Wednesday, November 5, 2014

An Interview with Orson Bean - Part Three

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm going to rattle off a list of different people you worked with and you just tell me whatever comes to mind. You played the Blue Angel with Tom Lehrer.

Orson Bean: Yes, Tom Lehrer was still teaching at Harvard. He played it just for a week and it was packed with Harvard kids. He did Poisoning Pigeons in the Park and all that stuff. I saw him once in a while over the years.

Kliph Nesteroff: February 1954 - you played the Blue Angel with Andy Griffith.

Orson Bean: Yeah, I didn't get to know Andy much. I never found his stuff all that funny. It was more folksy than funny.

Kliph Nesteroff: It's weird that he even did nightclubs.

Orson Bean: Yes, he didn't do it a lot. A Face in the Crowd - that was his metier.

Kliph Nesteroff: Seems that you could get away with that in a New York cabaret whereas if you put that sort of act in Las Vegas it wouldn't go over. There were a lot of comediennes in that cabaret scene like Connie Sawyer and Imogene Coca and Kaye Ballard, who never played the huge rooms.

Orson Bean: That's absolutely right. They would do fine in a small room, were just moderately funny, and the audience considered itself in and hip. They wanted to like you. But I played Vegas and boy, was it a painful experience. It was all heavy hitters from Texas and they didn't know what the fuck I was about. It was a very Jim Crow town. Completely. I used to grab a cab after my last show to where the Black dishwashers and maids lived and go to a little blues club. I was maybe one of two white faces in there. I didn't have a good experience working Vegas.

Kliph Nesteroff: You played the Thunderbird.

Orson Bean: Yes, I played the Thunderbird with a woman named Sunny Gale who had a one hit wonder. In those days the Strip was a hotel and maybe an eighth of a mile of tumbleweed. It wasn't wall to wall clubs like now. Everything was free. At five o'clock in the morning a guy came out in the lobby of the The Thunderbird with a big stainless steel cart and a slab of roast beef and he would cut a thick slab and hand it to you free.

Kliph Nesteroff: Earlier you mentioned Max Gordon of Blue Angel fame. I need you to help me distinguish between the Blue Angel Max Gordon and the Max Gordon of Broadway. As I gather, there were two different Max Gordons in New York at that time that were showbiz impresarios...

Orson Bean: Max Gordon of Broadway produced big Broadway shows like The Solid Gold Cadillac. The other Max Gordon owned the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel. The last time I saw the Blue Angel Max Gordon it was the fiftieth anniversary. I emceed and Irwin Corey went on. Irwin Corey would famously never get off. Max Gordon's wife came to me, "Can you get him off? Max is tired." All these famous people were waiting to go on. I waited until Irwin got a big laugh and I ran out, grabbed the mic, "Irwin Corey, ladies and gentleman! Let's hear it!" Confused, he bowed. I introduced the next act.  He yelled, "Wait, I wasn't through!" But it was too late.

Kliph Nesteroff: I interviewed him a few months back. He's 99 years old. [Corey has since turned 100]

Orson Bean: Is he 99! Is he still saying however? He actually came up to me - and he meant this - he said, "You stole my word!" I had said however, not as a joke, but in the course of whatever I was talking about and he accused me of stealing his word.

Kliph Nesteroff: There are a couple guys like that. Irwin Corey and Will Jordan say everyone stole everything from them, no matter how slight. Irwin Corey says Woody Allen stole material from him and that Mort Sahl stole "The future lies ahead." Will Jordan says Lenny Bruce and Mel Brooks stole his act. They have convinced themselves of this.

Orson Bean: Will Jordan used to go to a place called The Gag Writers. It was kind of a club where you could try out material. A lot of people did Ed Sullivan impersonations, but Will did the very first. Will Jordan came up to Jackie Mason and said, "That Ed Sullivan impression you do is great. Where did you get the idea for that?" Jackie said, "Years ago there was a place called the Gag Writers Club and there was this fat, Jewish kid with glasses..." Will Jordan said, "I'm that fat kid with glasses!"

Kliph Nesteroff: I've talked with Will Jordan at length. He will talk...

Orson Bean: Endlessly.

Kliph Nesteroff: But he's fun to listen to. I want to ask you about the New York cabaret card system. You were part of a group that organized against it. Can you talk about that a bit? In the 1950s if you were a comedian with a criminal record you weren't allowed on a New York stage - or something like that. Very strange, draconian kind of thing.

Orson Bean: Yeah, I never understood it too much. This literati group mixed with the cabaret people. It was some of the New York Review of Books types. I can't think of their names, but my wife's sister is married to a guy who was the top editor at Random House. He hung out with all these New York reviewers and they got involved because of Lord Buckley.

I met Lord Buckley when I was just a kid in Boston. There was a place called Dave Schwartz's, which was the Lindy's of Boston. After we had done our acts we would hang out there. Buckley was working in town. He said, "Come with me!" And a group of us followed him. We would have followed him anywhere. He would get up on the running boards of cars and deliver a lecture to whoever would listen. He wouldn't sign the police card thing or couldn't get one... and that got a lot of publicity.

Kliph Nesteroff: This issue, the police card - the cabaret card - it broke Buckley and lead to his eventual demise the same way Lenny Bruce was plagued by legal problems.

Orson Bean: Lenny couldn't help himself. Lenny did routines about people learning to gamble by playing bingo in the Catholic church. The Irish cops would come in and arrest him for something tepid. He insisted on fighting his own cases and he became obsessed with it. You're not apt to be funny when you're obsessed with justice.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you friends?

Orson Bean: I considered him a friend. I don't think he considered me a friend. I idolized him. I thought he was just brilliant. I'd give him books to read. I gave him Lady Chatterley's Lover. He never bothered to read it. I gave him a book called Star Wormwood by a guy named Curtis Bok, a Harvard professor. It was about a kid who accidentally kills someone and then eats him. It was an anti-death penalty book and he found that fascinating. I think he was already using heroin, although I didn't know it. I went to see him shortly after JFK's assassination. He did two concerts. One at eight and one at eleven. I went to the eleven.

I was in a show called Subways Are For Sleeping. I asked Phyllis Newman, who was married to Adolph Green, to come along. They had never heard Lenny Bruce. Apparently at the 8 o'clock show he did assassination jokes that got screams. At eleven, ooh, the audience froze. I think maybe he was tired and didn't do it as wholeheartedly. That outrageous stuff sometimes works and sometimes doesn't.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did many panel shows and game shows. You did Pantomime Quiz in the 1950s with Milt Kamen.

Orson Bean: Yes, Milt Kamen was my best friend for a long time. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Milt Kamen is a forgotten stand-up, but he was beloved by comedians.

Orson Bean: He had worked in orchestras and before that he worked as a zepplin pusher. He worked in the garment district when he was young. A zepplin was a rack of clothes that you pushed along the sidewalks at high speeds. He worked for a guy named Bushman.

Kliph Nesteroff: Milt Kamen was Sid Caesar's stand-in on television and I've been told he would invent shtick during rehearsal that Sid would then do on air.

Orson Bean: Milt had to learn everything in the show and those were the days of live TV. They did it from a theater up on 58th and Broadway. In the old days Broadway existed all the way up to Central Park. At the final dress rehearsal it would be packed with an audience and it was Milt performing as the director shouted the blocking instructions. Milt got to do the entire Sid Caesar show in front of an audience of several hundred people every week.

Kliph Nesteroff: Another old school guy on Pantomime Quiz was Peter Donald.

Orson Bean: Peter Donald had been the emcee of Can You Top This with Senator Ford and Joe Laurie Jr on radio. I listened to it because it was fairly hip. I never thought Peter Donald was that funny, but he was still great. Audrey Meadows worked on it and he loved her. I got to know her and Art Carney so I used to go and watch them shoot The Honeymooners. They shot it with Electronicam, which was an invention of Desi Arnaz.

That's why to this day those two shows still exist. Gleason leased the thing from Desilu to shoot The Honeymooners. Gleason would come in not knowing a fucking line - drunk as a skunk - and he was brilliant! A genius! They had to learn all of his lines. To this day you can hear Audrey Meadows go, "Next I suppose you're going to tell me you've invited the boss to dinner." "I've invited the boss to dinner." Leading him in.

Gleason was wonderful. I wound up working with him several times. I used to come around when he was doing his big variety show from Studio 50, which is now called The Ed Sullivan Theater. He would sit there before the show and all the comics would come in. A few times I'd come by and he'd say, "Let the kid in - he's good." He'd tell these wonderful stories and the comics would howl. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Nobody could do a take quite as good as Jackie Gleason. He could make more out of nothing...

Orson Bean: Oh, yes, out of nothing. I loved his Reggie Van Gleason. Wonderful character.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did an ill-fated version of Make Me Laugh hosted by Robert Q. Lewis.

Orson Bean: Yeah, I never found Robert Q. Lewis funny. I also did a Studio One with Robert Q. Lewis. But Robert Q. was one of these guys... there were a certain amount of guys who had a niche... and nobody knew why exactly. There's the story about the guy who falls off a building, hits an awning as he's coming down, slides off the awning as a hay truck is driving by and lands right in the hay. Someone says, "God, you have got to be the luckiest guy in the world!" The guys says, "No. Robert Q. Lewis."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) All the goyish, boyish hosts... Garry Moore, Robert Q. Lewis, Hal March, George DeWitt, Durward Kirby...

Orson Bean: Garry Moore's stage manager on I've Got a Secet was Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.

Kliph Nesteroff: Allan Sherman.

Orson Bean: Yeah, he was the stage manager for Goodson Todman. He used to do routines at parties.

Kliph Nesteroff: I saw an episode that apparently resulted in Allan Sherman's firing. Garry Moore was away and Henry Morgan was the guest host...

Orson Bean: (laughs) I'm already laughing and I don't even know what the story is!

Kliph Nesteroff: Henry wasn't the greatest of hosts but it was one of these rare episodes where they had three guests and they all guessed the secret on the first try so suddenly they had half a show to fill and no more guests and Henry is the host...

Orson Bean: (laughs)

Kliph Nesteroff: You can see Allan Sherman's hands gesturing and then whispering from offstage and then shouting about what he should do. 

Orson Bean: When Fred Allen lost his radio show NBC was still paying him so they had him go on What's My Line or things like that and he hated it. He didn't want to be a panelist. I remember Bennett Cerf saying to him, "You only have two more minutes, Fred." And he said, "It's more than I need."

Kliph Nesteroff: The chemistry of What's My Line, I've Got a Secret and To Tell the Truth was great. They hold up better than almost any other television programming of that era, but most of the quiz shows were forgettable. You were on one called Says Who, which Henry Morgan hosted. One episode the guests were Joey Adams, Dagmar, Jim Backus and yourself.

Orson Bean: Oh, God. Dagmar was the foil for the very first late night show before the Tonight Show Broadway Open House. But why am I telling this to you? What was the comic's name?

Kliph Nesteroff: Jerry Lester.

Orson Bean: Jerry Lester. Jerry was funny. Dagmar with the big tits was married to this little shrimp of a guy. A comic. Dagmar was like a celebrity for a while. I don't even remember what Says Who was. There were so many of them. Keep Talking and Says Who...

Kliph Nesteroff: Apparently Jerry Lester did not get along with his brother Buddy Lester, who was also a comedian.

Orson Bean: Absolutely. Buddy Lester was a mean drunk. I never worked the Mountains, but I worked one little joint called Chester's. It was filled with old, Jewish Communists near Grossingers and the Concord. One of the old guys came up to me. "Your act is very socially relevant." That was my review.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Tonight Show host Jack Paar? You were on the episode in which he quit on-air and walked off the show.

Orson Bean: Yeah, I was. He surpised everyone. Hugh Downs was the sidekick and took over. Paar said he was never coming back. I kind of expected that I would replace Paar because I was a regular substitute. I stuck up for Paar. I had heard there was a suit who was really pissed off at me for badmouthing NBC, so I was taken out of the running. Oddly enough, Paar did not appreciate my sticking up for him. Paar wanted people to be beholden to him. When he came back he invited all of his friends to sit in the studio audience and I wasn't invited. I couldn't understand it. Then years later I realized he didn't like that I stuck up for him. It's an odd sort of thing. It was the part of Paar I never understood exactly.

Kliph Nesteroff: Shelley Berman told me that Paar never talked to him again for the opposite reason - because he did not stick up for him.

Orson Bean: Paar was a very odd guy. He was very complicated and strange and moody. He liked me as a substitute host because I didn't threaten him. Johnny Carson always booked subsitute hosts who were good, but not so good that they would threaten him.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jack Paar - when you look back on it - he wasn't even on television that long. His Tonight Show was 1957 to 1962. Compared to today that's nothing. Someone like Stephen Colbert has been on television twice as long. Conan O'Brien four times as long. David Letterman seven times as long.

Orson Bean: Yes, when he retired he really retired and Johnny Carson did the same thing. I must say I loved Johnny but I never socialized with him. We had a great relationship around the studio. "You got a joke for me, Orson?" In the make-up room, that kind of thing. When he retired that was it. Never came back and did a special or anything. Paar essentially did the same. He retired to Maine and bought a local TV station and ran that.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did your comedy LP - Orson Bean Live at the hungry i - come to be? It was on Fantasy Records, the same label as Lenny Bruce.

Orson Bean: Yes, it was. The guy who managed the club was one of the Hollywood Ten. He was no longer in the business so he ran the hungry i and said, "Let me record you." He just edited the thing together and made an album out of it. Lenny and I both shared the fact that Fantasy never paid us a penny. He sued, but nothing came of it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Its cover really encapsulates the era - with you in front of that famous brick wall.

Orson Bean: And the original record is a translucent red.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember of that era when people were being labeled as "sick comedians?"

Orson Bean: It was Leave it to Beaver. There were certain things about the 1950s. If you fell asleep in New York on a hot night in Central Park you just slept there. There was no street crime to speak of. There was a drugstore every other block where you could buy a rubber or something. I would go to 52nd Street to the jazz joints and they were going to three or four in the morning. The subway was a nickel. That aspect of it was nice. Then there was the other side. If you touched Pearl Bailey's arm on television the show would cut away. And people were called "sick comedians" if they were just a little irreverent. I, of course, enjoyed the era because I was having great success all of a sudden.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did a Broadway show with Godfrey Cambridge.

Orson Bean: Yes, Godfrey played my butler in Herman Wouk's play Nature's Way. We opened in Wilmington, Delaware. We all stayed in the same hotel except for Godfrey who had to stay in a cheap hotel by the bus station.

Kliph Nesteroff: You worked with Phil Silvers.

Orson Bean: I did a Sgt Bilko, but I never got to know him. He was a deeply unhappy man. My first ex-wife and I were on Bilko together. Maurice Gosfield played a character named Doberman and he was really a moron. He was popular with viewers, but on set they would make fun of him to his face.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Buddy Hackett?

Orson Bean: Buddy I saw right to the end. When he would see me he would say, "An Irishman, an englishman and a Jew...:" He wouldn't say hello, he would launch right into a joke. I loved Buddy. Very sweet. He kind of waxed philosophical with me. He found me intellectual. He would tell me a joke and then he would start talking to me about deeper things, which I don't think he mentioned to his other friends. He had this great big stone elephant in his yard that the neighbors were horrified by.

Kliph Nesteroff: Dick Shawn.

Orson Bean: I never liked him and I never found him funny. I was also jealous of him because he got parts I wanted to do. I don't know. I never warmed up to Dick Shawn. I found him arrogant. I remember one time I rode in an elevator with Henry Fonda. I was a young comic. He kind of gave me hard eyes and brushed me off and for years I told people what a prick he was. Then I got to spend a week with him and he was wonderful. I had the most wonderful week with him! And I had bad mouthed him after being in an elevator with him. I thought, "What the fuck was I thinking?" I formed an opinion that had nothing to do with anything. So I don't know...

Kliph Nesteroff: Red Skelton.

Orson Bean: Red Skelton I loved. He was an angel. When I was a young comic he was so generous with me. He walked in on a live show I was doing at the Blue Angel and got a big laugh. He threw his arm around me and he was sweet as sugar. Of course I had adored him in The Fuller Bush Man and all the movies. Liberace was another. People would do that. They would walk into your show and people would laugh and applaud. That's what Bob Hope used to do with Carson.