Heigh-Ho Louis Nye!

Finishing off our “Men of November” series is Louis Nye.  If you watched television in the sixties, you will recognize Louis, but you might not know why.

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Born Louis Neistat in Connecticut in 1917, he was the son of parents who emigrated to the US from the Russian Empire and became naturalized citizens in 1911. Louis wanted to get involved in acting but his grades weren’t good enough for him to participate in the drama club.  He opted for work on WTIC Radio instead. He also joined the Hartford Players.

The work on local radio led to his decision to move to New York City to work on the radio, often on soap operas. Nye married songwriter Anita Leonard in 1940. Unlike many Hollywood couples, they remained married until Nye’s death.

**FILE** Steve Allen, third from left, and some of the original cast members of the popular 1950’s television show, “Steve Allen Show,” gathered in Beverly Hills, Calif. in this Oct. 4, 1990 file photo to honor Allen and to celebrate the re-broadcast of 100 episodes of his show on HA! TV Comedy Channel. They are, from left: Tom Poston, Don Knotts, Allen, Louis Nye, Pat Harrington Jr., and Bill Dana. Nye died Sunday at his home in Los Angeles after a long battle with lung cancer, his son, Peter Nye, told The Associated Press on Monday. He was 92. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian, FILE)

World War II interrupted his career. He was assigned to run the recreation hall in Missouri. He would entertain troops and was able to meet Carl Reiner, who had a similar sense of humor, and who was also part of Special Services performing in shows across the Pacific.

With Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows Photo: nytimes.com

After the war ended, he returned to New York, getting jobs on television and appearing on Broadway. His first tv role was on The Admiral Broadway Revue in 1949. He appeared on several shows during the fifties but was best known for his work on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show and the New Steve Allen Show. He became close to the entire cast which included Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Pat Harrington Jr., Dayton Allen, Gabriel Dell, and Bill Dana. Nye often portrayed wealthy citizens during the “Man on the Street” sketches. When he took on the role of Gordon Hathaway, the egotistical Country Club snob, saying “Hi-ho Steverino,” Allen often cracked up. When the show moved to Los Angeles, Nye went with it.

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His first recurring role was that of dentist Delbert Gray on The Ann Sothern Show in 1960 and 1961. He was very busy during the sixties, appearing on a variety of shows including The Bob Hope Show, The Jack Benny Show, Mike Douglas, The Munsters, Jackie Gleason, and Phyllis Diller. From 1962-66, he would pop in on The Beverly Hillbillies as Sonny Drysdale, the spoiled stepson of banker Milburn Drysdale.

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In the seventies, he could be seen on shows such as Laugh-In, Love American Style, Laverne and Shirley, Starsky and Hutch, and Fantasy Island. He was offered a permanent role on Needles and Pins in 1973. The show only lasted for 14 episodes. The series was about the garment industry. Women’s clothing manufacture Nathan Davidson (Norman Fell) works with a group of employees including characters played by Nye and Bernie Kopell.  It didn’t receive great reviews and many of the writers said it talked about the garment industry but showed very little and was set in one small spot, inhibiting what plots were even available.

During those decades Nye would also get offers on the big screen from time to time but most of the roles were smaller cameo parts. However, he appeared with a lot of celebrities in these epics including Bob Hope, Jack Lemmon, Lucille Ball, Dean Martin, Walter Matthau, and Jack Webb.

He also recorded several comedy albums using several of his characterizations. One of his most successful LPs was “Heigh-Ho Madison Avenue.” It parodied market research, advertising agencies and post-WWII society.  Some of the pieces on the album include “The Gray Flannel Blues,” “The Ten Commandments of Madison Avenue (Plus Big Bonus Commandments),” and “The Conspicuous Consumption Cantata.”

Asea on the Love Boat
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He continued to keep busy in the eighties on a variety of shows including Here’s Boomer, Aloha Paradise, The Love Boat, The Cosby Show, and St. Elsewhere.

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His last role was another recurring one where he played Jeff Garlin’s father on Curb Your Enthusiasm from 2000-2005. Nye passed away from lung cancer in 2005.

I’m not sure what to think about Nye’s career.  I think in the right role, he would have excelled in a television comedy or a big screen epic which he never had the opportunity to do. He was multi-talented and appeared on Broadway, in clubs, and on the radio, and he created comedy albums as well as appearing in movies and television. However, I often read quotes of his where he said he only wanted to be funny at parties and always considered himself a serious actor. He was so brilliant and funny with his 15 accents and wide range of characterizations that he seemed pigeon-holed as a comedy character actor early in his career. I wondered if he was sad that he never had the chance to appear in a classic drama, or if he accepted his successful career for what it was, just being thankful he was in the entertainment industry for his entire working life.

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Since we cannot ask him directly, all we can do is tip our hats to him in appreciation for the decades of laughter and entertainment he provided for us. Thank you, Mr. Nye.

The Secret Word is George Fenneman

I am cheating just a bit with this post. During this Oddly Wonderful series, I think I can push the envelope enough. You Bet Your Life was a very different type of game show. If ever there was a person who personifies oddly wonderful it was Groucho. But I really wanted an excuse to write about George Fenneman.

George Fenneman is best remembered for his role on Groucho Marx’s quiz show, You Bet Your Life which began on radio in 1947 and transitioned to television in 1950. The show went off the air in 1961, the year I was born. Obviously, I don’t remember the original show, but I saw it in reruns and always had a crush on George; I think it was his smile that always got me.

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George was born in Beijing (then Peking), China in 1919. His father was in the importing/exporting business. When he was not quite one, his parents moved to San Francisco where he grew up. After high school, he attended San Francisco State College. He graduated in 1942 with a degree in speech and drama. He took a job with a local radio station KGO for a short time. He married his college sweetheart Peggy Clifford in 1943 and they would stay married until George died. The couple had two daughters and a son.

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Poor eyesight and asthma prevented Fenneman from military action in World War II, but he was able to become a broadcast correspondent for the War of Information. In 1946 he was back in California, in the radio industry again. One of the shows he announced for was Gunsmoke. After the episode concluded, he would introduce Matt Dillon (William Conrad) to discuss the sponsor’s products which often was cigarettes such as L&M or Chesterfield.

Some of the other radio shows he announced for included The Orson Welles Show, The Eddie Albert Show, and the Hedda Hopper Show.

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He and Peggy were neighbors of Christian Nyby. In 1951, Nyby was hired as director for the film, The Thing from Another World. George joined the cast as in the minor role of Dr. Redding who has an important scene at the end of the film. It took 27 takes for him to get the speech right, and he realized he was better suited for radio. However, he would appear in two additional films, the little-known Mystery Lake in 1953 and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1967. While his voice was part of several other films, most notably in the original Ocean’s 11 as the man talking on the phone to Sheriff Wimmer.

Jack Webb had worked on broadcasts with George during the war. He hired Fenneman as announcer for his radio show, Pat Novak, For Hire. When Dragnet aired the same year, Jack took George with him. George, along with Hal Gibney took on the role of narrator for the show. They both continued with the show in 1951 when it moved to television. Dragnet was off the air for a number of years and returned to television in 1967. Fenneman was again hired as narrator with John Stephenson for that version. George was the one who was heard saying, “The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Stephenson handled the closing narration. Fenneman was also cast as a news reporter in a variety of shows including Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Name of the Game, and on Batman in 1966 in the episode, “The Yegg Foes in Gotham.”

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On Batman

In addition to appearing on Groucho’s show on television, Fenneman was the host or announcer for several other shows. He emceed two games shows during his time with Groucho: Anybody Can Play in 1958 and Your Surprise Package in 1961. In 1963, He hosted a show on ABC titled Your Funny, Funny Films which was a cousin to the later Candid Camera and America’s Funniest Home Videos.

He was usually an unseen announcer on The Ed Sullivan Show, but in 1964, the night the Beatles were on the show for the second time, he did a spot on the air for Lipton Tea. From 1978-1982 he hosted a show on PBS, Talk About Pictures. In this show, Life magazine photographer Leigh Weiner and George interviewed respected photographers and looked at their best photos.

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With Leigh Weiner on PBS

He also was the voice for Home Savings & Loan commercials from the late 1960s until his death from emphysema in 1997. He also acted as announcer for shows such as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Donny and Marie, The Jim Nabors Show, and The Life of Riley.

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With Martin and Lewis

In 1993, The Simpsons aired an episode that spoofed Dragnet, and Fenneman can be heard on the show delivering his famous line about names being changed to protect the innocent.

Despite his large cannon of work as an announcer and emcee, Fenneman became a household celebrity when he went to work for Groucho on You Bet Your Life. One day George was standing on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Robert Dwan, who had hired him at KGO Radio, came up and told him he was holding an audition for a new show for Groucho. Fenneman went up against thirty other announcers and won the job which paid $55 a week. He was hired just to do commercials. At some point, Groucho decided he should also be scorekeeper, as well as his straight man.

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When discussing Groucho, George said, “I have to say he was unique, and he was fearless. It was a great privilege to work with him for 15 years and to be his friend for 30.” After Fenneman’s death, Peggy did an interview for an article by Lawrence Van Gelder for the NY Times in June of 1997. She said that George was always a fan of Groucho and the Marx Brothers. She remembered them often going to the Golden Gate Theater when they were in college. They went to watch the Marx Brothers rehearse future movie scenes for comic timing. She remembered watching scenes from A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races.

Groucho, known for his quick wit and acid tongue, found an agreeable and attractive man in Fenneman. When viewers queried George whether the show was scripted or ad-libbed, he always said yes. Actually, it was about 50/50.  Groucho was fed some lines from the interviews with the contestants, but he never met them ahead of time and was given the freedom to interject whatever comments he chose.

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George often took the brunt of Groucho’s humor. One time he had to inhale helium, one day he came down from the ceiling when the secret word was said in place of the usual duck, or he would be questioned about something on the show. For example, one evening each of the contestants was a very attractive woman and Groucho made it seem that Fenneman had set that up on purpose. One contestant mistakenly referred to George as Mr. Fidderman, and Groucho called him out to discuss his double life.

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George never knew what Groucho had in store for him. Often Marx would summon George from behind the curtain, and he always looked uncomfortable which was quite genuine. But Groucho had great affection and appreciation for him, calling him the perfect straight man.

At times on the show, George could also be quite funny, but he knew his main role was straight man, and he usually toed that line carefully.

George and Groucho remained friends long after the show was cancelled. They often got together before Groucho’s death in 1977 at age 87. Groucho never lost his sense of humor. At one of their last visits, Groucho was in very frail health. Helping Groucho get across the room, George lifted him out of his wheelchair and carried him. He had his arms around his torso and began to shimmy him across the floor. Groucho’s rasping voice said, “Fenneman, you always were a lousy dancer.”

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

Although the shows have never been released in a chronological DVD collection, they are available. The programs were recorded in full and then edited to the desired length. On MP3 discs, some of the unedited tapes are available which provide a very different perspective than the aired show.

There are a few announcers still well known in the business. I think of Rod Roddy, Johnny Gilbert or Johnny Olson who have game show fame, but it is a career that is being phased out. There is something charming about watching the former announcers for shows promoting products and interacting with the stars. Harry Von Zell from the Gracie Allen and George Burns Show comes to mind or Don Wilson from the Jack Benny Show. Like rotary phones, transistor radios, and Polaroid cameras, they are fondly remembered from a slower and less technological period in history.

With this series being Oddly Wonderful, I am stretching it a bit by focusing on George. In our definition of oddly wonderful, he was definitely the wonderful.

The Alliterative Harry Morgan (Famous for saying Horse Hockey and Beaver Biscuits as Colonel Potter)

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When it comes to prolific actors in television and film, few people can equal Harry Morgan’s career. Known for his deadpan delivery, he was in more than 100 films. He also starred in 11 television series and appeared on 6 TV Guide covers.

 

Born Harry Bratsberg in 1915, he grew up in Muskegon, Michigan. His parents came from Norway and Sweden.  Harry went to the University of Chicago, planning on becoming an attorney but got interested in acting instead. In 1937, he began appearing with stock companies, followed by Broadway roles.

Harry Morgan From 'December Bride'

 

His first wife was Eileen Detchon who he was married to from 1940 until her death in 1985. Her photo appears on Colonel Potter’s desk on M*A*S*H. They had four sons: Christopher, Charley, Paul and Daniel. Morgan remarried in 1986 and was married to Barbara Bushman until his death.

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He was signed by Twentieth Century Fox in 1942. His screen debut was The Shores of Tripoli under the name Henry Morgan. Later that year he appeared in Orchestra Wives and a few years later was in The Glenn Miller Story with Jimmy Stewart. In 1943, he starred with Henry Fonda in the highly acclaimed The Ox-Bow Incident.

 

In 1954, he was offered the role of Pete Porter in December Bride which ran until 1959. In the show, he complained about his wife Gladys a lot, but we never meet her. When the show ended, he starred in a spin-off Pete and Gladys from 1960-1962. Pete Porter is an insurance salesman. His scatter-brained, but beautiful, wife is played by Cara Williams.

 

The next year he was cast in The Richard Boone Show from 1963-1964. This was an anthology series which Richard Boone hosted.  A cast of 15 actors appeared in different roles each episode. Morgan appeared in all 25 episodes. The show never captured viewers, probably because it was on against Petticoat Junction.

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Almost immediately upon its ending, he was again cast in a television show with a role on Kentucky Jones during 1964 and 1965. Kentucky Jones is a veterinarian and former horse trainer.  He and his wife adopted a Chinese boy named Dwight Eisenhower “Ike” Wong. After his wife’s death, the local Asian community and handyman Seldom played by Morgan helps him raise Ike.

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Morgan had a couple of years of guest starring in shows such as The Wackiest Ship in the Army and Dr. Kildare, and then he was cast in Dragnet from 1967-1970. He and Jack Webb were friends before the show and continued to be best friends throughout Harry’s life. Webb had directed the previous Dragnet show in the 1950s and revived the show in 1967, convincing his friend to play the role of Officer Joe Gannon who helped Sergeant Joe Friday (Webb) solve crimes in Los Angeles.

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Between 1970 and 1972 he would show up in The Partridge Family in two different roles and Love American Style among other shows. 1972 would find him starring in another show, Hec Ramsey, until 1974. This show reunited Morgan with Richard Boone who starred in it and Jack Webb who produced it. Ramsey was a western detective who preferred to solve crimes with his brain rather than his gun. The show only lasted for ten episodes.

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From 1974-1983, he was cast in his most famous role, that of Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H. A military hospital staff treating soldiers during the Korean war rely on laughter to get through the gruesome work. The show combined heartache and joy to tell the story of the 4077th. When the show was cancelled, Harry continued the role in the spin-off, After M*A*S*H from 1983-1985.

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On M*A*S*H Morgan painted the portraits attributed to Colonel Potter. He won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in 1980, receiving 11 nominations overall during the run of the show.

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His description of Colonel Potter was: He was firm. He was a good officer, and he had a good sense of humor. I think it’s the best part I ever had. I loved playing Colonel Potter.”

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When asked if he was a better actor after working with the show’s talented cast, Morgan responded, “I don’t know about that, but it’s made me a better human being.

 

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Morgan also appeared in several Disney movies during the 1970s, including The Barefoot Executive, Snowball Express, Charley and the Angel, The Apple Dumpling Gang, The Cat from Outer Space, and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again.

In 1986 he was cast in Blacke’s Magic. The show featured a magician and his father, a con man, who solve crimes. Unfortunately, like many of the shows he was a part of, this one only lasted 15 episodes. When it ended in 1987, Harry was immediately given a role in You Can’t Take It with You where he appeared on three episodes during 1987 and 1988. Morgan starred as Martin; the show was based on the original play, but the television series was set in the 1980s.  Although Morgan was only in three episodes, he was in the majority of them, because the entire show consisted of four episodes.

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In the 1980s, he appeared in commercials for ERA realty and Toyota.

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During the late 1980s and early 1990s, he appeared in six different shows, with recurring roles on The Simpsons and Third Rock from the Sun. In 1996 he retired.

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In 2006, Morgan was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

 

Many of his western films were done with James Stewart. They did five films together, and Morgan says Stewart was one of the nicest men he ever met and extremely professional.

 

In addition to Jack Webb, he was good friends with Tim Conway and Don Knotts.

A very interesting man, in his spare time, he enjoyed golfing, fishing, travel, spending time with his family, reading, raising horses, horse riding, painting, and poetry.

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He died in 2011 from pneumonia.

Following Morgan’s death, Mike Farrell, who played B.J. Hunnicutt, starring with Morgan in M*A*S*H, released the following statement:

“He was a wonderful man, a fabulous actor and a dear and close friend since the first day we worked together. As Alan [Alda] said, he did not have an unadorable bone in his body . . . He was a treasure as a person, an imp at times, and always a true professional. He had worked with the greats and never saw himself as one of them. But he was . . . He was the rock everyone depended on and yet he could cut up like a kid when the situation warranted it. He was the apotheosis, the finest example of what people call a ‘character actor’. What he brought to the work made everyone better. He made those who are thought of as ‘stars’ shine even more brightly . . . The love and admiration we all felt for him were returned tenfold in many, many ways. And the greatest and most selfless tribute to the experience we enjoyed was paid by Harry at the press conference when our show ended. He remarked that someone had asked him if working on M*A*S*H had made him a better actor. He responded by saying, ‘I don’t know about that, but it made me a better human being.’ It’s hard to imagine a better one.”

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