Saturday, January 26, 2013

An Interview with Will Jordan - Part Twelve

Kliph Nesteroff: We've been talking about how all performers are influenced by someone else. There's a historical precedent for everything. So, there must be some kind of a historical precedent for Will Jordan. You say Larry Storch was one of your influences?

Will Jordan: Well, I don't think I was anything like him, but he inspired me. There wasn't really anybody. I'm really my impressions. Nobody ever sees much of me. I can't really say that anybody influenced me because I'm not really me. I don't really have a style to speak of.

I guess you could hear me tell a joke and I might remind you of someone, but I'm not really aware. I was certainly influenced and, I mean, impressed by Berle. I fell in love with a girl at the Playboy Mansion. A hatcheck girl who was the most gorgeous thing I had ever seen in my life. She dumped me and I really got suicidal. I met Bob Hope and he was very sympathetic. I said, "I'm going to kill myself." Hope said, "There will be another girl along in a minute. Don't worry about it."

Then I told Jack Benny. Jack Benny said, "To kill yourself and ruin that great talent of yours?" Then I told Berle. Look at the difference in the reaction. I said to Berle, "I'm going to kill myself." Berle said, "Sit down. Tell me about it." See the difference in people? Jane Kean introduced me to Basil Rathbone. He was doing something in the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York. Jane said to him, "You've seen Will on the Sullivan show haven't you?" And Rathbone said, "Many times."

See the difference? See how gracious that was? Some people just have a built in need to be nice. There's no question about it. Here's Tony Martin and Milton Berle wanting to hear how I lost a girl (laughs). These two guys who probably fucked more beautiful girls than you can imagine! Yet they were sympathetic that I was striking out. I thought that was amazing. Not that Jack Benny wasn't nice, he was very nice.

And Hope was trying to get me on the Como show. Can you believe it that Bob Hope couldn't get me on the Como show? Como thought I was a janitor or something. Hope said, "No, don't use Jack Carter. Will Jordan is an original!" Here's Bob Hope talking to Como! Como said, "Why would you knock Jack Carter?" Of course, none of these people would knock Jack Carter just to please me, but they certainly agreed that the [original Ed Sullivan] bit was mine.

No one denied that and no one ever thought anything other than that. My luck. This is bad luck. Bob Hope can't get me the Como show. Now the Como show at that time - you have to understand that some shows were popular and then later on they were nothing. The Steve Allen Show, which was done later in syndication, was nothing as far as building a career. They meant nothing. Jerry Lester and those shows had no meaning at all. Merv Griffin was good, but the shows that would help you you couldn't understand [why]. The show that was helping Totie Fields was Mike Douglas, which wasn't even a network show. 

Rodney [Dangerfield] confirmed this. He said, "I got more reaction from [being on] Mike Douglas than I did Ed Sullivan." Makes no sense! Of course they all agreed on Johnny Carson. But for the actual amount of people [made famous] you would have to go with Jack Paar. These people didn't become big stars, but he made a lot of semi-stars. You know? He definitely loved people from Ohio. He is definitely responsible for Hugh Downs. He is definitely responsible for Jonathan Winters and Charlie Weaver. 

Now on radio - the big one - no one ever mentions. This guy introduced almost every major star. One man - Rudy Vallee. Rudy Vallee introduced Eddie Cantor, certainly Edgar Bergen and many, many others. They all got their start on the Rudy Vallee show and he wasn't that old. Vallee was the same age as Bing.

Kliph Nesteroff: They blame Vallee's huge ego for killing his career...

Will Jordan: He lost his voice. And another thing was the style. Bing changed the style. Up until then the tenors were more popular. Look at the classic operas. The tenor is the hero, not the baritone. Bing made the baritone big. Baritones became "in" with Bing. Rudy Vallee was out. Dick Powell was more like Rudy Vallee, although I think he was much more talented. But I think Dick Powell was doing Rudy Vallee. 

It was the same exact look, same exact everything, but Dick Powell was a great emcee. Rudy Vallee had to be a more intellectual emcee. Rudy Vallee's show came from New York and he had stars from Broadway. In Hollywood, with the Hollywood stars, you had a different feeling. In New York you had to be a little brighter, a little more educated and a little more interested in the theater.

How many of these people ever graduated college? Very few. Bing and Rudy were two of the very few that went to college. None of the Rat Pack ever finished high school. Maybe that's not important, but it does have some affect.

Kliph Nesteroff: I would like to ask you about a notorious comedian. Lord Buckley.

Will Jordan: His daughter showed up in Vegas once, sitting at a table next to Lenny Bruce's daughter. I told the press agent to take a picture. "The daughter of Lord Buckley and the daughter of Lenny Bruce!" He didn't get the message and it was a missed opportunity. Buckley was interesting and I met him and he was like two different people. He was the stiff character imitating British, "Muff, muff! That's the stuff! I can't get enough!"

And then the next minute he's on the Sullivan show doing a hokey act, putting different hats on people, getting behind them, pinching their throat to move their mouth, doing ventriloquism. Very funny, but hardly as classy as his albums where he did The Naz and everything else. What a range in different talents. He played the piano too. Very stiff and formal. Very British, but of course he wasn't English. He would dub you a Duke or a Sir or a... He was wonderful. I think he really should have gone further than he did.

When I bought his albums recently I was disappointed. I didn't find The Naz as funny as I had originally. That could just be me. I remember when we were at GAC, the agency that handled the singers, he was there and he would entertain us when we were sitting around. He'd do the dirty songs, "Nothing could be finer than to be in your vaginer." He was really good in every area and he managed to maintain some kind of legendary status, but I'm really not that familiar with him. I'm sure you could find people that could tell you more about him than I.

Kliph Nesteroff: I know Larry Storch was close with him.

Will Jordan: Larry just doesn't talk at all now. He's just too quiet. I don't know what it is. He's coming on like he's broke. Says he doesn't have a VCR or anything. He must have money. The implication is that he's broke, but I don't think he could be broke unless he gambled. I never heard that he was a gambler. He was known as a wino, but he certainly wasn't known as an alcoholic. Of course, he was always quiet and he always had these wonderful ideas and everything.

I talked to him recently. They did a tribute to him at his eighty-eighth birthday. Jerry Stiller was there and we all got up. I got up and got serious and talked about how he influenced my life. There were people that saw his act at the Paramount and they said you wanted to get up onstage and pull the next impersonation out of him. Then when I saw him playing a gay driving instructor on a Columbo I said, "God, can that be same guy!?" It didn't look like anything I had ever seen him do before.

He did a character which he got from Billy DeWolfe. Almost the same material. In Billy DeWolfe's act he would put on a little hat and he was extremely effeminate and had a little moustache and everything. Very, very funny man, Billy DeWolfe. Larry Storch was also one of the very few people that could imitate a woman's voice. That sounds easy, but you really can't unless it's a falsetto or a little girl. Very, very few could do that. Offhand I can't think of anyone who could do a convincing woman. Larry could do that.

I saw both of them at the Paramount. The style of mimics back then was... you would do your impression then you would do a comedy bit ala Frank Fontaine. Lenny Bruce did a dumb guy that was a swimmer. "Duh, my body was covered in lanolin and I kept slipping off the wattah!" 

It was the corresponding character to Frank Fontaine. Mickey Shaughnessy would do impressions and then at the end he would do an Irish rebellion bit. I guess they felt that the audience wanted balance. To me it was no problem. For me, to not be funny is very easy (laughs).

It's being funny that I have trouble with! For me to go into a dramatic scene was easy, but nevertheless I was not that good as an actor. I could do Brando seriously or I could do [John] Garfield seriously. I could do that. The one year I spent at the Academy [of Dramatic Arts] was not enough. I needed to go out and do summer stock. I did summer stock and maybe I got better, but my heart wasn't in it. I wanted to stand up in front of a room and talk. I didn't want to read other people's lines. I wanted to talk.

Kliph Nesteroff: Storch was... maybe I'm wrong... but he was a big name performing at the Paramount in the late forties...

Will Jordan: He wasn't a big name, no. He was a supporting act. The big name was Perry Como. The comedian was never the star.

Kliph Nesteroff: One of the other guys that was part of that scene, part of that world, frequently on the bill at the Broadway presentation houses, is Carl Ballantine.

Will Jordan: Oh, wasn't he wonderful. Wasn't he great. But he started off, as so many of these guys do, doing something else. He really was a magician and he got to being funny. He was very interesting and very quiet in real life. You know, I really thought I would have a rapport with him, yet in real life he just didn't talk.

Maybe that's because... I don't know... I somehow affect people differently. I don't know. Some people love me, some people hate me, and some people just don't talk to me at all. I certainly wanted to talk to him. I certainly thought he was great. His acting was good. He was in that movie with George Burns and his act was wonderful.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you did Broadway Danny Rose you were also there with Morty Gunty, Corbett Monica...

Will Jordan: All of their scenes were cut out and it really was painful for poor Corbett Monica. He had this big scene cut out and he [bought an advertisement on] the back page of Variety to announce himself - and he's not even in the movie. I said to him, "Corbett, you wait for the movie to come out!" It's not just Woody, every [director] cuts. I was completely cut out of Mr. Saturday Night. I got a lot of money and I'm not even in it. Billy Crystal cut me out completely and in Broadway Danny Rose Woody cut me out completely.

I was the one who makes the other comedians laugh. The bit I did on [the comedy record] Ill Will - how Ralph Richardson's picture got in Lindy's window - was a natural and I did it for the other comedians and Woody cut it out. I was mad. I shouldn't have been. When he wanted me to be in Radio Days I did something I thought I would never have the balls to do. I told the casting woman, Juliette Taylor, "I don't know how often you hear this, but I'm turning down your movie. I'm turning down Woody Allen."

And yet Woody and I were friends. I got up at one of his parties years ago, when I was still with Jack Rollins. I had him screaming. I did all my real weird, sick bits like the Hitler story. That was before Lenny Bruce stole it. Woody thought I was great. And I thought he was great. He is just amazingly prolific, y'know. Part of the reason is the incentive. That's part of my cop out - that I didn't have the incentive. I should have kept creating. All these other guys like Mel Brooks are older than me - and he's still creating. I think I should have too, but I didn't have the incentive.

Kliph Nesteroff: How long were you with Jack Rollins?

Will Jordan: Not too long. Just a couple of years. When Belafonte left him he just became a vegetable. Tom Poston was my friend and he said, "Don't leave him. He'll get over this." I didn't believe that. I believed MCA was holding me back and Jack Rollins just wasn't all there. The minute I left him he wound up signing every major comedian in the country. You talk about mistakes. That I will take full blame for. Belafonte leaves him and he gets Woody Allen, Tom Poston, Robert Klein, David Letterman, on and on and on.

He joined with the agent at MCA who got me Jack in the first place, Charlie Joffe. He died recently, very sad, Charlie was younger than all of us. He was with MCA and Rollins didn't want to sign me because he had his hands full with Belafonte. He came to see my opening night at La Vien Rose, which was great. That was the night Eddie Fisher said, "Would you like to open for me at the Coconaut Grove?" I was still a little mad at Eddie and I hesitated. Rollins, who was not yet my manager, took charge. He said, "He would love to, Eddie." I froze!

Eddie didn't know what to believe. His best friend [Joey Forman] was who he should have used, but I made that impression on him. These people had never seen the Ed Sullivan bit. The other impressions went over very well. You have to remember these opening nights were full of show people. When we did the tribute at the Improv and the audience was full of comedians, I was a big hit, but then the normal people came in and saw me and - uh - not so good.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) Right.

Will Jordan: They didn't know who those people [I impersonated] were. My original baseball bit, Charles Laughton was the umpire and then I changed it to Hitchcock. Couldn't believe that this great actor, Charles Laughton, people didn't remember. I took out John Garfield and put in Groucho. I had to modernize it. Jimmy Stewart was popular all through the years so I could leave Jimmy Stewart in. Groucho was the pitcher and I could leave him in because he remained popular for over fifty years.

Kliph Nesteroff: I wish I could hear the Bob and Ray impression that you do... or did.

Will Jordan: Chuck McCann does it better than me. [In Bob Elliott voice], "Well, there's nothing like a tall frosty glass of Piel's Beer..."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Will Jordan: I'm warming up. Sometimes I just can't do it.

Kliph Nesteroff: You got it, I think.

Will Jordan: Sometimes I just can't do it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah, well, when is the last time someone asked you to do an impression of Bob Elliott...

Will Jordan: Yeah, but usually I'm pretty flexible. Many impressions improved. David Frye was a better mimic than me. I showed him how to do Henry Fonda and he wound up doing it much better. He got the fragment from me and the placement of the throat.

Kliph Nesteroff: You had a Garry Moore impression in your repertoire.

Will Jordan: That I had no competition with. Nobody wanted to do it! "Hello friends, this is Garry Moore." There was no competition. Nobody cared!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Will Jordan: But he was just one of the army of hundreds of famous people that were not impersonated. Why was there no impression of Paul Newman? He was as big as anyone. Why was there no impression of Robert Redford? I was the only one that did Mitchum, but I just did his face. David Frye and this guy in Australia did the voice, but I couldn't get that deep. Jack Benny who I really looked like more than anyone else - I couldn't get that voice. Here's Rich Little who looks nothing like him. Rich Little and another guy you wouldn't know - Bob McFadden.

Kliph Nesteroff: Of course, yeah.

Will Jordan: You do know Bob McFadden.

Kliph Nesteroff: I do, yeah.

Will Jordan: Bob McFadden did Jack Benny equally as well. I couldn't. I couldn't do the speech. A radio convention hired me to do Benny and I said, "You're mistaking the photo for the voice. I can look like him more than anything else." When I met his daughter she asked if I knew him and I said, "Are you kidding? He was great to me." She said, "You must have looked like twins."

And then I told her I used to date her father's secretary. I was there trying to get with Dorothy Owen and she said, "You knew Dorothy!?" I dated her. At one point she was still quite beautiful, Joan, the daughter. But at this point she was a grandmother. I was flattered and I liked her. She told me some interesting things I didn't know. She was adopted from a Jewish adoption agency.

I didn't know there was such a thing. It's true they weren't her biological parents, but they knew her biological parents were Jewish. I thought that was extremely interesting. Both she and her mother got nose jobs (laughs) but not because they were related! Because they both didn't like their noses!

I never met Mary [Livingston]. Everyone thought she was a no-talent and I thought Mary was very good. You compare Mary to Fred Allen's wife, who was the sweetest woman in the world, and Portland [Hoffa] had no talent at all. Mary could read a line. You listen to Mary's acting and she's great!

Kliph Nesteroff: She apparently hated doing the show. She never really did the TV program.

Will Jordan: Her readings are perfect. She got screams. She was excellent. For a non-professional she was excellent. They were all pretty good. There was Phil Harris. Phil Harris, like Pearl Bailey, was influenced by the real great Black guy, Bert Williams. The real one. That's where Pearl Bailey got it from. Another amazing guy. He had records and he made [film] shorts. Two completely separate talents. He was great on records and he was great in pantomime. Bert Williams. They said he was an unhappy guy. Eddie Cantor said he was funnier and more talented than all of them.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right.

Will Jordan: Even WC Fields, who was reluctant to give praise, said he was the greatest. He was so light he had to put on the blackface. You listen to that phrasing, "I ain't done nut-tin for no-bah-dee." That's very close to Pearl Bailey and very close to Phil Harris. That's What I Like About the South is very, very close.

Kliph Nesteroff: Bert Williams is another of those people where you hear the stories, "The greatest I ever saw on a stage." But we'll never be able to confirm it.

Will Jordan: In one book about Bert Williams they say he entered a contest. He entered a Bert Williams [look-a-like] contest and he lost. He came in third. In Chaplin's son's book he says Chaplin entered a Chaplin [look-a-like] contest and came in third. On Joe Franklin's show, when Bing Crosby was on, he said he entered a Bing Crosby contest and he came in third. I wonder why these guys always came in third. In the Bert Williams book, the Black woman who wrote it - she was angry at Bert Williams for doing that. She said he had no right to go out and pretend. [He] deserved bombing. I thought it was an extremely interesting analysis. I like that opinion. Of course, the Blacks are so highly charged that... you're not Black are you?

Kliph Nesteroff: (uncomfortable silence)

Will Jordan: Anyway, the thing is (coughs)... he must have been great. Here in New York they had a guy that was doing a tribute to Bert Williams and he was screaming. This little short guy with a bald head screaming and I'm saying, "What are you talking about?" He's screaming? Bert Williams underplayed like crazy! You listen to the records and everything is so underplayed.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, Will, I gotta let you go... I need to go to sleep...

Will Jordan: Yeah, me too. Okay, Kliph! Thank you. You've made me feel great! You've made me make up for all the shows I didn't do in the past few years.


Michael Roberds said...

"You're not black are you?"
Fascinating man. I'm always interested in people who can blame everyone and everything for their lack of success and how they rationalize it.

Anonymous said...

I think Will is pretty good at blaming himself for his lack of success. He says over and over again in all the interviews he just didn't have the motivation and drive.

Bert Williams. In the 1970s, Groucho told Bill Cosby that he was much like Bert Williams. I wish there was more film of Bert in action. He's one of those lost legends. But he must have been great, because W.C. Fields called him a genius.

Anonymous said...

These interviews are manna from show biz heaven.

ajm said...

"Bert Williams was the funniest man I ever saw," W.C. Fields said, "and the saddest man I ever knew."

Bobby Wall said...

"Manna from show biz heaven" is 100% CORRECT! Well-described!

I read all the Will Jordan interviews and a) I feel very sad for him and b) I see such bitterness and sadness in HIM. I have the feeling that, also, he's very angry inside. I get the feeling that he felt that he should have been a much bigger star than he was.

He mentioned teaching David Frye how to imitate Henry Fonda. I saw David Frye in person (he opened for Dionne Warwick) and I have to tell you that I think it may have been the best impression you ever heard. If you closed your eyes, you would think Henry Fonda was right there. And I agree that Rich Little did the best Jack Benny you ever heard.

But what a font of information Will Jordan is. And I never tire of reading his view and analyses of past performers.

One last thing: George Kirby did the best Pearl Bailey impression ever -- and he did sound like a woman. His Ella Fitzgerald was top-notch also.

And I would be remiss if I didn't say that Pearl Bailey was the nicest and warmest person in real life too. At least she was to me when I met her one time when I was a teenager.

I can't wait to read your Willie Tyler interview, Kliph! Keep 'em coming!

mackdaddyg said...

Good stuff, as always.

I see Larry Storch's name pop up a lot in these interviews. I'm assuming you've tried contacting him for an interview. Is he just not willing to give any?

Pity if that's the case. I'm sure he has a lot of great anecdotes to share.

Anonymous said...

I recall a particular Johnny Carson appearance from the 70s by Davie Frye where he did George Wallace, Henry Fonda and Walter Cronkite and I can quote it verbatim. But you'll never see it again because his Wallace stuff had a slight racist edge (although he was mocking Wallace.) But Frye's Fonda was uncanny, right down to the slight lisp.

Dana Gabbard said...

mackdaddyg, Kliph has a Storch interview posted but as a comment notes as it goes on Storch becomes less and less informative...

Love these peeks at the post-war showbiz world.

mackdaddyg said...

Thanks for pointing that out, Dana. I looked at the list but obviously missed Larry's entry.

I reckon he's one of those dudes that saw every role as a paycheck and nothing more. Pity.

Lee Alan Bleyer said...

Kliph: Phenomenal work on your blog; I read it obsessively, great scholarship, great interviews. I am not sure if you're familiar with the records that Will Jordan did for Rowe-AMI jukeboxes, but, if not, I think they're worth checking out, as yet another oddity of his odd career. Here's a link that has some discussion and samples:

Unknown said...

If Will ever reads this, I want to thank him.
As a teen I sent him some comedy material(it was probably awful) and although he didn't use it, he sent me a personal reply of encouragement and suggestions.
This inspired me to keep trying and eventually I did quite a bit of comedy writing (The Red Green Show out of Canada, the late night talk shows-Leno, Maher,Hall- and two comedy screenplays that were optioned)
I've made my living for almost 30 years as a writer and I credit Will Jordan for that because he was a nice guy to me at a critical time. BTW, I used to do a lot of impressions on my radio show most of which I learned from listening to his records- his Cary Grant was amazing!- so thank you for that as well especially because I proposed to my wife as Cary Grant 33 years ago and believe it or not we are still together.

Russ Edwards