February 12, 2020

Orson Bean / Robert Conrad, R.I.P.

Orson Bean used to talk about how he was one of the few entertainers who'd been blacklisted by both sides; in the Fifties, it was for being a communist ("I wasn't a communist. I was horny for a communist girl and she dragged me to a couple of meetings."), while in the 2000s it was for being a conservative ("It’s harder now to be an open conservative on a Hollywood set than it was back then to be a Communist," he once told his son-in-law, Andrew Breitbart). He might have been bitter about it, but he seemed more amused than anything.

Several years ago, someone wrote of Orson Bean that "I never could figure out who the guy was, So far as I knew, he never had done anything of note. He was on the show because he was a celebrity, and he was a celebrity because he was on the show. . . He was the compleat artificial man." Not only was this needlessly cruel, it was completely false. Bean had been a fixture in clubs and on Broadway since the Fifties; he starred on Broadway in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter with Jayne Mansfield, and was nominated for a Tony for Subways Are for Sleeping. He appeared at the famous New York club The Blue Angel on a bill with Nichols and May, Harry Belafonte, and Eartha Kitt, and he recorded a comedy album at another famous club, The Hungry I. He counted as friends everyone from Lenny Bruce to Jonathan Winters to Henry Fonda, appeared in series such as The Twilight Zone, Studio One, The Love Boat, One Life to Live, and Murder, She Wrote, and displayed his skills as a raconteur on The Tonight Show, both with Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. (He subbed as host for Carson more than 100 times.) He played the voice of Bilbo Baggins in Rankin-Bass' animated version of The Hobbit, and Frodo in the sequel, The Return of the King, and was a regular on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. All that, and he still had time back home in California to do community theater. I wish I'd been so artificial.

(By the way, I didn't name the person who wrote that, but I know who it was. I don't see any point in giving that person any publicity, even if it comes from being an idiot. I will tell you that it was not someone who writes regularly about television, which just goes to show you shouldn't dabble in things you don't know anything about.)

Unquestionably, what he was best known for—the show that our unnamed critic refers to—was his many years as panelist on To Tell the Truth. He was smart and witty, urbane and good-natured, a humorous and warm presence on the show ("Elegant Kitty Carlisle on my right with a feather boa. Peggy Cass on the other side."), and drew funny little cartoons on the card each panelist used to indicate who they thought was "telling the truth."

I'm usually saddened by the death of someone I've watched and liked, as you'll see below, but when I heard that Orson Bean had died as the result of being hit by a car, I was a bit stunned as well. Yes, he was 91, and yes, it was unexpected, but it affected me in a way that most of these celebrity deaths don't. For years I'd and listened to him talk, not only about Hollywood and show business, but about how he'd found God, how he'd moved politically from the left to the right (like Ronald Reagan, he'd insist that he didn't leave the Democratic party, but it left him). He was one of those people about whom you say that the world seems just a little better place with him around, and it saddens me that he isn't, and that his death seems so needless.

I don't know if that's how he'd want to be remembered, though, so I'll leave you with a couple of fascinating stories. One occurred while he was performing at The Blue Angel in the 50s: "A guy named Bud Howard introduced the acts and played the piano in between. One day I came in early and he said, 'Listen to this song I knocked off.' He played Fly Me to the Moon. I said, 'That's great, but what are you going to do with it?'" (Give it to Frank, natch.) The other concerns his son-in-law Andrew Breitbart who, like Bean, started out on the political left. One night, Breitbart noticed a book by Rush Limbaugh in Bean's bookcase.  "Why in the world would you have a book written by some fascist right-winger on your bookshelf that anybody could see?" Breitbart asked him. Bean replied, "Andrew, take that book and read it. Just read it." The rest is history, and there's no political point that I'm making here; it's just quite a story, from a man who lived quite a life.

t  t  t

The one and only time I saw Robert Conrad in person was at the 2018 Mid Atlantic Nostalgia Convention. He was in poor health then, a shadow of the robust, charismatic James West, and if that was the Robert Conrad you’d come to see, then you were asking for disappointment. Or maybe not.

See, the thing about James West was that no matter what megalomaniacal villain he confronted, no matter what fantastic plot for world domination he foiled, no matter what outrageous steampunk invention he faced, he knew that to fail was not an option. That requires a kind of inner determination, a resolve that (with apologies to Paul McCartney) when you’ve got a job to do, you’ve got to do it well* or you die trying. There is no in-between. It’s the same thing when you play a character like that, and especially when you insist on doing most of your own stunts. You’re laying it all on the line for everyone out there to see, and if you can’t pull it off, you’re going to look like a fool. Perhaps it was a combination of ego, insecurity, and supreme confidence, but Conrad took that bet, and pulled it off.

*Well, that and good scriptwriters.

And that brings us back to his appearance at MANC. He was obviously ailing, but he declined staff offers to make him more comfortable by cutting back on the time available for his fans to meet him. It wouldn’t be right if he did that; those fans had come to see him, had paid money to do so and had spent time in line waiting, and he wasn’t going to disappoint them. No, he wouldn’t quit until everyone who’d wanted an autograph or a picture or a chance to shake hands had had the opportunity to do so. He wasn’t going to leave any fans disappointed. And you don’t do that without that same inner determination, that will to finish the assignment. So maybe there wasn’t such a difference between James West circa 1965 and Bob Conrad circa 2018. They were the same man, after all.

Robert Conrad had his detractors, those who said he had a chip on his shoulder, that he suffered from short man’s disease, that he insisted on doing it all because he was basically insecure. He didn’t suffer fools, which is a drawback in an age that prizes sensitivity. Discussing the various run-ins he’d had with people over the years (which had earned him several lawsuits), he put it simply: if you’re nice to me, I’ll be nicer to you. If not, well. . . He starred in several TV shows that were failures, but he had two that were hits—Hawaiian Eye and The Wild Wild West, successes that most actors would gladly accept. He lampooned his own tough guy persona in a series of Eveready commercials, daring you to knock that battery off his shoulder.

I was planning to write about Wild Wild West in my next “What I’m Watching,” but I’ll get ahead of myself here and mention that it’s a tremendously enjoyable show to watch every Friday night, and I’m glad we were able to watch the entire first season, with episode instructions by Conrad, while he was still alive. It doesn’t make any difference, I know, but somehow it still seems meaningful. And every time I watch James West, I think back to Robert Conrad at MANC, determined to make sure everyone left satisfied. After all, it wasn’t just his fans coming to see him; he’d come to see them as well. And, as he does every Friday night, it was a mission he successfully completed. TV  

6 comments:

  1. What a great post on these two terrific actors. That is an incredible story about Orson Bean introducing his son-n-law, Andrew, to the world of conservatism through Rush Limbaugh's book. Breitbart.com is incredibly popular these days. That's really cool that Orson pretty much started that with one little passing conversation and a book.

    Always loved watching Orson Bean on Dr. Quinn, and I still enjoy the reruns today on Hallmark Drama.

    It's sad to say goodbye to two fine actors. Legends.

    Blessings, Net

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  2. Mitchell, two amazing actors who are now well-eulogized on this approriate site. I do remember my father watching Orson Bean on TTTT and wondering what else he did ...I also wonder if the leader of Mork's world on Mork and Mindy gained his first name based on Orson Bean. Perhaps Robin Williams (or a writer) used "Orson" from either Bean or Wells.

    And all, just to show that while Mitchell and I are joined at the hip on many of our opinions of old TV, we do disagree somewhat. Growing up in a Rockefeller Republican family, I am now a Democrat because in my opinion, the Republican party left me...let's not get into a flame war over this...I've got the proof...LOL

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    1. Nah - we're all peace-loving folks around here! :)

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  3. I'm sure Orson Bean is using a periscope to look up here with pride at your fine eulogy! Count me in with the unnamed "idiot" who couldn't understand the appeal of a guy who seemed to be everywhere on TV but possessed little talent.

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    1. I think people of good intentions can disagree about someone's talent, which I think is fine. My point in raising that was that whether or not one cared for Orson Bean, he had a substantial body of work on the stage and in television. As you say, he seemed to be on everywhere. He was hardly one of those celebrities merely known for being known.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!