Friday, July 22, 2016

An Interview with Bernie Kopell - Part Three

Kliph Nesteroff: I have a fascination with Desilu-Cahuenga. It was a sitcom factory. That soundstage is still there and it basically looks the same. I always bike down Waring Avenue or Lillian Way on my way home. The Danny Thomas Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gomer Pyle USMC, The Andy Griffith Show, That Girl, The Joey Bishop Show, The Lucy Show... all of these programs were done there...

Bernie Kopell: The atmosphere at Desilu-Cahuenga was busy. They did Gomer Pyle on Stage 9 and when The Dick Van Dyke Show went off the air Stage 8 was taken over by the Marlo Thomas show. There were lots of other ones being done there like Mayberry RFD and Good Morning World. It was just a busy, busy spot. Garry Marshall, who was always comedic, said you didn't need a menu at Hal's Studio Cafe - all you had to do was look at Hal's apron to see what they were serving that day.  

I got started on the Desilu lot because of Sheldon Leonard. He started in showbiz playing New York kind of heavies, bad guys that threatened people in all the old movies. And then he became a top dog on the Desilu lot. I was with Hal Shaffer, my aggressive little agent. We'd go for lunch and I'd leave a tip and when he thought nobody was looking he would pocket the tip

Before any of the good stuff happened to me we walked into Desilu-Cahuenga. Hal Shaffer saw Sheldon Leonard. He walked right up to Sheldon Leonard and grabbed him by the arm. "Bup, bup, bup, bup, bup, bup, bup, Bernie Kopell, bup, bup, bup, bup, bup!" The whole time he's holding Sheldon Leonard by the arm and not letting go. Rather than being affronted, Sheldon Leonard said, "Do I have to see him now?"

Sheldon was amused. He said, "Tell you what, I have to go watch the dailies right now, but go to my office and I'll be there in forty minutes." I was trembling. We went into his office and I was beside myself. Hal Shaffer was looking around Sheldon Leonard's office trying to find some kind of memento he could pocket. I said, "Please, no, Hal, don't touch anything!"

Sheldon Leonard came back to his office. He had me do my thing and boom - I was cast in the Danny Thomas sitcom Make Room For Daddy. Very small part, but it was the beginning for me at this very busy studio. So that was very nice and that sort of got me going there. 

Desilu - Cahuenga - former studio audience entrance at Stage 9 - in 2016.

Kliph Nesteroff: You appeared on what is now a forgotten sitcom - The New Phil Silvers Show.

Bernie Kopell: Yes, The New Phil Silvers Show where he basically played the same character, but they didn't call him Bilko. He was basically doing the same thing as this character Harry Grafton. He was a foreman of a factory. In this episode his men are frustrated that he never expressed himself. He bottled it up. So I played this Stanislavski type director with a Russian accent who is brought in to coach Harry Grafton. 

When you're on set there's always lots of confusion before the shot. The camera is setting up, the sound guy is setting up, and there's a lot of noise around. This guy who I'd never seen before approached me. I couldn't quite make out what he was saying, but he extended his hand and said something like, "Hy Rosenstein." It was very loud so I shouted back, "Hy Rosenstein? Bernie Kopell!" He looked at me blankly and went, "No, I don't think you heard me. I didn't say Hy Rosenstein - I said - I wrote this thing."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Bernie Kopell: It was a writer named Ben Starr. He wrote that episode and I had fun. I have a photo from the onset photographer somewhere. Herbie Faye was on that series and I worked with him a number of times. He was very New York and spoke kind of in a nasal way. He got a lot of work in films and television. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I love the character actors. Burt Mustin was also in your episode of The New Phil Silvers Show.

Bernie Kopell: Burt Mustin, boy, he got his start in the business when he was eighty years old and he was very funny. Phil Silvers' production company was Gladasaya Productions as in "Glad to see ya!" He was always playing his Top Banana character. He was a very, very sweet man and later on we did a Love Boat together. By the time Phil Silvers appeared on The Love Boat he had already had a stroke. He was kind of infirm. He played a man who was not well who is reluctant to get involved with a female passenger because he's a dying man.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did an episode of The Lucy Show, which was done at Desilu-Cahuenga.

Bernie Kopell: I did an episode of The Lucy Show and Lucy was tough. God, she was tough. Even her daughter said she was a control freak. She had done it for so long and she had done so many episodes that she knew what she wanted. She'd say, "No, take that line out. No, do it this way. No, do it that way. No, don't do that." Seeing that - it was very off-putting. 

But they invented syndication and they owned three Desilu studios: Desilu-Cahuenga, Desilu-Gower, and Desilu-Culver City. I mean, holy mackerel, these were major studios. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz got so rich through syndication and then Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard followed their lead. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Valentine's Day was a good sitcom from that period created by Hal Kanter. It starred Jack Soo and you did one episode.

Bernie Kopell: Hal Kanter created Valentine's Day and he was a little bit ashamed because people always referred to the show as V.D.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Bernie Kopell: I did it with Alice Ghostley, but there's not much I remember about it.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about your participation in a motion picture written by Terry Southern, which has since become a cult classic - The Loved One.

Bernie Kopell: Ohhhh, that was a brilliant satire on the funeral business. So many transplanted English actors were in it like John Gielgud and Robert Morley. Jonathan Winters played two characters in that film. I played an assistant to Lionel Stander, whose character did an advice-to-the-lovelorn column. The column is purportedly written by a guru with long hair and crossed legs, but its actually this hardboiled alcoholic Lionel Stander. The Loved One was directed by Tony Richardson and he was married to Vanessa Redgrave. He would speak with his proper British accent, "May we try it again, please? This time - a bit more casual." He said that to Lionel and myself. There was this other scene where the statues come to life in the cemetery and they have an orgy. Tony Richardson goes, "Cut! May we try it again please? This time - a bit more fucking."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Bernie Kopell: Tony was a marvelous director. Jonathan Winters loved this gay character I did around set. We were breaking for lunch entering the commissary and I was berating him, "Where were you last night? I cook and you cruise!" Jonathan loved that. Anyway, his character realizes he can make way more money if he subdivides and builds on the land where the cemetery sits. He's trying to convince the board of directors that they can do this if they put the corpses on a rocket and send them to space. He gets very frustrated with the board and says, "Get those stiffs off my land!" 

Jonathan finished the scene and he wanted to go sit down in the chair with his name on it. Anjanette Comer was sitting in her chair and she had her feet resting on the seat that said "Jonathan Winters." He said to her, "Please move your feet, I'd like to sit down." She wouldn't move them. Jonathan asked again and she wouldn't do it. He said, "Anjanette? You see my hands? They are very small - but they are very strong. If you don't get your hands off my seat - I'm going to rip your fucking tits off."

(laughs) She took her feet off the seat! But the whole film was brilliant with all of these people like Rod Steiger and Paul Williams and Roddy McDowall and Liberace. They ended up with four and a half hours worth of footage and they had to cut and cut and cut. I think it's a brilliant film.

Kliph Nesteroff: I wish I could see all the stuff that got cut out.

Bernie Kopell: Well, let me put it this way - you never will. It doesn't exist. There was that great scene where we see Rod Steiger and his mother who eats and eats and eats. At one point she pulls the fridge down on top of herself. It was just one crazy scene after another like that. Milton Berle was also in The Loved One doing scenes with Margaret Leighton. It was great fun for me.

Kliph Nesteroff: Another comedy film you're in was Carl Reiner's first screenplay - The Thrill of it All.

Bernie Kopell: That was my first time working with Doris Day. I was concerned that she was pissed off with me. She played this homemaker whose children are ranting and raving about this brand of soap. Her husband was played by James Garner. They're at a party, like a baby shower, for a character played by Arlene Francis. The Doris Day character is rhapsodizing about the soap. The father of the pregnant lady is the CEO of the soap and he makes Doris Day the spokesperson. I played a floor manager on the set of the commercial and Doris Day plays this amateur and she's holding the box of soap upside down.

My character is yelling at her and kind of bullying her a bit, but at one point she gave me an unfriendly stare while we were doing the scene. Not at my character, but at me. And I thought, "Uh oh, I've annoyed this lady I've idolized for years." But then years later I did her TV show and she didn't remember any of that and it was fine. And she was so nice and so sweet. Her attitude on set was that of a hostess, making certain all her guests were comfortable and happy. A delight. The first episode of The Doris Day Show I played a hijacker and then I played a regular character, a chef named Pallucci.

I was on it several times for the next three years. I ended up playing her Uncle Kappelhoff, an art forger. We had intimate, lovely scenes. A few years ago when her son Terry Melcher died my phone rang. I heard, "Uncle Kappelhoff?" I said, "Is this... is this Doris Day?" It was. And she was so depressed because her only son had passed away. Ever since then we would talk on the phone. To this day we talk on the phone every couple of months. I call her or she calls me. That first phone call happened shortly before Christmas when her songs were being played on the radio and making people happy all over the world, but the human being behind those songs was deeply depressed. There was a great separation between the public persona and the actual human being. I don't know, there's some kind of great lesson in that.


Cantara said...

Great interview. A little extra info on Valentine's Day: A class act all the way. The lead was handsome movie star Tony Franciosa (Wild Is the Wind, The Long Hot Summer); other semi-regulars included veteran actors Edward Everett Horton, Janet Waldo, Lurene Tuttle. Helen Traubel played Franciosa's mother. Helen Traubel the Wagnerian soprano, for heaven's sake! Jack Soo's role was notable because his character, Rocky, was more of a cool live-in pal, an equal, rather than a servant or houseboy a la Sammy Fong or Victor Sen Yung--THAT was progress. I loved this show when I was a girl.

Guy Callaway said...

Great piece! Sounds like a nice guy.
I'm also fascinated by Desilu & the shows made there. Wondering if you're familiar with this site: