Tuesday, July 1, 2014

An Interview with Orson Bean - Part Two

Orson Bean: I was very fond of Bud Collyer. He didn't pretend to be anything he wasn't. He always said, "Good night and God Bless." A political conservative, but he was famous for playing Superman on the radio. I loved the To Tell the Truth panel. Elegant Kitty Carlisle on my right with a feather boa. Peggy Cass on the other side. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Those shows are a window into a lost New York.

Orson Bean: Yes, and they cast it like a sitcom in a way. It wasn't just about the game, but the interaction of the panelists.

Kliph Nesteroff: I always liked Hy Gardner, who was a semi-regular on that show. Then I learned more about him and stopped liking him.

Orson Bean: I never knew much about him. I used to get a mention in his column once in a while. Was he married to Dorothy Kilgallen?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.

Orson Bean: Maybe it was that he said something nasty about her and she sued...

Kliph Nesteroff: Hy Gardner in his 1953 book wrote an introduction where he takes credit for having Charlie Chaplin booted from the US or denied entry. He then writes that twenty years later people will hail Hy Gardner as a hero.

Orson Bean: And he's less remembered than Arthur Godfrey. They were all rabid right wingers, those columnists. Ed Sullivan was a good guy. I got blacklisted as a communist, but I wasn't a communist. I was a lefty like our whole generation of young people and I was horny for communist girls. She dragged me to meetings. He called and told me I had been mentioned in Counterattack, the newsletter that Red Channels put out. He said, "I'll help you if I can." And he did.

He helped me and I went back on one last time. He was a good guy. He did stuff like that. In those days we were told if we even touched a Black performer we would lose stations in the South. I had Pearl Bailey on my Blue Angel show and was told, "Don't go near her!" Sullivan had Pearl Bailey on and threw his arm around her. He said, "How ya doin' Pearly Mae!" Stations all over the South cut away and the switchboards lit up.

Kliph Nesteroff: The blacklist. You were involved with AFTRA...

Orson Bean: Yeah, I ran for the board of the New York local and got elected first Vice President. Charles Collingwood got elected President. A guy named John Henry Faulk got elected second Vice President. For our pains we were all blacklisted to one degree or another.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was a struggle within AFTRA to prove you weren't communist infiltrated and to still balance it so it didn't turn into a right wing organization.

Orson Bean: If you went to a union meeting you sat on the left side or the right side of the hall to show your political affiliations. And if you didn't have any it was assumed based on where you sat that you did. It was a mess. A group of us got together and decided to run the middle-of-the-road slate. We had a great victory.

The real story was this guy John Henry Faulk. He was a real leftie and didn't cop to it. At the last meeting people like Tony Randall and Jack Paar were there. They were saying, "If you have anything in your background - bring it up - because we don't want to hurt the middle of the road ticket." I said, "I voted for Adlai Stevenson." And they all laughed. Johnny just stayed quiet.

When we were attacked by Red Channels they listed twenty things on him like working with Paul Robeson and all communist front things, heavy duty shit that got me and Charles Collingwood in trouble. I was pissed off at him for that.

Kliph Nesteroff: John Henry Faulk sued AWARE.

Orson Bean: Yes, it was a real Hollywood thing. Louis Nizer became his lawyer and did a masterful job of painting John Henry Faulk as the closest thing to Jesus and the jury awarded him millions of dollars. While the jury was out deliberating, the guy who they were suing - a grocer in Syracuse or whatever - died. So there was no money! 

Kliph Nesteroff: At the time Bud Collyer was very involved in AFTRA.

Orson Bean: Yeah and he would have been on the far right. Prior to the Hollywood Ten, the left dominated Hollywood and blacklisted right wing people too...  well, not the famous ones like Adolph Menjou or Charles Colburn, but a lot of people were cast in movies because they were members of the party or being wooed by communists.

If you look at the cast lists of some of the film noir with Edward Dmytryk, it's all communists. A lot of my friends were communists. We didn't think anything of it, but there was a rage that built up amongst the right wingers. I got caught up in that. The blacklist never affected Broadway, however, because it was sponsors who did the blacklisting - not the networks.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did a Broadway show called Men of Distinction and in the cast - as an actor - was Martin Ritt.

Orson Bean: Marty Ritt... did he get blacklisted or not?

Kliph Nesteroff: He was one of the more high-profile people that was blacklisted, yeah.

Orson Bean: The blacklist was a protection racket. The networks had to pay fifty bucks a head to clear people and they would have to do it week after week. If someone was a series regular they had to pay to clear them again the next week. So they didn't want the blacklist, but it was Campbell's Soup and people like that who did the blacklist. The reason the blacklist never took hold on Broadway was because there were no sponsors. So Marty Ritt could work...

Kliph Nesteroff: Martin Ritt was not know for acting, but for screenwriting and directing.

Orson Bean: The whole year I was blacklisted I was in a show called Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Back before I believed in God he took care of me. And then Ed Sullivan called up and booked me again. The blacklist just kind of waned. It was waning anyway because of our victory in the union and all the publicity The New York Times gave it. I lasted my blacklist years on Broadway.

Kliph Nesteroff: Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter costarred Martin Gabel in a role originally meant for the satirist Henry Morgan.

Orson Bean: I suggested Henry Morgan to George Axelrod and he hired him. Henry just couldn't cut it. He was quite upset. They let him go and brought in Martin Gabel. He would have been wonderful, but George Axelrod couldn't direct. A real director could have gotten a real performance out of Henry.

Kliph Nesteroff: Henry Morgan was a unique comic for his time period. He rejected any kind of maudlin element. You were associated with that whole Goodson - Todman thing. When did you meet him? I assume you were friends.

Orson Bean: We were very close friends. I loved him. He was the godfather to my daughter. He wrote the liner notes for an album I did called Orson Bean at the hungry i. I loved Henry. Like you said, he was very special. I worked with him in summer stock when he was acting. We all went out and got drunk the night before. We were all staying at this actor's boarding house in Cape Cod. Some guy came up and was bugging him and he got quite angry. The guy said, "I think you need a hangover remedy!" Henry said, "Your wife is a hangover remedy! A counter irritant!" He was vile, but hilarious. I loved Henry.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember about Hanson's Drugstore?

Orson Bean: Hanson's was the place where all the comics went. Most of them were hot shot young Jewish kids and I was the company goy. When I was breaking into the business in a place called Hurley's Log Cabin in Boston, the piano player told me my act wasn't playing because I didn't have a funny name.

My opening joke didn't work, "Havard '48, Yale nothing." He made up different names for me. So I'd go out, "My name is Roger Duck - Harvard '48. Yale nothing." And it got a laugh. I never kept the name Roger Duck, but I used to tell this story to this kid Adam Keefe. So Adam Keefe called himself Roger Duck for a while. I am blabbing, but I say this because I used to see him in Hanson's all the time.

Kliph Nesteroff: Adam Keefe was an impressionist.

Orson Bean: I think he did a comedy record like Monster Mash or something. Is that right?

Kliph Nesteroff: Probably. He did Karloff. What was the Hanson's like? And the building - 1650 Broadway?

Orson Bean: It was one of those old fashioned drugstores with a long soda bar. Next to it was a place called Chock Full of Nuts. A coffee bar. Comics would hang out there too. It became a place where mostly young comics hung out and when they became more successful they would go to Lindy's.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you hang out at Lindy's?

Orson Bean: Yes, I did. Not at great length, but pretty often. All these Jewish comics would look at me with my crewcut and gray flannel suit. One of them said, "You ought to have an ad in Variety. Tired of Joe Comic? Hire Orson Bean."

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you see Jack Roy around?

Orson Bean: The name is vaguely familiar.

Kliph Nesteroff: He changed his name to Rodney Dangerfield.

Orson Bean: Ah! I was talking to my wife and I said, "I don't know what the hell his real name was." I was on the Tonight Show with Rodney. Rodney couldn't ad-lib, but he did great, great written material. 

I was with Rodney on the Tonight Show and he did a boffo six minutes. "I said to my wife, 'How come you never tell me when you've had an orgasm.' She said, 'I'm never near a phone." Rodney never wanted to come on the panel because he couldn't ad-lib anything. It was almost cruel of Carson. Rodney looked pale. Carson said, "What's happening, Rodney?" Rodney said, "I got nothing!" (laughs). I never forgot that. He couldn't even answer, "How you doing?"

Kliph Nesteroff: After you had been doing the Blue Angel and the venue had become quite popular, there was a Blue Angel television show on CBS. A summer replacement.

Orson Bean: Yes, we did it thirteen weeks and then they extended it another thirteen weeks. And then they decided it was too hip for the country.

Kliph Nesteroff: What did it consist of?

Orson Bean: They built a set like The Blue Angel. The outer room was a bar where Bobby Short played the piano and you waited for a table. It was quite inexpensive and it was filled with college kids and their dates. They built a set that was a bar with a hatcheck booth and they built a set that was inside with guests like Pearl Bailey, Hildegarde and people like that. I did comedy monologues in between and there was a certain amount of hip comedy stuff between me and the bartender, the hatcheck girl and the doorman.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jonathan Winters had his television debut on that program.

Orson Bean: Did he? I didn't even know that. Jonny was my buddy, I loved him.

Kliph Nesteroff: That's very early Jonathan Winters. Do you remember much of him in those early days?

Orson Bean: Yes, very much. I don't remember the exact night, but he got booked in the Bon Soir just a block and a half away from the Blue Angel. He would come around and hang out with me, but he was just constantly writing stuff. Years later when he had his crack up and stopped drinking he was never quite as funny. Same thing as Robin Williams. When he went straight he was never quite as funny as when he was snorting cocaine. 


Anonymous said...

You should write a biography of Henry Morgan.
A real book, covering his earliest days right up to the end. A lot of current comedy people never heard of him, or just think of him as a game show panelist.

mackdaddyg said...

Henry Morgan did release an autobiography about 20 years ago called "Here's Morgan."

I read it a few months ago. It was a bit disjointed but not bad. That being said, a full fledged biography of the guy would be interesting.

Anonymous said...

Henry Morgan:

He was born in 1915. He was old enough to be on NY radio in the 1940s, tv in the 1950s, and the Letterman show in the '80s. That's quite a span.

He was his own worst enemy. I've long been an admirer of Fred Allen, and Morgan continued in that tradition.

My first introduction to Morgan was in the 1970s, when I bought some audio cassettes of him reading Robert Benchley essays. Morgan was the right man for the job.

I'm not sure how much of his tv work still exists, because I know tv stations used to erase and re-record, rather than archive.

People like Morgan seem weirdly contemporary to me, because they lack corny show-biz pretensions, and instead are their irascible selves, like many modern comics.

I'm not certain (in today's book publishing climate) if a biography of Morgan would see print. But he deserves a fresh examination.

AndrewJ said...

Henry Morgan... Arnold Stang (who costarred on his radio show) said that whenever things were going great for Henry, he had to deliberately sabotage it by picking a fight with a sponsor or a network executive. Morgan had a son out of wedlock, who in adulthood wrote a self-published memoir about their difficult relationship. When Morgan died his son said, "My father and I had a falling out," to which one of the mourners quipped, "You father had a falling out with all of us."

Anonymous said...

Quien es mas macho...Orson Bean, Orson Scott Card, o Orson Welles?

Brama said...

.Listen to Henry's late '40's ABC Radio program on Internet Archive. His humor, like many of that era, was "before its time" - Also, see his last appearance on The David Letterman show during the early 80's on YouTube.

Anonymous said...

Listen to Henry's late '40's ABC Radio program on Internet Archive. His humor, like many of that era, was "before its time" - Also, see his last appearance on The David Letterman show during the early 80's on YouTube.