No Laughs, Please

The old show biz chestnut really is true: an excellent comedian can become an excellent actor, but dramatic actors rarely make good comedians.

As Groucho Marx wrote in 1959,There is hardly a comedian alive who isn’t capable of doing a first-rate dramatic role.  But there are mighty few dramatic actors who could essay a comic role with any distinction…All first-rate comedians who have played dramatic roles are almost unanimous in saying that compared to being funny, dramatic acting is like a two-week vacation in the country.”

The great comedy producer Hal Roach maintained, “The great comedians imitate children. To be a great comedian you have to be a great actor, and to be a great actor you have to portray something. There is not a great visual actor that I know whose every movement is not that of a child…”

While not every comedian has the inherent skills necessary to give a convincing dramatic performance, the list of those who have succeeded is rather impressive, and even includes a few surprises, from Charlie Chaplin to Robin Williams.

With the post-war years and Television Age, many established comedians dared to take on dramas on both television and in film. Red Buttons was an established burlesque comedian who gained a national following with his own TV show in 1952, and who surprised many by winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Sayonara in 1954. He also made a fine dramatic contribution to the disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure, and, in his later years, his acting earned him an Emmy for a heartbreaking guest role on ER. Comedian Shelley Berman said of Buttons, “I could name just a few [comedians as good actors], and whenever I am asked to name them, I have named Jackie Gleason, as an actor; I remember Jack Benny being a beautiful actor, and the other beautiful actor who’s a comedian is Red Buttons.”

Ed Wynn had already achieved legendary status as “The Perfect Fool” on stage and radio, and regarded as a comedy master by his peers, almost thirty years before taking on dramatic roles in the late 1950s. In 1956, after a painstaking rehearsal process, he received an Emmy nomination for his role as Army in Rod Serling’s live TV classic Requiem for a Heavyweight. Serling later cast Wynn in two episodes of The Twilight Zone. Wynn continued to find work in other dramatic roles on television, and also appeared in the film version of The Diary of Anne Frank, for which he received an Oscar nomination for his role as Mr. Dussell.When he had a chance to do it,” Red Buttons said, “Ed Wynn was a wonderful, wonderful actor in the twilight of his career.”

The aforementioned Groucho Marx considered it an honor to be given the opportunity to act in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” on The Bell Telephone Hour in April of 1960. He played Ko-Ko the Lord High Executioner. “There were greater talents around to perform the operetta,” Groucho wrote, “but certainly no bigger Gilbert and Sullivan fan than myself.”

Two more of television’s comedy pioneers, Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason, also found success in dramatic roles.  In 1961, Gleason co-starred with Mickey Rooney and Anthony Quinn in the film version of Requiem for a Heavyweight.

Gleason gives an intense performance as Maish, the downtrodden, debt-ridden boxing manager. That same year, he played Minnesota Fats in The Hustler, starring Paul Newman. Gleason’s portrayal won him an Academy Award nomination. “I knew that I liked dramatic work,” he said in a 1984 interview for 60 Minutes,

“and I was fortunate enough to be successful at it. I was between two heavyweights, Paul Newman and George C. Scott. And they’re awful good. And if you don’t want to look like a wimp, you’d better wind up and throw a couple. So you had to act in self-defense.” Comedy director Garry Marshall said of him, “Jackie Gleason was mostly known as a comedian from TV but he was also a heck of an actor and did some wonderful work in films, and probably did not receive enough accolades as an actor.”

As for Berle, forever known as “Mr. Television” for almost single-handedly jump starting television’s popularity with his variety show in 1948, took the plunge into drama and received an Emmy nomination for his role in “Doyle Against the House,” an installment of The Dick Powell Theater, televised in October of 1961. In a straight role,” he explained, “there’s no going after laughs, no pauses or waiting– ‘if this is supposed to be funny shall I take three beats?’ It is much more difficult to be funny and to get laughs…” Gleason, by the way, praised Berle’s acting, saying “I have known many comedians–Berle is one–who were superb in serious drama, but there are

very few serious actors who do comedy well.” Berle made numerous appearances in TV dramas throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, and, in January of 1995, appeared in an unlikely program, the youth-oriented Beverly Hills, 90210, as a nursing home patient suffering from Alzheimer’s. He sensitively portrayed a frightened man unable to maintain a firm command of his lucid moments, and received another Emmy nomination for the part.

Jonathan Winters’ comic improvisations on stage and television delighted audiences as well as his peers, and made his best-know dramatic role appear virtually effortless in an episode of The Twilight Zone, titled “A Game of Pool.” In it, he plays a deceased local pool-playing legend sent back to Earth to teach a young hotshot player (Jack Klugman) some humility.A lot of people who’ve seen me do a couple of dramatic things come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t know you could act–I thought you only made noises.’ They forget that all of us can act; what else are we doing up there?”

Carol Burnett did some moonlighting from her comedy-variety show in 1974 to star in the TV drama Friendly Fire. Burnett once said,I have seen comedians switch over to drama with greater success than I have seen straight actors switch to comedy. Straight actors who aren’t really comedic force something too much.”

Another TV legend, Dick Van Dyke, will be forever associated with his classic sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show, and several beloved Disney musical comedies. A recovering alcoholic in real life, he tackled the issue of alcoholism head-on in the 1974 TV drama The Morning After, in which he portrayed a successful man in denial of his drinking problem, until his world begins to unravel. That same year, he played a cold-hearted murderer on the Columbo episode “Negative Reaction.” In the 1990s, he found more success with his series Diagnosis Murder.

George Burns was never called upon to try his acting chops in a serious drama, but he played opposite Walter Matthau in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys (his best friend, Jack Benny, had planned to take on the role, but died of cancer before filming began). At the age of 80, Burns won the 1975 Oscar

for Best Supporting Actor for his efforts. When asked at the time to evaluate his own acting abilities, he replied, “Good acting is when Walter Matthau says to me, ‘How are you?’ and if I answer ‘Fine,’ that’s good acting.  If Walter Matthau asks me ‘How are you?’ and I answer ‘I think it fell on the floor,’ then that’s bad acting.” His Oscar win led to starring roles in comedies including Oh, God! and Going In Style.

And then there is Peter Sellers, who, to this day, stands above all others as a comedy actor, best remembered as Inspector Clouseau in Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther films.  However, Sellers turned in a remarkably subtle and quietly magnetic performance as the quiet, simple-minded gardener Chance, in the 1979 film Being There, co-starring Shirley MacLaine and Melvyn Douglas.. Powerful millionaire Douglas and his wife MacLaine befriend him and somehow mistake his inane statements for brilliant insights. Soon even the President (Jack Warden) and TV talk show hosts fall under Chance’s spell as they hang on his every word.

Sellers read the novella, by Jerzy Kozinski, in 1972, and in the intervening years campaigned to play Chance But he revealed at the time that, the day before shooting began, he panicked about how to play the role. He said to his wife, “I’ve had this thing for six years and, you know, I don’t know how I’m going to play Chance. I thought I knew everything about him, how he spoke, how he walked, acted, thought, but I realize now that I have to go and do it tomorrow, and I really don’t know.” He figured it out soon enough. This was Seller’s next-to-last and certainly his finest among many of his brilliant film performances. It is one of incredible restraint; he speaks just above a whisper (with an American accent) and confines his physical movements to slow, deliberate gestures. The role earned him his only Oscar nomination.

The list goes on: Steve Martin, Bill Murray, and Robin Williams ventured from their familiar comedy techniques to play dramatic roles with considerable success. Williams won a Best Supporting Oscar  in 1998 for his performance in Good Will Hunting, and Murray was nominated in 2003 for his role in Trainspotting. “It may sound funny,” Murray once said, “but [dramatic roles] are fun. They’re important, because they let people see another side of you. I think comedy’s a little harder. To play comedy, you have to be able to play straight. The way you modulate it and deliver it is what makes it become funny–but you have to be able to play straight.”

Jerry Lewis suffered the slings and arrows of his critics almost perpetually throughout his solo film and television career of the ‘50s and ‘60s (with the exception of The Nutty Professor). Only in his last decade or so did his comic genius receive proper appreciation, especially from his fellow comedians. But he earned praise for his dramatic performance in the 1983 film The King of Comedy as a late-night talk show host stalked and kidnapped by social misfit Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro). Lewis plays it straight throughout, giving an utterly believable, restrained performance, like nothing he had done before or since. He said years earlier that “the hard job is doing comedy. That’s what’s rough. Acting is a snap, but acting for an actor is hard work…because that’s all he does.” In referring to Groucho’s comment about acting, Lewis concurred, “It is like two weeks in the country. Christ, that’s a pleasure, and easy…that’s nowhere as naked as being a comedian.”

So there you have it.  Until next time…

 

 

Happy 40th Anniversary, home videos!

This year marks 40 years since the introduction of the portable video camera/recorder for the public. Today, anyone casually browsing videos on YouTube can’t help but be impressed–or annoyed– by how personal video recording has become such a part of our everyday lives, thanks in large part to the fact that we can record a party, concert, Little League game, or even a horrific accident, natural disaster, or crime just by tapping a button on a cell phone. As effortless as it is to record on video now (digitized, that is, not on tape), it’s easy to forget–as is the case with so many modern conveniences–how exciting it was to first see the prospect of home videos become a reality.

But before video cameras were introduced to the market, it behooves us to first take a step further back a few years to the introduction of another revolutionary device, the VCR.

It wasn’t until the late 1940s when TV programs could be preserved for posterity. The arrival of the kinescope, a mechanical unit created basically by pointing a film camera at a studio monitor as a television program aired live, was officially announced on September 13, 1947. It was the result of a joint project between Kodak, NBC, and DuMont. The first kinescope unit was unveiled at an NBC affiliates convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The process worked like this: after a live program was televised, and recorded off a kinescope monitor onto film, the film was then processed, and copies were physically shipped to TV stations elsewhere in the country, to air at times of their own discretion.  It was an inexpensive and relatively simple way of strengthening the concept of a true TV network among stations dotted across the country. And, while it was a somewhat crude method, the kinescope helped preserve countless classic (and not-so-classic) live TV broadcasts throughout the late ‘40s and early 1950s.But the kinescope picture quality was a frequent source of complaint by station managers, television critics, and viewers.

Videotape changed that forever when it was first demonstrated in 1956 by Alexander Poniatoff, founder of the Ampex Corporation. Almost immediately, commercial television had a far easier way to record, preserve, and distribute any program that wasn’t shot on film.

In June of 1965, Sony introduced an early commercial home video recorder set using reel-to-reel tapes within a large console unit, with a price tag of $995.00—downright astronomical in 1965.

In 1972, Sony introduced the U-Matic VCR, which used ¾” tape cartridges in a player-recorder touted in its ad copy as “a revolutionary new means of communication.” The ad goes to considerable length simply to explain the basic concept of a videotape system, its capabilities, and possibilities for broadcasting, commercial—and especially medical—use.  Ironically, the ad copy includes just a single phrase to suggest that “perhaps, someday, there’ll be a U-matic in every living room.”

In the spring of 1975, Sony introduced the Betamax, but only as part of a console with accompanying built-in TV monitor. Less than a year later, though, the stand-alone Betamax recorder hit the market, making it a far more desirable item, and greatly spiking sales. As the introductory ad explains, the Betamax “can actually videotape something off one channel while you’re watching another channel” to be easily played back at a later time. Not only that, the machine’s timer “can be set to automatically videotape that program while you’re not there.” This concept seems ho-hum now, maybe even quaint, but it was almost too good to believe for TV addicts—and just about everyone else—at the time.

That same year, JVC introduced the VHS format, whose tape cartridges were bigger than Betamax tapes, but also ran twice as long—two hours to Beta’s one-hour. While there was the slightest loss of picture sharpness, a fierce competition for the public’s favor ended when VHS overtook Beta as the format of choice by the majority of American users (other home video formats competed for the market place in the early days, but soon failed). By July of 1987, fully half of the households in the U.S. included a VCR, and the number increased to over 75% by the mid-1990s.

With the VCR revolutionizing the way we watched television, it was just a matter of time, and a very brief time at that, before a portable video camera for consumers would endanger the life of the home movie camera, and become the next big thing—emphasis on the big.

The year was 1923 when, for the first time, the average person could record an event or family occasion with a movie camera. Developed by Kodak, the home movie camera and projector used black & white, 16mm safety film, and showed considerable promise. The next progressive step came in 1932, with the introduction of the smaller 8mm format (still using b&w film). Color film became available for 16mm in 1935, and for 8mm the following year. For the average user, the 8mm format remained set (and for manufacturers, profitable) for decades, with still further innovations coming along in later years, such as Super 8 in 1965, using easy-to-load film cartridges, and the arrival of Super 8 sound in 1973.

Then came the home video camera. To an early owner of the new hi-tech toy, the initial excitement of owning a first-generation video camera, whose videotapes could be viewed and enjoyed on a TV immediately after taping any occasion or event, was nonetheless accompanied by a bit of physical effort—and a sore shoulder. The “portable” video camera and recorder pictured here, made by JVC, weighed a hefty 20 pounds.  Still it was the inspiration for the first generation of amateur videographers, who delighted in recording not only family events for posterity, but many also began to explore their own creativity as aspiring cameramen, directors and actors.

In the summer of 1980, Sony chairman Akio Morita held a press conference  to present to the world a working model of a four-pound combination video camera/recorder, or camcorder, that could record while resting on the cameraman’s shoulder. The “Video Movie,” as Sony called it at first, was aimed at replacing the Super 8 film format. Video cassettes would record twenty minutes of material via a battery with a 40-minute charge capability. However, an adaptor would be necessary to play the tapes on a TV, or dub them directly onto a Beta or VHS recorder.

Sony’s competitors had no choice but to step up development of their own formats. At the same time, Sony had to be careful not to repeat an earlier mistake by resisting industry standardization, when the Betamax format found itself overtaken by VHS. Smaller formats appeared throughout the ’80s, and as video cameras became smaller, the average consumer benefitted, at the very least, by seeing the bulky portable deck rendered obsolete.

Alas, the march of technological progress into the 21st century–the DVD, the DVR–has led to the virtual extinction of the video tape (except in my household), making conversions onto discs or flash drives necessary.

But, for those of us of a certain age, that initial excitement of the home video era will always remain unique.

Until next time…

 

The real-life married couples of comedy

As I was researching information for a book I’m writing (or, more accurately, trying to write), I realized the peculiar fact of how common it was, in a particular period of entertainment history, to see real-life married couples join forces as comedy partners. Of course, most of us can think of many celebrity couples today who either act together, sing or dance together, and, let’s face it, seek attention however they can together. Some can be suspected of having married in the more to appease their publicists’ fantasies than out of feelings of lifelong love.

But I digress.

Burns & Allen.

The couples I’m referring to came to national attention on radio in the early 1930s, when that medium virtually exploded with programs starring comedians who had already made names for themselves in vaudeville.  Several of them may have begun as solo performers on the stage, but at various points in their mediocre careers in vaudeville struck gold by adding their spouses to the act, thereby setting it off in a new, and more successful direction. By the end of 1932, there were no fewer than

Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone.

five real-life husband & wife couples performing regularly on network comedy programs:  George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jesse Block and Eve Sully (whose popular stage act was very similar to that of Burns & Allen), Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone (real name: Sadie Marks), Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa, and Goodman Ace and his wife Jane, who starred in the very popular and highly-praised 15-minute program, Easy Aces. Goodman wrote every script himself, creating Jane’s character as  one whose dialogue was filled with malaprops and mispronunciations.

Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa.

These radio stars by way of vaudeville were among the many married teams–comedians, singers, dancers, acrobats–who performed and traveled together for financial as well as creative reasons.  The case of Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa, who started doing a vaudeville act together shortly after they were married in the mid-’20s, was common at the time. Allen explained, “In vaudeville, when a comedian married he immediately put his wife in the act. The wife didn’t have to have any talent. It was economic strategy. With a double act a comedian could get a salary increase from the booking office.  The additional money would pay for his wife’s wardrobe, her railroad fares and the extra hotel expenses.” Luckily, most of the wives did have talent, even

Goodman and Jane Ace.

if some felt more comfortable as performers than others. Mary Livingstone famously suffered from stage fright, but out of all the wives, only her on-air character deviated from the “dumb dora” type. As part of Benny’s method of using himself as the butt of jokes, Mary usually got the last word in their scenes, at Jack’s expense. And, while it could be argued that married couples performing together run the risk of creating issues the rest of us don’t face, these early stars beat the odds. As Jack Benny pointed out, “We all remained married to our original mates. I know that people assume actors and actresses are bad marriage risks, yet not one couple in that group was ever divorced.”

The same goes for yet another married couple, Jim and Marion Jordan, former vaudevillians who co-created and wrote the legendary radio comedy “Fibber McGee and Molly.” The program, premiering in 1935, wasn’t an immediate hit, but within a few years, its audience and popularity increased to the point where it became radio’s top rated series in the late ’30s and throughout the ’40s. One of the many recurring gags on the show was McGee’s opening of a hall closet so fully stuffed with junk that the program’s sound effects man got a good workout conveying the ensuing avalanche that would half-bury McGee each time.

Lucy and Desi.

Television brought us other married couples who teamed to make audiences laugh, most notably Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (who divorced in 1960). I hesitate to include Ozzie and Harriet Nelson to the list, despite their long-running sitcom; they were known in the years leading up to their program as a musical couple, i.e. Ozzie was a popular bandleader, Harriet his singer. (and, let’s face it, the comedy on their sitcom barely passed as such).

 

Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss.

Richard Benjamin and his wife Paula Prentiss garnered much attention for the launch of their sitcom He and She in 1967, but that show lasted a single season (although they remain married to this day) due to tough competition from shows like The Beverly Hillbillies. The list of married couples collaborating on sitcoms through the decades goes on, but most latter-day examples honestly aren’t as impressive–to me, anyway. I still prefer the true legends.

Until next time…