Wednesday, October 24, 2012

An Interview with Will Jordan - Part Ten

Will Jordan: One of the reasons I can [impersonate] people like Eddie Cantor is because my voice is closer to a tenor. Of course, others have an advantage over me because the voices I wanted to do - like Jack Benny and Orson Welles - were too deep for me. When it came to the high voices then I could do it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Someone who does a very good Groucho impression - and I don't think he ever did it in his act - is Shecky Greene. Shecky told me a story about Groucho and did this perfect impression as he told the story. That era of Groucho when he was wearing the beret all the time. It was perfect.

Will Jordan: I've never heard that, but I bet it was. But he did do Sullivan for me - and it was better than mine! He did a routine about one of the shows - where he showed how Sullivan didn't want to use him. He imitated Sullivan perfect. It was perfect. He captured Sullivan's stupidity. "Why do we hate Shecky?" It's [Sullivan speaking] to his wife. I thought it was marvelous.

Kliph Nesteroff: What else do you remember about Shecky Greene? Did you go watch him perform much?

Will Jordan: He was a Chicago boy and a California boy; two places I was not in that often.

Kliph Nesteroff: I want to talk more about this comedy album you did for Roulette Records called Tapped Wires.

Will Jordan: Yeah, yeah, I kinda came in late on that and they had their different sketches that they wrote and everything else. I liked Adam Keefe very much. He didn't do too many impressions on that, but he came up with a voice for Albert Schweitzer. We had famous radio deejay [on the album] named Rhoda Brown, she was very beautiful and a very sweet girl. She did Zsa Zsa and was very good. My only criticism is that everyone does Zsa Zsa. Debbie Reynolds and Sheila MaCrae do Zsa Zsa. But there are millions of women other than Zsa Zsa. 

I did a trio act briefly. The girl we worked with, Grace Grant, she did Joan Bennett. I did Dan Duryea and she did Joan Bennett. Why couldn't you people do that? This girl Julie Dees and Marilyn Michaels - they imitated Elizabeth Taylor's voice. Now there's a nothing voice and that is harder to do - because it's so completely non-descript. Who else? Grace imitated Anne Todd and I did James Mason. We did the scene from The Seventh Veil. We bombed because we had the voices, but not the performance.

Marilyn Michaels caused trouble here in New York with Catskills on Broadway. For some reason she decided she wanted to do stand-up comedy. Now, you had three stand-up comics all pretty good. Freddie Roman was not as good, but he owned the show. You had Mal Z. Lawrence - very good - and Dick Capri. A woman that did impressions was the perfect balance. 

Instead of going out and doing her marvelous impressions, she decided to do it like stand-up. That was a little disruptive so they hired the other great gal, much younger, who was really her equal, Louise Dante. She looked like Cher and I said, "My God, you're as good as Marilyn." She was such a big hit that Ron Clark got her to work with Tim Conway when he did plays all over the country and she would come on during the intermission. She didn't look like anybody else. She was very, very good.

They fired Marilyn Michaels and I wanted to do it. They said, "Of course, you're the great Will Jordan, but it would be better to have a woman." I said, "Of course, you're right." It made a better show and it was sort of a hit. It was nothing more than four stand-up acts. There was no plot to it. It was a variety show. Mal Z. Lawrence was very, very good and I enjoyed it. Freddie Roman, you know him. Milt Moss calls him the greatest ass kisser in the world - and it's true. But that's a great talent too!

Kliph Nesteroff: He does seem like the consummate comedy politician.

Will Jordan: Perfect, perfect, perfect description. He kept saying to me, "You're too cheap. You won't join the Friars." I said, "Freddie, I'm not refraining from the Friars because of money. I've probably got more money than you! I didn't join because when you go to the Friars now the building is empty. They gave me six months free and I went - and there's nobody there. Not just because they're dead, but they only come in when there's an event. You know the old cliche about, "Oh, I'm going to go to my club." And it's a comfortable club, it's a very skinny, narrow building and it's quite nice. It's not the original Friars. You go there and there's nobody there. Who am I going to talk to?

It's not Hanson's. Hanson's is gone. Lindy's is gone. The Stage Delicatessen is run by different people now. The Stage Delicatessen changed hands. The owner was Max Asnas, sounds Greek, but it's Jewish and of course the food was great and the clientele was wonderful. There was this very talented comedian named Jack Durant. Durant was Mitchell and Durant.

You may remember them from some of the Shirley Temple movies. He was very funny. He did great acrobatics. He used to come out and he'd say, "Clark Gable." And then he would do a complete backflip! He'd say, "Can Clark Gable do that?" And he would tell old jokes. He was very funny and he would hang around the Stage Deli with this guy Bobby Bell, a very funny guy who never made it. He looked like Yves Montand. Very funny, very talented guy and one of the many, many that never made it. Bobby Bell. Max Asnas didn't like them for some reason. I don't know why.

Bobby Bell would imitate Jack Durant. He would say [in husky voice], "My friend Jack Durant was here." Max looks at him and says, "I don't like him and I don't like you. But when you imitate him... I like it!" (laughs) Jack Durant was a very successful nightclub comedian. He had a glass eye and a terrible toupe. He said, "Nobody can steal my act because I do old jokes." I liked Durant. Out of nowhere, for no apparent reason, Orson Welles gave him a big part as a straight actor in Journey Into Fear.

Kliph Nesteroff: I didn't know that.

Will Jordan: He's the dancer there or something, Dolores del Rio's boyfriend. Going further back he was in one of the greatest plays in the world - the original Gene Kelly production of Pal Joey.  A very interesting guy. He wasn't really a great mimic, but he did get laughs when he did Gable and I was interested in mimicry of any kind. I wanted to interview Eddie Garr - that's the father of Teri Garr.

And then there was another great mimic named Larry Blake - not to be confused with Arthur Blake. Arthur Blake was the gay mimic as was another more successful guy, Dean Murphy. You may have seen him in the movie with Ginny Simms, Very Warm for May. In that movie Dean Murphy does all his impressions to Nancy Walker.

He does Franklin Roosevelt and he does one that is so hip - Wendell Wilkie (laughs). Nobody could remember who the hell that was. Larry Blake was a mimic and he became a character actor. He did a million movies and his big role was in the sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front. It was a great book - The Road Back - but it was a terrible, terrible, terrible movie.

All Quiet on the Western Front was a great movie, but the sequel was terrible. Larry Blake was in it and his career went nowhere and he ended up playing gangster parts. But his act, the old timers tell me, he played the Roxy theater in tails. For those you always got dressed. Even at the worst nightclubs I ever worked I always wore a tuxedo. No one can imagine that today! The worst, crummy... I was playing Moose clubs in Pennsylvania and I was wearing a tuxedo. When I played the Improv club in Vegas the other comedians were wearing t-shirts.

One of the other comedians on the bill was Kevin [James] from King of Queens. Very nice guy and I said, "You're very good." He was so thrilled. I wasn't that good there. He was so thrilled, he said, "You think I'm good?" Later on he got the show. Later on Jerry Stiller said to me, "Why didn't you ask him for a part on the show?" I said, "I don't do things like that." He said, "Well, that's the way it's done!" Jerry and I are exactly the same age. I never did those sort of things and maybe I should have.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned at some point - you were dating a girl from a game show...

Will Jordan: The show that was the big quiz scandal - Twenty One. It turned out - there were twins. One of them had been my girlfriend years before and she dumped me and we picked up together again and I kind of hung around the show. I knew Jack Barry, the guy who ran the show. He had done Tic Tac Dough and everything. Kind of a nice guy. Bad nose job, but a nice guy. Anyway, now they make a movie about it. Was it Redford who did it?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes.

Will Jordan: I mean it was so incredibly inaccurate. Normally I would not have known, but I had hung around the show with my gal friend. It was even down to the twins that they had in the movie. They had two ugly, short brunettes. Down to the tiniest detail it was wrong. You get a short English guy to play Van Doren? Now Van Doren wasn't Gable but... I mean, completely miscast.

Then they did the movie of The Avengers and you've got the heroine taller than the hero. Who would think of that? Only gays. Only a gay would cast like that - unless of course if it was supposed to be funny. That's different. Funny, then I mean, God, gays are very funny. People like Franklin Pangborn and Edward Everett Horton are brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Great. Paul Lynde was a very, very great talent. Although they weren't really playing gay.

And if you're gay and it doesn't show like Rock Hudson then I don't give a shit one way or another. He never disturbed me because he wasn't effeminate. People keep talking about rumors and some of these rumors are crazy. There was a guy in the park here the other day who said Robert Mitchum was gay. I said, "Hold it. Hold it! You have gone too far!"

Will Jordan: "Mitchum was gay and trying to make love to Paul Douglas." I said, "You need to see a doctor." Now it was true that Johnnie Ray had the hots for Paul Douglas. That's pretty strange too, but Johnnie Ray was pretty gay. That's not the same thing.

Kliph Nesteroff: Can I ask you if you ever hung out... I realize you were a product of New York, but there were similar places like Hanson's in other cities. There was Woflie's in Miami...

Will Jordan: A place that I mentioned before would be a better example. The Cornerhouse in Chicago, I think, in the Barclay Hotel. That would be the closest thing to Hanson's. I think the actual total of all the comedians might be the same as New York, but it wasn't as centered. So many people of Chicago were in the suburbs whereas people in New York were mostly in New York. In Chicago many of your major comedians were not downtown.

There was Fritzl's and everything and those places you had your big stars. Of course you had the great nightclub the Chez Paree and the Palmer House and different things. The Cornerhouse was where I would see people and even though we weren't quite the same - it's hard to define - I wouldn't call them square - but they had a different rhythm. It was a little bit slower.

Shecky was the most like a New York comedian. Even with Shecky there was something about Shecky, different pronunciations, "Shecky, you're not a New York Jew, I can tell." But so wonderful. He was just marvelous. A hugh mop of hair and he would do Lou Costello and everything. His stand-up - he would tell that story about Gandhi, God, was that marvelous. "Give me a fuckin' cookie!" He was so funny. He still is. He said something that wasn't funny, but was very meaningful and I liked very much. He said, "I don't like what people are laughing about." I thought that was very astute. "I don't like what people are laughing at." He wasn't criticizing the comedians. I said, "That's good. It's about time."

We comedians aren't allowed to criticize the audience, but somebody has to once in a while. They say if you're good then you're good all the time, but it's not true. What about a movie? A movie is exactly the same everytime you see it, so why does one audience laugh more at one show over another. So it's got to be the audience too. Jackie Mason had a thing about that too. People were throwing lines at him. He was being heckled. He said, "You talking to me? When you go to the movie do you talk to the movie? Why you talking to me?"

Kliph Nesteroff: We've mentioned previously that you appeared on the Red Skelton show once. Skelton was known, like Milton Berle, for being a bit of a monster in terms of how he treated production staff and treating his writers poorly.

Will Jordan: I didn't see that, but I'll tell you he did like to do a lot of dirty stuff in rehearsal. They say he did it to get it out of his system. In this show Rosemary was a stewardess. He kept saying, "Steward asses." During rehearsal this actress was playing a nurse. She was saying, "You know you can't get it up anymore!" He was famous for being dirty. He wasn't that nice to me, but he did hire me to repeat, which was flattering but he asked me to take a cut in salary.

It was Lou Aaron, a very famous agent. I said, "He wants me back for less? Shouldn't I be getting more?" "Take it or leave it." Of course I had to take it. How am I going to turn down Skelton? I remember calling Sullivan and he answered the phone. I said, "I'm my own agent now and I'm going to have to book myself." This was 1964. He said, "Oh, of course. Anytime." Even though I didn't do the show that much. I only did it six times. Then I said, "I'm doing The Red Skelton Show and I'll be imitating you." He acted like a little kid. He said, "You, you, you're imitating me on Red!" He was thrilled.

Unfortunately, Ed's son-in-law kept cutting me out. I asked for a raise. They gave it to me, but when I went to get it the son-in-law was booking, Robert Precht, and he didn't like me. He liked Johnny Byner. Everybody liked Johnny Byner. Byner was more of a comedian than I was. He could sing better and he could do this and that. Byner was not an authentic mimic. He was very good doing cartoons. He was the voice of the aardvark and the ant.

He did Jackie Mason and Dean Martin fine. They made an album and the guys who made Make Me Laugh had cast all the characters that I do with other people and I was called in to be President Cary Grant; it was 'if movie stars took over the government.' They were nice guys, the producers of the First Family. This was called The New First Family.

They got Lenny Maxwell, nice guy, doing Groucho, Johnny Byner doing Ed Sullivan and me doing Cary Grant. I said, "But you saw me do these voices on Make Me Laugh." They said, "Well, we just didn't think of it. You've got to have someone pitching you." I took it because I wanted to be on it. It was a big flop. That wonderful artist did the drawings for the cover. What was his name? Jackson?

Kliph Nesteroff: Jack Davis.

Will Jordan: Jack Davis, yes. It's a nothing album. The script just wasn't that good.

Kliph Nesteroff: What about that record you did for Roulette? Did you have any run-ins with the mobster that ran the label - Morris Levy?

Will Jordan: Roulette put out records of comedians... they did one with Buddy Hackett and the Chinese waiter... wasn't that Roulette?

Kliph Nesteroff: No, the Buddy Hackett album was Coral Records. The people that were on Roulette mostly didn't get paid. Bill Dana put out two records on Roulette. They taped his act off of TV and released it as a record. When his management objected, Roulette Records started phoning in the middle of the night saying, "If you know what's good for you - lay off." They were gangsters.

Will Jordan: Well, I worked for Jubilee and that was Jerry something.

Kliph Nesteroff: Blaine.

Will Jordan: Jerry was kind of a tough guy, but he was pretty good to me though. He made a lot of money with Rusty Warren. Belle Barth was the big one. Rusty Warren made a hundred albums, but Belle Barth was the beginning of the dirty woman thing. She was first.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jubilee was run by a guy named Jerry Blaine.

Will Jordan: Jerry Blaine, yeah. Well, I had problems with that too, but I take the blame. I think the first half of my life was mistakes and the second half of my life was bad luck.

Kliph Nesteroff: Belle Barth was on Roundtable Records, which was named for the nightclub The Roundtable - also owned by Morris Levy from Roulette...

Will Jordan: Boy, you know everything. Did you say you were around thirty?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah.

Will Jordan: God, what an enormous amount of knowledge.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012