Wednesday, October 22, 2014

An Interview with Will Jordan - Part Thirteen

Will Jordan: You put some things on your website about me. I haven't read them, but everybody has been telling me about it. I appreciate all the nice things you said about me - and if you said something bad - well, then I don't appreciate it. Anyway, what can I do for you? Can I help you in some way?

Kliph Nesteroff: I had a couple questions...

Will Jordan: I thought I talked your ear off last time. What more could I possibly... Someone just Facebooked me an appearance of my old friend Adam Keefe on The Hollywood Palace. Once again, and I hate to say it, but here's a guy I knew very well and I'm seeing my bits. Frankenstein bit, Sullivan bit, a thing about Walter Pidgeon. It's amazing. I liked him very much, but I never gave any of these people permission to do my material. Never asked. Just stole it. My material is not for rent, not for sale... It's for being stolen, apparently.

However, Adam Keefe is gone now and there's no point in talking about it, but it's just amazing how all these years later I keep seeing it. They showed a film with Jerry Lewis teaching Ed Sullivan how to do my act. It's from over thirty years ago, but... does it never end? I never stop seeing people steal from me. Incredible. I'm sort of retired, so I don't care as much, but I'm still amazed. Anyway, did you talk to Frankie Ray?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes.

Will Jordan: Frankie Ray is wonderful.  He is the only living person that can tell you for sure that Lenny Bruce stole from me. I don't have a single living witness except for him. And he will tell you that Lenny copied me.

Frankie was amazingly close to Lenny Bruce and Shecky Greene. Shecky was his friend from Chicago. Lenny Bruce he got to know in Los Angeles and they worked together at all the strip joints. Very good mimic too, by the way. He does very good impressions of George Raft and Leo Gorcey. Interesting to talk to him. It's interesting to get the view of the Chicago mimic. The only other guy I know from Chicago that did impressions of that quality was Shecky.

Shecky was not known as a mimic, but Shecky's impressions were absolutely marvelous. He'll do Ed Sullivan - perfect. He'll do Danny Thomas - perfect. Shecky and this unknown guy Mickey Shaughnessy were the two great nightclub comedians.

Don't get me wrong, I like Don Rickles. Don and I went to school together and Don was great. But for all around entertaining, you can't beat Shecky. This guy Mickey Shaugnessy was also amazing. He could stand onstage for hours and hours. When I first went to Chicago back in 1949 I would meet people like comedian Paul Gilbert. Another superb nightclub comedian. I had not known, in those days, that a comedian could stay onstage for an hour, an hour and a half. Later, you couldn't stop me from doing otherwise. But in the beginning I never thought of staying on for hours - this was the style in Chicago.

Paul Gilbert in 1949 - very talented guy. He became the adoptive father of Melissa Gilbert. We all predicted he'd have a great career, but it was absolutely nothing. Like Shecky, none of the great talent comes across on the screen. It's happened so many times. It's more dramatic to me because I saw how great their talent was in person.

I look at Paul Gilbert and, my God, what happened to all that talent? And Rickles, as much as I love him... well, I like everything about him... but what I think is a shortcoming - Don is not theatrical. Compare it with Jack E. Leonard who did the same style. Rickles denies he copied Jack E. Leonard, but of course he did.

Jack E. Leonard didn't score as well, but Jack E. Leonard did a show. He sang, he danced, he was visually funny. Rickles isn't theatrical at all.  Shecky on the other hand and Paul Gilbert and Mickey Shaughnessy - when you see these people onstage for an hour and a half they do everything under the sun. You wonder, "How can these people not score, not register, in films or TV?" And they don't. Shecky's career was very badly handled. 

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the difference - if there was one - between Don Rickles' act when he first started out in the late 1940s and what he became?

Will Jordan: I am one of the few people that saw that. When he first started it had nothing to do with insults. He worked for a smalltime agent named Willie Weber. Willie Weber was famous for booking one-nighters and several comedians... I wish I could think of their names...  George DeWitt. There's a guy you don't hear much about. Good mimic and extremely handsome, from Philadelphia. Real name was Florentine.

I ran into Pat Cooper the other day, but he was in a hurry. I wanted to list Italian comedians and have him give me their real names, but he left before I could quiz him. What is Guy Marks' real name? What is George DeWitt's real name? George DeWitt - his nightclub act - he played the Paramount theater and was very good. George DeWitt was the best looking comedian. Dick Van Dyke was good looking, but George DeWitt was unbelievable and famous for his hairpiece. It was so good that people kept hiring him just to see his hairpiece.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Will Jordan: He took a lot of kidding and a lot of insults. I saw him at the Paramount doing Harry Truman. He bumped into the mic and said, "Is that you, Bess?" He feels the mic and says, "Oh, no, it's my wife." Something like that. Later he had a career as the host of a TV show - Name That Tune. And then I heard... someone said he wound up as a cabdriver in Florida. How tragic for such a talented guy! You wonder who the hell manages these people. How can a man of that status... well, anyway. Very little is ever said of him.

All you ever hear is "good looking guy with a hairpiece." He was a lot more than that. When he broke up with his wife there was a lot of bad publicity. His wife stole all of his material and stole his hairpiece and all these things. There are bad things you should hear about Jack Carter and Rich Little, but they get away unscathed. They are the real evil ones. George DeWitt and Gary Morton took a lot of heat. A lot of heat. I knew these people. And Jerry Lewis talking about how bad his father was? I worked with Danny Lewis for two solid weeks in Phoenix.

Danny Lewis was a very nice man. A lot of people say bad things about Gary Morton and Danny Lewis. Maybe they're true. I've never seen it. When I spoke with Peggy King, she agreed with me about most of the things I said. We talked about the reputation of Arthur Freed, the famous lyricist who became head of the music department at MGM. How he was the biggest lecher in the world. Everyone seems to agree on that. I only knew him slightly because I dated Andre Previn's ex-wife...

Kliph Nesteroff: Let's return to your having seen Don Rickles' act when he was first starting in the late 1940s...

Will Jordan: Oh, yes. The bit I remember - he was satirizing that smoking in movie theaters... we're talking about 1949 or 1950... he was satirizing that smoking in movie theaters was taboo. If you took a smoke in a movie theater you would be very concerned the usher would see you and oust you. That's what he did.

He did a bit about a guy sneaking a smoke. I mean, can you think of anything further from what we see Rickles do now? I never got the feeling that Rickles was doing old jokes, I will say that. Rickles never looked like he copied anyone other than Jack E. Leonard. He was a little more caustic. Coming later, his style was more caustic. By then the public wanted it more caustic.

Kliph Nesteroff: I wanted to ask you about a nightclub called the Club 18. 

Will Jordan: I can't tell you much about that. Wasn't that the club where Jackie Gleason supposedly started to do insults?

Kliph Nesteroff: Jackie Gleason, Frankie Hyers, Pat Harrington Sr, Jack White did insult comedy there...

Will Jordan: Well, I'm just a little too young (laughs). Gleason never had a great nightclub act. Nevertheless, it was good enough for him to get discovered in California. The way I understand it - Darryl Zanuck wanted a backup for Jack Oakie [at Fox]. He had these comedians and the one that appeared to be closest to Jack Oakie was Jackie Gleason. Then he hired Milton Berle and Phil Silvers. The hero's friend. That was the character.

Originally, as I heard it, that characterization was established by Oakie. Another fascinating guy. His book Jack Oakie's Double Takes is one of the best biographies ever. It's got so much information about Carole Lombard. It's marvelous. She would talk about how large George Raft's penis was. When he's talking in the book about Carole Lombard, suddenly the Carole Lombard character takes over and the language changes. For most of the book Jack Oakie is quite nice and considerate, but when it's Carole Lombard suddenly everything is dirty, big cocks and everything.

That's Oakie quoting Carole Lombard. Carole Lombard was enormously popular. Like Jean Harlow she started out doing walk-ons in Laurel and Hardy. Everyone loved her. Earl Wilson used to say she had the greatest ass in the world. What I found interesting about Carole Lombard - here's a woman married to William Powell, she wanted to marry Russ Columbo, then winds up marrying Gable. Can you think of people less alike? William Powell, Russ Columbo and Clark Gable. George Raft, now, she didn't go with him. She was supposedly helping Betty Grable buy a gift for Raft. Story goes that she said to Betty Grable, "Get a cigarette lighter with a giant black snake crawling around it."

They all seemed to love George Raft and he ended up going with Irene Dunne. Irene Dunne, Norma Shearer, Betty Grable - and I think Sally Rand. He would have a hooker come by every day. They'd say to him, "George, you've got the most beautiful women in the world. Why would you have a hooker over?" "Because I want to have it at six PM every day." I thought that was interesting. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You mention George Raft's schlong. I wanted to ask you about Milton Berle's schlong and, specifically, if you know where that legend originated. Everybody talks about it - but when did that whole thing start?

Will Jordan: The reason it perpetuated is because it was the ideal subject for the famous Friars Roasts. Not the ones on TV, of course. The real Friars Roasts. It's amazing that more of them are not available. They are so much better than the TV roasts. You can't begin to imagine how much better. It's dirty - but the material is so brilliant.

There is a company that sells some of them. But the ones that aren't available - oh, boy. Everybody relates to TV and movies, but people don't get the message that they're not the whole world. You're missing a lot. You're leaving out nightclubs. You're leaving out the theater. Especially the New York theater of the 1930s. Certainly one of the greatest forms of entertainment. 1930s theater that had John Barrymore in person. We're missing that. There's no record of that. Jed Harris was on Dick Cavett. What I wouldn't give to see that again. Jed Harris had a bad reputation of being a lecher, but nevertheless a tremendous director who had sex with everyone in the world. That's something I would very much like to see. That and the interview Dick Cavett had where Noel Coward introduced the Lunts. That must exist.

Jed Harris was a very obnoxious man, but brilliant. There's a film with Robert Montgomery, can't think of the name, where he's supposed to be Jed Harris. He plays this wiseass guy. Robert Montgomery playing a real S.O.B. Very good film. What was your question again?

Kliph Nesteroff: Berle's schlong.

Will Jordan: Ah, yes, Dick Shawn...

Kliph Nesteroff: No, no, Berle's schlong.

Will Jordan: Well, Dick Shawn...

Kliph Nesteroff: No - not Dick Shawn - Berle's schlong!!

Will Jordan: Oh, Berle's schlong!