Howard Morris: The Hamlet of Animation

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. 

Howard Morris Theatre Credits and Profile
Photo: abouttheartist.com

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.

J. Mark Powell on Twitter: "Howard Morris, better known as Mayberry's  rock-throwing Ernest T. Bass on @AndyGriffithShw, was born 101 years ago  today.… https://t.co/AwvE2WMBvR"
Ernest T Bass Photo: twitter.com

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.

Howard Morris - Net Worth, Bio, Wife, Children, Death, Biography - Famous  People Today
With Reiner and Caeser Photo: famouspeopletoday.com

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.

Howard Morris (Ernest T. Bass) on The Lucy Show - Sitcoms Online Photo  Galleries
On The Lucy Show Photo: sitcomsonline.com

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.

On The Many Faces (and Voices) of Howard Morris – (Travalanche)
Photo: travalanche.com

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.

Howard Morris voiced more than 100 characters on The Flintstones
Photo: metv.com

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.

The Andy Griffith Show" My Fair Ernest T. Bass (TV Episode 1964) - IMDb
Photo: imdb.com

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.

The Millionaire and His Wife: Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer

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Today we continue our month-long series about the characters on Gilligan’s Island and the stars who portrayed them. We begin with the millionaire, Thurston Howell III, and his wife, Lovey. On the island, their money is worthless, but it doesn’t stop Mr. Howell from bribing other captives when it’s in his best interest.  He must have been a boy scout who learned the motto, “Be prepared,” because he and his wife took clothes on a three-hour tour to last a few years. In real life, Natalie Schafer was the millionaire. Both Backus and Schafer had very interesting careers.

 

Jim Backus

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Jim Backus was born in Cleveland in February of 1913. He was one of those stars who seemed to excel in everything:  radio, Broadway, animation, big-screen movies, and television series. In an interesting aside, Margaret Hamilton who would go on to have a full career including the Wicked Witch of the West at the Wizard of Oz, was one of his grade school teachers. Jim grew up in a wealthy area, attending Shaw High School in East Cleveland. His father was a mechanical engineer. I could not find exact proof of this but several articles mention he was expelled from the Kentucky Military Institute for riding a horse in the mess hall. He later attended the American Academy of Dramatic Art.

In 1939 he married Betty Kean; they divorced in 1942. One of his famous quotes was “Many a man owes his success to his first wife and his second wife to his success.”

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In the 1940s, Backus began appearing on radio as the “rich man,” which he often portrayed afterward on radio and television. He played the role of aviator Dexter Hayes on Society Girl on CBS Radio Network. He also appeared on the Mel Blanc Show as Hartley Benson, an arrogant character, and as Hubert Updike on The Alan Young Show. He also showed up regularly on The Jack Benny Program.

During his radio years, he married Henny Backus whom he was married to the rest of his life.

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He began his big-screen cinema career in 1949 and would go on to appear in almost 100 movies, including Here Come the Nelsons, Pat and Mike, and Rebel Without a Cause (seen above). His most famous movie role was probably Tyler Fitzgerald in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. My favorite movie of his is Hello Down There with Tony Randall and Janet Leigh from 1969.

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During the 1950s, he began auditioning for roles on television. He would go on to appear on 18 different series during that decade, including I Married Joan, on which he starred with Joan Davis. On the show, Backus played a respected judge and Davis was his scatterbrained wife. The show was very popular and lasted three seasons.

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As if he wasn’t busy enough with acting in the 1950s, he also made a song recording with Phyllis Diller that hit the top 40 in 1958. It was called “Delicious,” and the two of them would take a sip of champagne throughout the song, saying “Delicious.” As the song continues, they get more drunk and a bit giddy, slurring their words and laughing hysterically.

 

His television career continued to be demanding in the 1960s. He appeared on 25 series, and four of them had regular starring sitcom roles. In 1960, The Jim Backus Show debuted. The program focuses on Backus in the role of Mike O’Toole, the editor/proprietor of a low rent wire service struggling to stay in business.

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He had made movie shorts about Mr. Magoo in the 1950s and in 1960, he starred in 130 episodes of Mr. Magoo and would make 26 more episodes under the title The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo in 1964-1965. Mr. Magoo was an older nearsighted man who was very popular, appearing in ads and merchandise for years. The humor of the show was based on the difference between what Mr. Magoo thinks he sees and the reality of what was really there. Jim Backus liked to repeat a story about his famous character. He was in the movie, Don’t Bother to Knock, with Marilyn Monroe. She asked Jim to meet her in her dressing room later and his curiosity got the best of him, so he went, only to learn she wanted him to portray Mr. Magoo which he did.

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This was also the decade he was offered the role of Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island in 1964. That same year he was asked to play the role of Abner Kravitz on a new show, Bewitched but turned it down because he was committed to Gilligan’s Island. Gilligan’s Island would run from 1964-1967 and he would go on to appear in several Gilligan revivals including the far-fetched The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.

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During 1968-1969, Backus took the role of Mr. Dithers in a revival of Blondie.

During the 1960s, he also appeared on 77 Sunset Strip, The Beverly Hillbillies, Daniel Boone, The Wild, Wild West, and I Spy, among others.

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Backus continued his television work into the 1970s where he appeared on 31 shows. He appeared in a variety of genres including I Dream of Jeannie, Young Dr. Kildare, Medical Center, The Brady Bunch, Gunsmoke, Ellery Queen, Charlie’s Angels, Fantasy Island, and The Love Boat.

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Backus also continued his commercial work in the 1970s and 1980s. He was the spokesperson for La-Z-Boy furniture and General Electric. He and Natalie Schafer appeared in an ad for Redenbacher’s popcorn. They played their characters from Gilligan’s Island but apparently had been rescued and were in a luxurious home. In a sweet ending, it was the last television appearance for either of them.

When Jim Backus had a little bit of free time between acting jobs, he loved to golf. He also tried his hand at writing a few books and film scripts, including his autobiography which he wrote with his wife, Only When I Laugh in 1965.

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In July of 1989, Backus died from pneumonia, after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for many years.

He had a long and varied career and seemed to have many friends in the business.

 

Natalie Schafer

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A millionaire in real life, Natalie Schafer seemed like a very fun woman, a bit of a character. She was born in November of 1900 in New Jersey and raised in Manhattan. She was quite secretive about her age, often claiming she was born in 1912.

She began her career in Broadway, appearing in 17 plays. She married actor Louis Calhern in 1934 and they divorced in 1942. She moved to Los Angeles in 1941 to become a film actress and received parts in 34 movies. Incidentally, she and her ex remained friends and appeared together in the movie Forever Darling in 1956.

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Like Backus, Schafer typically played wealthy and sophisticated roles. She did not have the versatility her tv husband had but continued to stay busy acting on television.  While Gilligan’s Island was her only long-term role, she appeared on 21 shows in the 1950s (including I Love Lucy, Loretta Young, Phil Silvers, and Topper); 8 in the 1960s (including The Beverly Hillbillies, 77 Sunset Strip, and Route 66); 15 in the 1970s (including Mayberry RFD, The Brady Bunch, and McMillan and Wife); and an additional 8 shows in the 1980s before she passed away (including Three’s Company, The Love Boat, Trapper John, and Simon and Simon).

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Schafer made most of her money from investments, particularly in real estate.

Several sources revealed that much of her fortune was bequeathed to either her Gilligan’s Island co-star Dawn Wells or to care for her dogs; however, at least $1.5 million was donated to the Lillian Booth Actors’ Home to renovate their outpatient wing. I never saw any answers from Wells about inheriting money, but on Vicki Lawrence’s talk show, she did say that Schafer spent her last years living with her. Like many wealthy people, she was quite thrifty.  She often admitted that she accepted the role of Mrs. Howell because she got a free trip to Hawaii to film the pilot and didn’t expect it to get picked up.

 

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Everyone seemed to like her on the set. Dawn Wells said she especially adored Schafer and Backus. Schafer was a hard worker and liked to keep fit. In a Chicago Tribune article from October 25, 1965, she relayed her secrets for staying in shape. For one thing, she did her own stunts on the show. She also said she swam nude every morning and evening, doing 100 strong kicks at the side of the pool. She also invented an ice cream diet for herself. She claimed to eat a quart a day, saying she had a bowl of vanilla ice cream with her coffee, two bowls of varying flavors for both lunch and dinner, and another single bowl for an afternoon snack. She claimed that she would lose three pounds in five days.

In 1990, Schafer passed away from liver cancer. After her death, she wanted people to realize her true age, and many of her closest friends were quite surprised to learn she was 12 years older than she claimed.

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While Thurston Howell III and his wife Lovey were two interesting characters, I don’t think they can compete with the characters who were Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer. I had a lot of fun learning about them.