were all these jokes in the book and I started telling the jokes and that was really the beginning of my getting involved with doing anything with comedy. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Did that connection actually bring you into contact with any of the mountain comics?

Bill Persky: Oh, yes. I saw them all. I met most of them and used to take care of... I worked up there in the summer and worked at the pool as a cabana boy. One of my regular customers was Milton Berle's mother. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Was it just a thrill?

Bill Persky: Oh, God yes. The whole thing was just a rare experience to be exposed to. I was at Grossinger's and Mel Brooks was on the staff to write a show, the staff show. He was there and he entertained at the mid-week variety show. On the weekends they'd have big stars, but during the week they'd have lesser people. And Mel, got to do stand-up and insulted everyone to the point that they ran him off the grounds the next day.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) I had also read that you sold a script to Howdy Doody.

Bill Persky: Yes. Donald, my partner, Don Rosenblit and I, were working at an ad agency in New York and we met somebody that was involved with Howdy Doody. We went and had a meeting there. We invented a character that was actually on Howdy Doody [regularly], though we didn't end up getting to write anything more than the sample story. They took the character. It was about Howdy going up to the North Pole and encountering this animal that was called the Pigloo, which was a combination pig and igloo. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Was that your first sale to television?

Bill Persky: Yes, yes it was. I don't know that we got very much for it. In addition to talking to you, am in the process of writing a book called My Life as a Situation Comedy. In it are a lot of the stories of how I got started.

Kliph Nesteroff: Early on you got a job working at WNEW as... assistant program director? Did you meet William B. Williams?

Bill Persky: That's right... yeah, he was a very close friend. He was terrific. He knew more about popular music than anyone in the world. Frank Sinatra loved him. In fact, during the time when Frank Sinatra's career was ebbing, it was William B. who really kept him alive in the people's eyes. He played his music all the time. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Was Gene Rayburn also on staff? 

Bill Persky: No, it was Klavan and Finch then - Rayburn had left. Gene Klavan and I forget Finch's first name.

Kliph Nesteroff: I read that you were sometimes on air seven hours a day.

Bill Persky: Yes, well, there was a strike. The disc jockeys went on strike and even though I was earning forty dollars a week I was considered "management" and I had to stay there. They put us on the air, Sam Denoff and myself. We were on the air seven hours a day for a whole week. In fact, one of the funniest things was on the final night of the negotiations of the strike we were all sitting around and we decided we wanted to play poker. We went into the record library and the [LPs] were all different sizes. There were transcriptions that were sixteen inches and then there were fourteen inches and there were twelve inch and it was the beginning of forty-fives... so we used the records as money. The transcriptions were quarters and we sat playing cards with all of these records.

Kliph Nesteroff: Eventually you and Sam Denoff started writing for nightclub comedians.

Bill Persky: Ron Carey [was a comedian we wrote for]. He was sixteen when we first met him. Crazy as a loon. But funny as hell.

Kliph Nesteroff: He never seemed to garner much fame as a nightclub comic, mostly as a TV actor. Did he have much of a career in stand-up?

Bill Persky: No. One of the things that happened was, he was afraid to travel. So he would only go to places where he could hear WNEW on the radio because otherwise he would feel out of touch with us. So he had offers made, but he wouldn't take them. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I have a list here. Sid Caesar, Dick Shawn and Don Rickles as other people whom you wrote nightclub material for...

Bill Persky: Rickles, not really. For Rickles we wrote the Van Dyke show that really got him noticed as a television actor. It was about him holding up Dick and Mary in an elevator that got stuck. Sid, during a period of time, when he was between shows and was kind of on the wane, was doing nightclub stuff. We wrote a whole bunch of things for him. My favorite was, there was a restaurant in New York then called The Forum of the Twelve Caesars. It was very lavish, old Roman decor. The wine buckets were Roman helmets, and the salt shakers... I mean, the accoutrements were more popular than the food. There was an article about how much stuff was stolen. So we wrote a piece for Sid about the fact that the restaurant wasn't really a restaurant, it was an antique store. The idea was to help people to steal things. So we would explain how when you see that the wine is no longer in the bucket, pour the ice out, and wipe it dry so they can wear it out. It was a really funny piece.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the process of selling material to nightclub comedians? Did you approach them directly? Did you have to go through somebody?

Bill Persky: In the beginning George Shapiro, who was our agent, forced us on them. Then once we got a reputation - they came to us which made it a lot easier.

Kliph Nesteroff: Would you bother to go to the nightclub and watch them deliver your material?

Bill Persky: We'd always go to see them and see what we had to do with it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now you were going to write for Allen and Rossi but...

Bill Persky: Couldn't stand them. I came up with one of the most non-committal reactions to a comedian looking for praise when they came off. They walked over and they said, "Eh? Eh?" I said, "Boy, do you do forty-five minutes." They took it to mean that I meant, "Boy, you do a brilliant forty-five minutes."

Kliph Nesteroff: What was your aversion to them?

Bill Persky: They were slobs! They weren't funny!

Kliph Nesteroff: And that was at The Copacabana. What was The Copa like as a venue?

Bill Persky: Oh, it was fabulous. It was the kind of place where if you had a table and somebody who was connected came in they walked right over you and put them right in front of you. There's a great Copa story from that period. The head of The Copa was Jules Podell and somebody talked him into booking Howard Keel who was a singer. Howard Keel opened and no one came to see him and the audience didn't like him. When he walked off to his dressing room, he said to Jules Podell who was standing there, "Well, Mr. Podell! What do you think?" Jules Podell said, "How would you like to go fuck yourself?" 

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) Ah, Jules Podell. I wanted to ask you a little bit about The Steve Allen Show - or what was called the NEW Steve Allen Show when you got hired in 1961. Along with you on the writing staff was a young Buck Henry. What was Buck like back then?

Bill Persky: Crazy. He was always crazy, brilliant and so intelligent and sophisticated, knowledgeble and educated. But he was nuts. He would walk around with pajamas on under his clothes.

Kliph Nesteroff: And a young unknown Tim Conway as well?

Bill Persky: Well, Timmy... someone saw Timmy in Cleveland and brought him in. I think, as a matter of fact, Rose Marie was his agent. If I recall right it was Rose Marie who brought him to Steve's attention. He was brilliant and we wrote the first piece that he did on national television. It was about a man who was the protocol man in Washington, getting ready for the visit of a dignitary. 

Kliph Nesteroff: He was in a comedy team with Ernie Anderson...

Bill Persky: Yeah, way back. Not then.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Joey Forman - he was on the program also wasn't he?

Bill Persky: Joey I had known for years because he was Eddie Fisher's best friend back in the Catskill days. He worked on the show and he did impressions. Also on the show there were The Smothers Brothers. That was first show. They were dynamite.

Kliph Nesteroff: Stan Burns.

Bill Persky: Stan Burns was probably one of the funniest, nicest men I ever met. He was so unlike a comedy writer. He was just crazy, his ideas and his energy. He never bought into anything Hollywood, it was just what he did for a living. He was just a guy who'd come in. He didn't hang out anywhere and he didn't want to be part of any parties or any of that stuff. He wasn't show business. You know what I mean? He was just in show business.

Kliph Nesteroff: Leonard Stern.

Bill Persky: Leonard Stern was a very severe guy. He certainly had his accomplishments. We were not ever close, although I worked with him a lot.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you mean by severe?

Bill Persky: He was just kind of removed. Kind of arched.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was a producer on the show named Charlie Andrews...

Bill Persky: Yeah. He was a nice guy, but he was in over his show on that show. 

Kliph Nesteroff: How so?

Bill Persky: He just really didn't take control of it. Bill Dana was actually the producer. Billy is the sweetest guy in the world and a wonderful writer, but the most disorganized person you have ever met. So between the two of them it was not well run.

Kliph Nesteroff: Speaking of Bill Dana - you and Sam Denoff wrote for at least one of Bill Dana's comedy records. You also did your own comedy record with Lennie Weinrib and...

Bill Persky: Yes and Joyce Jameson. It also became a CBS television special and was the start of the television career of Sonny and Cher. It was called The First Nine Months are the Hardest and it was about my experiences during my wife's first pregnancy, which were not unique. They were everyone's experience. We did the album and then out of the album we sold the special to CBS and it starred Jimmy Farantino and Michelle Leigh. It had three couples on it. Ken Berry and his wife Jackie Joseph. Dick Van Dyke was the host. He was the doctor the women were going to. We needed a third couple and we coudn't find any, and the only ones we could think of were Sonny and Cher. This was in 1970. The network was not really that interested in them, but they let us use them. As a result of that special they got their series. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Arnie Sultan and Marvin Worth were a pair of writers you worked with on The Steve Allen Show...

Bill Persky: Arnie Sultan and Marvin Worth. They were the hottest show business guys around at that time. They had more deals than they had hair on their head. I don't know that any of them ever worked out, but they always had a lot of action going on. I think both of them are long gone. Marvin produced the Lenny movie and he did a number of things. Arnie never did go much past their partnership.

Kliph Nesteroff: And some other cast members in the Steve Allen fold... Louis Nye...

Bill Persky: Louis, of course, was brilliant and crazy. They were all very bizarre. He was the kind of person you never got to know... I knew him, but I didn't know him. And Dayton Allen was beyond reaching.

Kliph Nesteroff: You went on to work on The Andy Williams Show with a veteran comedy writer - Mort Greene.

Bill Persky: Mort "Velvet" Greene. Mort Greene had been very successful, I think, on The Perry Como Show. He was called Velvet Mort because he had velvet collars on all of his suit jackets. By the time he got to Andy, he hadn't worked for a while so the velvet was pretty frayed. He and Harry [Crane] were not a good mix. There were two kinds of comedy writers if you asked one comedy writer about another. There were two answers. "Funniest guy in the world. Don't turn your back on him." Or "Nicest guy in the world. Can't write his name." Harry was funniest guy in the world don't turn your back on him, Mort was nicest guy - can't write his name. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, how did he get on the show if he couldn't...

Bill Persky: I don't know. Friendship. Bob Finkel who was the producer was an old friend of his, I don't know. It was about a friendship. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you fired from The Andy Williams Show?

Bill Persky: Yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: Why did that happen?

Bill Persky: It happened because Harry, who was the world's greatest politician, in order to preserve himself, sacrificed us while appearing to be our champion. The interesting thing was, when we were fired from The Andy Williams Show it was like the end of the world. They weren't doing a full series the next year, they were just doing a series of specials. In the period between February and the start of their new season in September, we had gotten on The Dick Van Dyke Show and had already become stars. We got a call from Bob Finkel in October and Andy had said, "I think it would be a good idea to get Bill and Sam back because something's missing." He called up to see if we were available, which I knew we weren't, but I made him give me all the detailing and I kept him on the line for an hour just to get even. 

Kliph Nesteroff: And then - I don't know if you actually sat in the writers room - but you wrote a little something for The Joey Bishop Show.

Bill Persky: We wrote a Joey Bishop show. I don't remember which one it was. Everybody, The Joey Bishop Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show, they were all on the same studio lot. There were five stages and we had five of the top ten shows on television, so everyone knew everybody. Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson were pretty much working for Joey but they also did some Van Dykes, so we went back and forth.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Joey Bishop like?

Bill Persky: He was a prick. The best story about him... he played his own cousin on one episode. He was playing two parts or something and he complained that the cousin was getting bigger laughs than him.    

Kliph Nesteroff: Danny Thomas.

Bill Persky: He was terrific. I loved Danny. He was funny and he was warm. He was very giving. Of course, Sheldon his partner really took care of the business side. Sheldon Leonard - he was a Damon Runyon character. But smart as a whip, great business man, a real good eye for talent, and as flamboyant as you would expect him to be. I remember we were once in Vegas, and he was dressed in a white suit with a black silk shirt and a white tie and panama hat at the crap table. I was at the other end with his wife Frankie and I looked at him and I said to her, "God, you know, Frankie. Nobody could dress like that." She said, "I wish nobody would."

Kliph Nesteroff: Somebody that loved Damon Runyon-esque folks was Nat Hiken. Did you ever get a chance to meet Nat? 

Bill Persky: Yes, actually we worked...we gave... the week that I was leaving New York for The Steve Allen Show where we only had a three week contract... if they liked us we'd be picked up for another three weeks and then another three weeks. So it was a very precarious thing to do. But both Sam and I knew that if we didn't take this chance that we'd never get another one. The weekend before I left for California, my in-laws and my wife and I went out to golf. I had hit a ball into the woods and I went in to look for it, and I found a ball that had Nat Hiken's name on it. So, I took that as a very good sign. I kept that golf ball as a good luck charm. When I knew Nat and we spent time together, I said, "I found this." And I gave it to him.

Kliph Nesteroff: So when did you get to know him?

Bill Persky: I guess it was in the second year of the Van Dyke Show. We had an extra small office near our office and he was on the lot doing something I guess for Danny and Sheldon. He used that office and we spent a lot of time together. He was the dearest and the most brilliant comedy mind around.

Kliph Nesteroff: I don't understand why he doesn't get the recognition today...

Bill Persky: Yeah, it's interesting. He's really one of the classics. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you ever know or work with Phil Silvers?

Bill Persky: Only briefly in that I was casting a pilot and I wanted Phil Silvers for the lead and I met with him then. He didn't get the part. I met with him then.

Kliph Nesteroff: What can you tell me about working with Morey Amsterdam?

Bill Persky: Morey was a very sweet man. A joke machine. No taste. He wasn't neccesarily vulgar or anything, but he just made up jokes that didn't have any substance.

Kliph Nesteroff: You have said before that Rose Marie, and maybe Richard Deacon as well, were hesitant to accept you and Sam as producers on the [Dick Van Dyke] show.

Bill Persky: Yeah. They never really accepted us. Even in the three years and the fact that we had written, by that time, thirty-five shows and we were the story editors. When Carl [Reiner] went to do The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! he put us as directors and producers and they didn't like him leaving I think. You know, Richard Deacon was really bitchy. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Did that make the process of working there incredibly uncomfortable?

Bill Persky: No, but Carl used to sit at one end of the table for the readings and we would sit at the other end. So, when he left, we left the end of his table open and we still stayed where we belonged. And then a phone call came in for Carl and Deacon picked it up and answered it and he said, "They want to talk to the producer." I took the call and the person said, "Is this Carl Reiner?" I said, "No. But I'm trying as hard as I can."

Kliph Nesteroff: Somebody that I think you worked with that I find fascinating as a character is...

Bill Persky: Billy DeWolfe.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, yes, Billy DeWolfe, but I was actually going to say Burt Mustin.

Bill Persky: Oh, Burt. I loved Burt. Burt Mustin was one of the true gentleman of the world. I just loved him. He had a very interesting background. He had been, not at Westpoint, but I guess The Citadel. He was a real Southern gentleman. I saw wedding photos in his uniform and everything. He had a barbershop quartet and I used to sing with him. He was a great guy. I loved Burt. And Billy DeWolfe was, I guess, one of my favorite people ever. He was just a sweetheart of a guy and brilliantly funny. Most people didn't know that he had been an acrobat at one point. He had a way - he was so grand and it was terrific.

Kliph Nesteroff: I had heard that the first Good Morning World pilot had been turned down.

Bill Persky: Yes, it was with Ron Rifkin. It was only different in the fact that they didn't like that Ron Rifkin was Jewish. I mean, literally he just came across as ethnic, and so we re-did it. He was good in it though. It almost destroyed him. It was the first thing he did in Hollywood, he couldn't believe he got a job and he was vilified by the client and replaced. It took him a long time to recover.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Ronnie Schell like?

Bill Persky: Ronnie Schell was a lunatic. He'd do anything for a dollar. But funny. Absolutely funny.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now, in your show for Marlo Thomas - That Girl - the early George Carlin appears in a couple of episodes.

Bill Persky: That's right and he disappeared one day and returned as a totally different person about two years later. He just freaked out. He knew he had another calling. He called and said he wasn't coming in. He just said, "I'm leaving." We brought in Ronnie Schell. 

Kliph Nesteroff: So what do you remember about George prior to the transformation?

Bill Persky: George? He was the most straight-laced, conservative Republican you ever saw.

Kliph Nesteroff: You had a writer on That Girl named Ruth Brooks Flippen.

Bill Persky: She was a very big favorite of Marlo's. Marlo felt very comfortable with her's being the voice of a woman. We needed a woman on the show. She was terrific.

Kliph Nesteroff: And Bernie Orenstein.

Bill Persky: Bernie Orenstein and Saul Turtletaub. Friends to this day. I just lectured at a class that Bernie Orenstein is teaching. They did more different shows than anybody in the business. Every year they did a different show, except for when they did Sanford and Son, which they did for about two years. 

Kliph Nesteroff: There is an anecdote I would love for you to tell. A little something about Orson Welles? The last time you saw Orson Welles?

Bill Persky: Oh, yes. Well, it was at the end of the shooting of the Hallmark Hall of Fame version of The Man Who Came to Dinner. We were in South Hampton and Orson had been alienated from the cast. There was an ongoing battle between him and the director Buzz Kulik. Orson was painted into a corner about being a real villain. He was not easy to work with. Through a series of circumstnaces he knew that I admired and protected him so we spent a lot of time together. It was six weeks that we were in London in South Hampton and the final night, there was a fight between the two of them, Buzz Kulik and Orson Welles. He disappeared and no one knew where he was. We had to finish the show. It was about the final shot. We finally located him. 

He said he'd only come back with a public apology. He came back and Kulik apologized over the P.A., but by that time the crew hated him, everybody hated him. After the show finished there was [going to be] a wrap party. I went inside to say goodbye to him and he was sitting there real vulnerable, in his final outfit. It was a very grand, blue suit and a cape and a persian lamb hat. He was the most elegant looking guy ever. He said, "Well, Billy, we should go to the party." I said, "Do you really think so?" He said, "Oh, yes. I've been through this before." So we went upstairs. It was on the fourth floor and the elevator wasn't working. He walked in and it was like deadly silence. He acted like they quited down to hear him say goodbye. He made an elegant speech and walked out and I walked out with him. He said, "Billy, I must pee!" I said, "Perhaps over here, sir." The door was locked to the men's room. We went down another floor and went down all four floors and he said, "If I don't pee I will explode!" 

We walked out into the parking lot and it was this heavy fog, this South Hampton fog and every footstep echoed like a rifle shot. The only lighting was from a tower in the middle of the parking lot about a hundred yards away. It was just the eeriest... it was like a scene from The Third Man. The only thing missing was the zither. In all of South Hampton, there is this ancient Roman Wall that works its way through the city ... in the parking lot there was a seciton of it. I walked over with Orson and he gave me a hug and he said, "Thank you, Billy. I love you." And I said, "I love you too, Orson." He unzipped his fly and I walked into the fog to the sound of Niagra Falls as Orson Welles peed on the Roman Wall.


Booksteve said...

My favorite interview yet! THAT GIRL is my all time favorite sitcom. So much info here I didn't know. I have that Lennie Weinrib album for instance but had no memory of a TV special tie-in...especially with Sonny & Cher.

And that Orson Welles

Keep these coming!

Michael Powers said...

Sensational Orson Welles story!

Thomas said...

Spanned my childhood of television memories....I feel like I just a had a beer and smoked a cigar with Bill Persky! Great interview with a National Treasure! Thank you

FredK said...

Wonderful collection.. I met Bill almost 25 years ago when he was just finishing up Kate and Allie. He visited us in South Mississippi one Christmas, and I remember to this day when I answered the phone and on the other end was Sid Caesar calling to wish him happy holidays.
There's also a great story Bill tells about his childhood - living near a bakery and spitting cherry pits down the bakery's chimney. Apparently he was overcome by Jewish guilt and spent the rest of the day standing outside the bakery warning the bread carrying patrons to "look out for the pits".
Bill, where are you today?

jeff coe said...

George Carlin was never a conservative Republican...ever.