After learning about Your Show of Shows and the stars of the show, I turned my attention to the cast members. Carl Reiner and Howard Morris were the two actors who were most involved with the skits. Reiner had a long and successful career, and we’ll look at his life in more detail later, but today I would like to concentrate on Howard Morris.
Most people recognize Morris as Ernest T Bass from The Andy Griffith Show. While I have a great appreciation for the series and the well-written scripts and delightful characters of Mayberry, I was never a big fan of Ernest T or the Darling family. They seemed to be a bit too over the top for me and diminished the reality of Mayberry.
So, when I began to learn more about Morris who first became known to television fans for his work on Your Show of Shows, I was amazed at how versatile an actor he was and how much he accomplished during his career.
Howard Morris was born in The Bronx in 1919. He later received a scholarship to attend New York University as a drama major, planning to work as a classically trained Shakespeare actor. During WWII he became first sergeant in the US Army Special Services unit. The group was based in Honolulu and entertained troops throughout the Pacific. Maurice Evans (who played Samantha’s father on Bewitched among other roles); Carl Reiner (whom we all know and love); and Werner Klemperer (Col Klink on Hogan’s Heroes) were all part of this unit.
In 1945 he married Mary Helen McGowan. While they were married until 1958; he had four other marriages during his life.
When Morris got the offer to appear in Sid Caesar’s new show, he was able to work with Reiner again. This was his first television or movie appearance, but it would not be his last.
One of the sketches from the show was a take on This is Your Life, the Ralph Edwards show. Morris said it was his favorite skit from the series. David Margolick wrote in the New Yorker in 2014 that “Though the competition is stiff, many feel that this sketch is the funniest that Your Show of Shows ever did . . . that night nearly sixty years ago, the show produced what is probably the longest and loudest burst of laughter—genuine laughter, neither piped in nor prompted—in the history of television.”
Morris moved to Hollywood in 1961. In the 1960s he began his multi-talented career of television actor, movie actor, director, and animation voice-over star. Unbelievably, he would rely on the quartet of skills the rest of his professional life, excelling in all of them.
As a television actor, he appeared in a variety of series including The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Twilight Zone, The Lucy Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Love American Style, The Bob Newhart Show, Fantasy Island, Trapper John MD, The Love Boat, and Murder She Wrote.
Although he is known for his role of Ernest T Bass on The Andy Griffith Show, he was only made five appearances as that character on the show. Aaron Rubens sent him the script that introduced Ernest to Morris to look over and “fix.” Morris fell in love with the character. He said the show had a terrific cast, and they were wonderful people to work with. He said fans loved Ernest because he did whatever he felt like doing including spontaneously bad behavior choices that everyone wanted to make.
As a movie star, he appeared in several films throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Some of the highlights were The Nutty Professor; With Six You Get Eggroll; High Anxiety; The History of the World, Part I; and Splash.
Not content with just acting in films, Morris became interested in directing early in his career. He began his directing career in the sixties and continued through the eighties. His first directing job was on The Bill Dana Show. He was very busy in the sixties and seventies, directing episodes of Gomer Pyle, USMC; The Dick Van Dyke Show; The Andy Griffith Show; The Patty Duke Show; the pilot of Get Smart; Bewitched; Love American Style; Hogan’s Heroes, and The Love Boat among others. He also directed for the big screen. You’ll see directing credits in his name for Who’s Minding the Mint?, With Six You Get Eggroll, and Don’t Drink the Water.
During an interview with the television academy, he said he loved directing Hogan’s Heroes. Robert Clary became one of his best friends for life. He also loved Klemperer. He said working on With Six You Get Eggroll was a wonderful experience. He said Doris Day just had a natural talent, and Brian Keith was a great guy. He felt being an actor allowed him to be a better director. He understood what the process was for the cast and was able to help them. He knew he could not teach them to act.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for a classically trained Shakespeare actor is that he had the most success in the animation world. I could not begin to list all his credits here, or you would still be reading next week when the new blog comes out. Beginning with Krazy Kat in 1962, he would go on to provide voices for more than fifty series. You will hear his voice in The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Mr. Magoo, The Magilla Gorilla Show, The Atom Ant Show, Duck Tales, a variety of Archie series, and Garfield and Friends.
In a Television Academy interview, he admitted that he accepted voice-over work because he needed the money. It also appealed to him because you did not have to worry about wardrobe or make-up. He said the actors sat in the room together recording the show at the same time which allowed them to relate to each other better than today when everyone records by himself.
In 1962, he married Dolores Wylie and they were together until 1977. I read several sources that listed him being married five times but could not find confirmation of the other marriages, although one cite mentioned two other spouses, Judith and Kathleen and noted that he was married to one of his spouses twice. They all ended in divorce.
In 2005 Morris died from congestive heart failure. Carl Reiner was one of the people who gave a eulogy at his funeral.
Howard Morris had a very long and prolific career. About the only genre he did not act in was Shakespearean drama, which is what he trained for. I was curious about whether he enjoyed his comedic career, or if he was disappointed that he did not work more in drama.
During his Television Academy interview, when asked what advice he would give someone thinking about entering the acting or directing profession, he replied “to avoid it and shun every opportunity because it was too hard.” He certainly deserves to be remembered for more than being Ernest T Bass even though he is a much-loved character. Morris said he would like to be remembered as a guy that was able to reveal certain things of humor and reality to the public and for his great gratitude for the fans who have always been there.” Well said. And, well done.
2 thoughts on “Howard Morris: The Hamlet of Animation”
That is an impressive range of skills and variety of roles played. It is ironic that Shakespearean drama was basically the one thing he didn’t do. I could see some of the fun in making spontaneous bad behavior choices for a character! Kind of a license to act like a different person for a bit with no repercussions.
I was very impressed learning all he accomplished. He is the third person I have written about this year that started out as a serious dramatic actor that spent their life in comedy. Not sure if there just weren’t enough jobs or if they truly found their passion. Your last sentence is interesting describing him–kind of reminds me of a teenager . . . said the mother of three boys!