DON MARTIN (68) January 6, 2000
The 21'st century got off to a miserable THWAK and a depressing THUNNNGK with the news of Don Martin's passing.
Don was the guy who created all the sick slapstick cartoons in MAD Magazine featuring huge-nosed dopes with flappy-soled feet. He tickled the funnybone with his recurring character Fonebone, and many others. Dubbed Mad's "maddest cartoonist" he loved gross humor (people getting their eyes knocked out, getting flattened by steamrollers, etc.) accompanied by creative words to recreate the sounds of the mayhem. He seemed to live la vida loca, since his license plate was: SHTOINK.
I was mighty flattered when, around the time Don Martin left Mad Magazine (for Cracked), he attempted to subcribe to MY magazine Rave. I say attempted, because I put him on the comp list...and kept the check as both a cherished autograph and a way of lousing up his accounting for that year.
Sadly Don's last years were difficult. He suffered from eye ailments, required corneal transplants, and could only work by using a magnifying glass. But it was cancer that finally subdued him completely...leaving us all a little sadder. Unless we flip through one of his books and look at his grrrgggh ftpoooish cartoons.
BOB MCFADDEN (76) January 7, 2000
A talented comic voice specialist, Bob McFadden never quite got the one "BIG" cartoon voice that would bring him everlasting fame and a lot of fans. His best known voice work was probably for the obscure "Milton the Monster" Saturday morning kid show in the 60's. He later voiced some comical monsters in commercials for "Frankenberry" and other repulsive cereals.
Bob did busy himself with a variety of eccentric projects through the years, ranging from a comedy album in which he played Richard Nixon, to the parrot that squawked "Ring Around the Collar" for a detergent commercial. Like many in his line of work, Bob began his career as an on-stage impressionist. After World War II Navy service he became the opening act for the McGuire Sisters and specialized in mimcry of singers (from Frankie Laine to Billy Eckstine).
Bob was married 48 years, his wife caring for him as he battled Lou Gherig's Disease at his home in Delray Beach, Florida.
LARRY BEEZER (50) February 10, 2000
Larry made his first "Tonight Show" appearance in 1968. He was only 19. It seemed like he had a pretty bright future ahead of him, but being a teenage stand-up was it. The native Philadelphian spent the next thirty-one years of his life as a journeyman comic, working "Dr. Demento's Festival of Dementia," getting Armed Forces Radio gigs with Wolfman Jack, and making a film or two. His most notable effort was 1981's "King of the Mountain." By an odd quirk, he died at the same age and on the same date as Jim Varney.
JIM VARNEY (50) February 10, 2000
With his eyes bugged out, his face pressed close enough to the camera lens that you could almost smell corn, Jim Varney was the TV pitchman who hollered "Hey, Vern!" and then told his pal (and YOU) all about some utterly forgettable piece of junk he was selling.
Varney named this idiot pitchman "Ernest P. Worrell," and when people couldn't get enough of his goofy "Know wutta mean" clowning, he ended up a bonafide movie star. Critics weren't that thrilled with "Ernest Goes to Camp," "Ernest Rides Again," "Ernest Saves Christmas" and the rest, but his fans ate it up and burped for more. Varney won the role of Jed Clampett in the remake of "The Beverly Hillbillies" and voiced Slinky Dog for "Toy Story."
Not surprisingly, the Kentucky native was a thoughtful, mild-mannered fellow and not the dimwit he appeared to be. Unfortunately he was a bit dimwitted about smoking, and his doctors told him in August of 1998 that he had lung cancer. He lost his hair to chemotherapy treatments, and lost his battle with cancer when it reached his brain. He died at home in Tennessee.
DURWARD KIRBY (88) March 15, 2000
An odd-named straightman, Durward Kirby didn't have much to do in his
successful career. He smiled, made affable small talk, and along with Alan Funt watched the foibles of idiots
play out on "Candid Camera." He had slightly more to do as Garry Moore's sidekick, often appearing in frumpy
roles for comedy sketches, his tall, dignified demeanor punctured by a zany costume or dopey line.
Born in Kentucky, Kirby was an announcer for his Purdue University radio station. He subsequently worked on radio in the Illinois and Indiana, and after World War II service came to New York and met up with Moore in 1950. He demonstrated a lack of humor when he tried to sue Jay Ward Productions for running a "Rocky and Bullwinkle" episode about a stolen "Kirward Derby."
Those who wish to read more can dig up one of his books: "My Life, Those Wonderful Years" or "Bits and Pieces of This and That."
STANLEY RALPH ROSS (68) March 16, 2000
Stanley wrote clever-corny scripts for a variety of vintage TV shows including "The Monkees,""Love American Style" "Batman" and also penned such films as "Coffee Tea or Me," "Three On a Date" and "For The Love Of It." He also was a lyricist (working with Anthony Newley, Bill Conti, Henry Mancini and others) and helped produce or develop a variety of shows including "The Monster Squad," "That's My Mama," "Challenge of the Sexes" and "Wonder Woman."
Ross often took bit parts and character roles in TV shows, and was a cartoon voice on both the small screen and in films, including "G.I. Joe," "Richie Rich" and "Babe: Pig In the City." He helped compile books of film criticism and taught comedy at the USC Film School.
LARRY LINVILLE (60) April 10, 2000
Underrated for his character comedy, Linville was best known as the weasel-esque Major Frank Burns
on "M*A*S*H." While he was laughed AT by viewers, he was actually laughed WITH by the cast of the show, because he did such a fine job of satirizing a certain type of stuffy, pedantic martinet. As Burns, he could giggle like a schoolgirl, oafishly act the part of
a tough guy, or do a great face-first pratfall into a big puddle of mud. He helped set up hilarious scenes for
the the other actors, so much so that even Loretta Swit's Major Houlihan and Maclean Stephenson's Colonel Blake seemed witty by comparison.
Linville never lived down the Burns role, but worked in films ("Grandpa Goes to Washington," "Paper Dolls") and often on stage. He was performing in New York up until he underwent cancer surgery in 1998.
WALTER MATTHAU (79) July 1, 2000
He didn't just play comedy characters; he was one. Walter Matthau's style was the slow burn...which could turn into ashes or flame magnificently into comical angst. An example of the former would be his classic Oscar Madison role, a character so tight-lipped his voice came out flat through his nose. Goaded by Felix to the breaking point, he doesn't combust. He throws a dinner plate in what seem like an out-of-control moment, but caps it off with the classic line, delivered with acid: "Now it's garbage."
The latter? Any number of excitable moments where his hooded eyes would pop slightly, his slack mouth would go wide, and his normally rumpled and slumpy body would come alive in defiance. How about "The Sunshine Boys" where he suddenly and stubbornly rises to ad-lib "Enter!!!" every time George Burns knocks on the door?
Walter's real last name was Matthow, but in an interview, he claimed it was actually MATUSCHANSKAVASKY. Since it's not easy to gain access to birth certificates, Walter's story was treated as true, and he was delighted to find that dozens of legitimate reference books printed his joke-name as fact.
Matthau played it straight and sentimental sometimes, racking up credits in everything from "Fail Safe" and "Charade" to "Kotch" and "The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three." Most people remember him best in partnership with Jack Lemmon (including Walter's Oscar-winning performance in "The Fortune Cookie," despite having suffered a heart attack halfway through filming).
Matthau had numerous health problems through the years: heart surgery in 1976, double pneumonia while working in ice-cold Minnesota on "Grumpy Old Men" (1993) and a colon tumor in 1995. He made the tabloids when he suffered through another case of pneumonia but rallied to complete his last film, prophetically titled "Hanging Up."
SIR ALEC GUINESS (88) August 5, 2000
Some know him as a fine actor or as the heroic "Obi-wan Kenobi" in Star Wars. But comedy fans always
relished the brilliant British comedies he starred in during the 50's and 60's, and the occasional comic role he
took after that, such as the blind butler in "Murder by Death." There were a lot of reasons to mourn
the passing of this great talent, who spent his latter years enjoying his country estate and the fan letters
from people all around the world.
RICHARD MULLIGAN(67) September 26, 2000
Richard Mulligan was a little too tall and goofy-looking to be a movie hero. In fact, his first sitcom was the short-lived "The Hero," poking fun at that genre. A decade later, and Mulligan finally emerged from character acting ("Little Big Man" and "The Group") to get an Emmy as Burt Campbell on "Soap." He also won an Emmy for his sitcom "Empty Nest," which had a good run from 1988 to 1995. He had less success in his private life, with several failed marriages and an eye-opening relationship with a porn actress in the late 90's. He died of colon cancer. Billy Crysal, his "Soap" co-star, eulogized hiim this way: "He was an intelligent, moody, edgy, interesting, explosively funny actor who would continually break me up on the set. I had to dig my fingernails into my legs to stop from laughing."
GWEN VERDON (75)October 18, 2000
Beautiful, sexy, with a coy cadence to her voice that was utterly unique, Gwen Verdon was one of the major musical comedy stars of all time, winning four Tony awards. From the 50's to the 70's she dazzled audiences in "Damn
Yankees," "Can Can," "Sweet Charity," "New Girl in Town," "Chicago" and many more.
She appeared on TV from time to time (notably as a burlesque queen on a two-part episode of "M*A*S*H" and was making films almost up to the time of her death. The sweet and satiric Broadway angel died in her sleep at her daughter's home in Vermont. She was married to choreographer Bob Fosse ó and though they had separated, they remained friends. He died in 1987.
STEVE ALLEN (78) October 30, 2000
One of the real "nice guys" in show business, I'm glad to say Steve Allen lived a full life and had a very painless death. He visited his grandchildren on October 30th, and had just sent off his 49th book to the publisher. He felt a little tired, but that was it. He went to bed at his son's house, and passed away of a heart attack.
The list of Steve's accomplishments is monumental. Most know the basics: that he wrote thousands of songs, a lot of thoughtful books, and that as the original "Tonight Show" host and a pioneering TV performer for several decades after, he gave the world a lot of ad-libbed wit and all types of "stunt comedy" and "desk pieces" still being used by today's hosts. These ranged from "The Question Man" (later adapted as Johnny Carson's "Carnak") to his habit of doing impromptu man-in-the-street interviews and setting a camera loose on unsuspecting passersby (adapted by Jay Leno for "Jaywalking"). David Letterman's many gags, including hurling himself at a wall of Velcro, were directly lifted from Steve's gags, which included covering himself in tea bags and dumping himself in a giant cup of water. Fortunately, Dave, Jay, and most of the others always acknowledged their debt to Steve.
He was certainly generous with me € I was a guest on his radio show many times. Probably the greatest thing about Steve was that as much as he knew about comedy, as big as his own star was, he was always open to appreciate and promote new performers. He gave so many comedians a start...Bill Dana, Jonathan Winters and Lenny Bruce among them. He gave Mort Sahl a forum at a time when Mort was almost blacklisted.
He could be scholarly and serious or completely silly ó often nearly at the same time. He told me once that he felt that his "predominant gift" was for music. But fortunately, he could never resist ad-libs and wisecracks, and he was one of the most spontaneously funny people of all time. Although he admitted that he had to sleep 12 hours a day, he seemed to have a lot of energy and a tireless amount of enthusiasm. I remember him appearing in "The Mikado," about 5 or 6 years ago, and not only did he play his part perfectly, he re-wrote one of the songs so it would have a lot of funny modern references. Just remembering the patter was a great achievement.
It's a cliche, but it's true: "he made it look easy." There was a slight backlash because of this, abetted by Steve's slight turn toward conservative issues late in life. But fortunately, there's no quesiton that he was a talented man. While his music may not be to modern tastes, his best tunes such as "This Could Be The Start of Something Big" are still memorable (try humming the current Leno "Tonight Show" theme instead!) And his comedy...rent it on video and not only will you see where Leno and Letterman and Carson came from...you'll be laughing, too.
WERNER KLEMPERER (80) December 6, 2000
"Dis...missssssed!" That was one of Col. Klink's defeated catch-phrases as smirking Col. Hogan won another round at Stalag 13. The Jewish Klemperer will forever be best remembered as the Nazi of TV's "Hogan's Heroes," but he was, of course, a versatile actor with many more credits than that. Although he won two Emmy awards for the role, that's really his main comedy credit. Most of his output was in dramas.
Those who are only verklempt over the loss of Klink should know that Werner was devoted to classical music. His father, Otto, was a famous conductor especially noted for his interpretations of Brahms and Beethoven. Werner arrived in America in the 30's and served on OUR side in World War II.
In his acting career he seemed typecast for Nazi roles almost from the start. He had the lead role in the 1961 film "Operation Eichmann," which ironically featured Hogan co-star John Banner. His sinister look led to more evil roles, including a "Thriller" TV episode "The Man in the Middle," in which he played Mort Sahl's tormentor.
Klemperer's other notable film roles included ``Judgment at Nuremberg,'' ``Death of a Scoundrel,'' ``The Goddess'' and ``Ship of Fools.'' On stage he appeared in a revival of "Cabaret" and was nominated for a Tony award. Based in New York, he often appeared in local stage productions such as the Circle in the Square's production of ``Uncle Vanya.'' Combining humor, acting and music, he'd often narrate "Peter and the Wolf" at classical concerts with leading orchestras.
As for leadership, Werner was Actors' Equity's Principal Councillor for fifteen years. In 1988, he was elected vice president, and served till 1994.
Klemperer was slowed by cancer in his later years. One of his last roles was playing a guardian angel on an episode of "The Simpsons."
BILLY BARTY (76) December 23, 2000
Everyone from W.C. Fields to Spike Jones to Chevy Chase worked with him. Billy Barty may have been little, but his credit list was long.
William John Bertanzetti was born in Millsboro, Pennsylvania. He never reached four feet tall, but in show business, this helped him play everything from comically malicious babies to Mickey Rooney's kid brother in a bunch of "Mickey McGuire" comedies. For Spike Jones, Billy got to show off a bit more of his repertoire, including a devastatingly accurate (if bizarre) impression of Liberace. He even had his own 60's TV show, "Billy Barty's Big Show" in Los Angeles. Through the 70's and 80's he played a wide variety of unusual roles, co-starring in "Foul Play" and "Under the Rainbow" with Chevy Chase, "Day of the Locust" and "Willow." He was a flatulent cop in the Pat Paulsen film "Night Patrol."
Off screen, Barty founded "Little People of America," to change the stereotypes people have: ``The general public thinks all little people are in circuses or sideshows."
Billy was in good health until this year when he underwent hip surgery. He had to use a motor scooter to get around, and in May fell of it, fracturing an eye socket. He was well enough by October to receive the Long Beach Film Festival's Humanitarian of the Year Award, and to campaign for George W. Bush. He was admitted to the hospital after a lung infection, and died of heart failure, leaving his wife Shirley, a son and daughter.
VICTOR BORGE (91) December 23, 2000
Like another whimsical musical comedian, Steve Allen, the beloved Victor Borge was another nice guy who lived to a ripe old age and had a peaceful end. "The cause of deaht was heart failure," his daughter Sanna said. `He had just returned from a wonderfully successful trip to Copenhagen ... and it was really heartwarming to see the love he experienced in his home country..." He died in his sleep at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was only a few weeks away from his 92nd birthday, January 3rd.
I found him to be a humble, courteous gentleman. And along with the rest of the world, I also laughed every time at his enduring routines like "Phonetic Punctuation."
Borge, forever characterized by the press as "The Unmelancholy Dane," was born in Denmark. He was too nervous to be a serious classical pianist, finding that it was easier to make jokes and kid around at the piano instead. He was a sharp satirist in Denmark — so sharp that he had to leave the country in 1940 as Hitler began to conquer Europe. Being funny was a crime — as was being Jewish (his real nme was Boerge Rosenbaum). He arrived in America where he learned English from watching movies — and performed on the radio at first by memorizing his lines phonetically.
Borge's routines became classic. He was in the Guiness Book of World Records for having the longest running one-man show in Broadway history ("Comedy in Music," which leasted from 1953-1956). He toured the world with pretty much the same rotating two or three hours of material for 40 years.He'd perform serious works from time to time but admitted, ``If I have to play something straight, without deviation in any respect, I still get very nervous. It's the fact that you want to do your best, but you are not at your best because you are nervous and knowing that makes you even more nervous.''
Borge wrote a book of odd and quaint musical lore ("My Favorite Intervals") in 1974, and brought his comedy to millions selling video cassettes via television ads. His records and videos were in constant demand, as was he. He received so many international awardss he could hardly count them all. In 1999 he was honored by the Kennedy Center. His wife died early in the year 2000, but he had a big family: five children, nine grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.