Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Howard Morris, 1919-2005

Actor, comedian, and director Howard Morris has died at the age of 85. My first acquaintance with Morris came from the cast album of the 1960 Broadway revival of Finian's Rainbow, in which he played Og, the leprechaun originated by David Wayne in 1947 and played by Tommy Steele in the 1968 movie. Morris' impish qualities were perfect for songs like "Something Sort of Grandish" and "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love (I Love the Girl I'm Near)".

Morris made his mark, however, on television. He was a semi-regular on The Andy Griffith Show and he directed the premiere episode of Get Smart. He guest starred on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

What most of us remember Howard Morris for is his association in the 1950s with Sid Caesar, on Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour. Morris was in dozens -- if not hundreds -- of memorable sketches. Just say the words "Uncle Goopy" or "the General's dresser" and comic images instantly come to mind.

In his 2003 memoir, Caesar's Hours: My Life in Comedy, with Love and Laughter, Sid Caesar tells some amusing anecdotes about Morris (pages 85-86):

I was a very physical comedian and I needed a sidekick who was not only funny but was a person I could pick up with one hand. When Howard Morris first came in to audition, I reached out, grabbed him by the lapels, lifted him up, and did the scene. I turned to Max [Liebman, the producer] and said, "I think he's going to be okay." We did a sketch together early on where I was the violin teacher and Howie was the student. Howie was supposed to have an aluminum plate hidden under a wig, but he forgot to put it on. "No, no, no! Not like that." I took the bow out of his hand. Each no was followed by a rap on the head with the bow. I kept whacking him on the head, and after a few of my shots he started to go down. I realized he didn't have the plate on and I had to ad-lib right away. So I grabbed him and waltzed off the stage. "That's your lesson for today," I said. Howie went right with it. He was game for anything and became a core member of the troupe.

Howie and Mel Brooks also became fast friends. When Howie first came on board, Max introduced him to the writers: Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen, and a little Frenchman named "Monsieur Bri," who Max saidwas researching American television. For the next two days, Monsieur Bri said very little to Howie. When he did speak, it was in broken french, which was laced with what sounded suspiciously like Yiddish. On the third day, Monsieur Bri walked up to Howie, extended his hand, losing the French accent, and said, "Howie, how the hell are you?"

Despite their friendship, Howie became, like everyone else, a victim of Mel's insanity. Just before one Christmas, Howie and Mel were leaving rehearsal at the City Center. At the bottom of the stairs, Mel turned to Howie and said, "Stick 'em up." Howie said "What are you doing," which only made Mel angrier. "Shut up, give me everything you got! EVERYTHING!!" So Howie gave Mel his watch, his wedding ring, his wallet, his driver's license. In short, everything. Mel gave it all back the next day as a Christmas gift.

The following year, history and Mel repeated themselves. Howie and Mel were in a rowboat in the pond in Central Park, and as Howie rowed under a bridge, Mel said, "Give me your wallet, or I'll throw you in the water and drown you." Mel was so crazy, you had to believe him, so Howie gave up all his valuables. Howie then took off his shoes, stepped out of the boat into the three-feet-deep water, and walked back to shore. Mel again gave everything back the following Christmas as a gift. The holidays meant a lot to him.
Throughout the book are descriptions of the sketches that paired Morris with Caesar as well as with Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and many distinguished guest stars. While reading about a sketch or even seeing its transcript can be amusing, it is no substitute for watching the original performances. Let's hope that, like so many other programs from the Golden Age of Television, Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour (and perhaps even the Admiral Broadway Revue) are made available in toto on DVD.

No comments: