Monday, July 18, 2016

An Interview with Bernie Kopell - Part One

Bernie Kopell: K-l-i-p-h? What the hell kind of a spelling is that?

Kliph Nesteroff: One of your earliest television gigs was on The Jack Benny Program. 

Bernie Kopell: What an absolutely delightful human being. There was not one iota of supremacy about him when he dealt with other actors. He was gigantic in radio and then became gigantic in television. The sitcom Gomer Pyle, USMC - he tried to combat it, but it sort of knocked him off the air. I started off in television doing a show called The Brighter Day. I don't know why this happened, but they cast me as a Latino on the show. It was 1961. I had an agent who was very slow. By that I mean - he would send me out to audition for parts that had already been cast.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Bernie Kopell: That's how slow this guy was. I got to CBS Television City at Fairfax and Beverly. I still remember that the casting director was named Marilyn Bludgeon. She said, "Oh, I'm so sorry, Bernie, the part you're up for has already been cast!" In the waiting room there were a bunch of Hispanic actors. She said to me, "Well, Bernie, since you're here - why don't you read for the part of Pablo?" I was furious. I was so upset about the whole agent thing that I decided that I'd read for Pablo out of spite just to waste their time.

I read for Pablo without even knowing if I could do that kind of an accent. I decided to do an impression of Jack Paar's orchestra leader Jose Melis with a little bit of Bill Dana's character Jose Jimenez thrown in. I didn't care about it. I was just annoyed. I went in - and I nailed it. I got the part! It changed my life for the next five years. I got cast on television frequently to play Latinos. Now, I must apologize to all my Latino and Latina friends because this is not the kind of role that should ever go to someone like me, but that's what they did back in the early 1960s. I had great fun doing Pablo on The Brighter Day. I had to threaten a blind lady. Harvey Korman was on the show playing a detective. He thought I was Mexican. I defer to my Latino friends who in the late sixties took a very principled stand: nobody plays Latinos but Latinos. I agreed. I said, "You got it," and I stopped doing those roles.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Brighter Day was a soap opera.

Bernie Kopell: Yes, it was a soap opera. The director was a very flamboyant man named Herb Kenworth. They had me playing a pilot on a Latin American airline and I thought it would be funny if I combined my previous Latino character with Herb Kenworth's flamboyance. It turned out to be so funny that it led to my gig on The Jack Benny Program. I got a new agent named Hal Shaffer and he had more chutzpah than anyone I had ever met in my life. He would say, "Okay, let's go to Universal." So we'd go to Universal - uninvited! We went to Jack Arnold's office and he had us thrown out.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Bernie Kopell: So we went to Bob Edmonson's office. Hal Shaffer is going, "You've got to see Bernie Kopell! Bernie - show him that character!" I did and then Edmonson got on the phone, "Mr. De Cordova - I think I've got you that Spanish character!" He took us to the office of Fred De Cordova who had been a top director at Universal and was now the producer of The Jack Benny Program. That's how I got the job. It was so exciting for me to work with Jack Benny. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You did two or three episodes. The episode I saw you were playing a bank employee and George Burns is in the same scene.

Bernie Kopell: Well, that was awe inspiring, but the most awe inspiring was the first one. I did a thing called the Talking Renaldi Brothers. It was the "new talent" show and I came out wearing a jacket with buttons all over it and my brother comes out wearing a ballet outfit and a cape. Behind him was a cut-out of the human form. Jack Benny looks at this set-up with that look of his and says, "Well, what do you guys do?" I said in my accent, "I am the least important part of this act. My brother is the fastest human being in the world. I am going to shoot at him and with great agility he will dodge." 

So there's a drum role and I shoot and there's this jerky movement. Jack looks at the cut-out and there's now a hole in it. He looks at the camera and says, "Amazing!" I ask for another drum roll and this time I shoot again and he does the jerky movement. Jack goes, "Incredible!" And I say, "And now ladies and gentleman, I will empty the chamber of my gun and my brother will dodge all of the bullets!" The brother does all these insane movements and then finally stands still - and topples to the ground - dead. Jack Benny walks over to this corpse, looks at it, and then looks at the camera. He says, "Well... I guess they weren't quite ready yet for the big time."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Bernie Kopell: Afterwards he said to me backstage, "How is it that you knew your lines so well, you son of a bitch?" I said, "Well, working with you Mr. Benny I rehearsed very hard because it means a lot to me." He made this, "Oh, stop it," gesture with his hand. He was very modest. He had the great sense to surround himself with all those great people like Frank Nelson and Mel Blanc. He was great at setting up the comedy for all these great people. It was done for CBS and taped at Universal in front of a live audience in 1962. It was a tremendous thing for me. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You were mostly a television guy back then, but you ended up with two lines in the Fred MacMurray western The Oregon Trail. 

Bernie Kopell: Yes, I was driving a taxi in 1958 when I wanted to be an actor. I happened to pick up these two people, a producer named Richard Einfeld and his secretary. They were very interested in me. He said, "You don't seem like your average taxi driver." I said, "I'm not - I'm an actor." They hired me to do two lines. My first day on set I wanted to please everyone. So I heard someone shout, "Get me an apple box!" So I went and fetched this apple box and the prop guy starts yelling at me, "What the fuck is wrong with you! This is my job." I was so rattled after that. Addison Richards, a great character man, played President Polk. He had a long speech and I was supposed to keep up with it and walk out with him, camera right. I was so nervous and befuddled that I forgot to move. I missed my cue and he had to do this whole, long speech again. The third time I missed my cue Addison Richards goes, "Move your goddamn ass, Jack, I don't want to have to do this again!" So by the fourth time he did his speech - I moved my ass. I got my Guild card from that job, but the next day I was back to driving a taxi. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned that great character actor and obviously you are one of the great character actors from your generation...

Bernie Kopell: Can you say that louder, please?

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) The great thing about these sitcoms from the 1960s is that even if the shows themselves don't hold up they're full of great, distinctive character actors. I saw you in an episode of McHale's Navy and that program had people like Carl Ballantine and Joe Flynn...

Bernie Kopell: I have one main memory of that. Ernest Borgnine was one of the nicest human beings ever and I later worked with him again on The Love Boat. On McHale's Navy I was supposed to be a Major who is running after Ernie because of something he has done. The door is locked and he's hiding behind the door. Between takes Ernie says, "I've got a great idea. You pound on the door and you pound so hard it comes off the hinges and your body falls down to the ground right on top of it! It'll be a great bit for you!" Well, you don't argue with an Academy Award winner. Being the idiot that I am - I did it and it gave me whiplash! That whiplash problem is with me to this day

Illustration by Drew Friedman

We did an episode of The Love Boat and the guest stars were Borgnine and Shelley Winters. I don't know when she became this, but maybe she changed after winning two Academy Awards. She really became a pain in the ass. She became very strange and dressed like a bag lady. For this episode of The Love Boat it was a cruise to Italy and on it we had Shirley Jones and Eva Marie Saint. Aaron Spelling transported everyone in 747s first class to Italy. Jones and Saint were sitting next each other and were so happy to be going on what was essentially a paid vacation. I was upstairs in the lounge of the 747. I could hear some kind of fuss down in first class. I go down there and Shelley Winters is sitting on the floor protesting her first class seat, which she wasn't happy with.

She continued this exhibitionist behavior throughout the whole show. Ernest Borgnine was playing her husband and he put up with it, he put up with it, he put up with it. There was one point in Capri where it was very difficult logistically. The crew had to pick up all the equipment and get it off the ship because after our shoot that morning, that same ship was actually leaving the port. It was a very tight schedule because of it. And it wasn't possible to dock, so all the actors and crew had to take these small boats back to shore. We get there and she was ranting, "I hate this script! Change it! This costume is no good! No, my hair can't be done like that." Well, Ernie just ripped into her with every foul word you could possibly imagine. I think that's what she was looking for because after that she went ahead and did it. It was totally unnecessary for her to disrupt everything, but that's just the way she was. 


Barry Rivadue said...

He seemed to be everywhere back then. So glad he's around to share and for you to ask such informed questions. You're not a typical taxi driver. ;)

Unknown said...

Of course Ernest Borgnine and Shelley Winters had history from the Poseidon Adventure. He once said that of all the difficult things about making that movie, the worst was working with Ms. Winters.