Saturday, 3 December 2011

Farewell to a Roach

One third of The Roaches died this week.

That happens to be Alan Sues, though the only way you’d know that is if you saw an Edie Adams TV special in 1964 where she, Sues and Soupy Sales did a Beatles spoof as The Roaches (their hit was “Don’t Step on Me”).

One of the great fallacies about ‘Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In’ is the thought that the cast, except former sitcom star Judy Carne, came out of nowhere. All of the players had previously worked in television in varying degrees in the ‘60s, including Sues. Here’s a feature story about him from Pasadena’s The Independent Star-News of June 5, 1966, a few years before he was hired by George Schlatter for the ‘Laugh-In’ cast.

Not Just Nervous, Completely Nuts
Madman From the Mad Show
By Ray Duncan
ALAN SUES says he learned much of value in Pasadena to aid him in his current career.
That statement may or may not be a tribute to our city. He is one of the stars of “The Mad Show.”
That wild and irreverent theatrical non-sequitur, at P.J.’s Theatre in Hollywood, is based on the contents of Mad Magazine. Those contents require a high level of eccentricity for their interpretation. Sues was one of five performers picked to make the madness come to life in Southern California, in a production running concurrently with the highly successful version operating off-Broadway, and with two other companies now being organized for other cities likely to appreciate insanity.
His Pasadena preparation for this role consisted of attendance at Pasadena City College and Pasadena Playhouse, after his family had taken up residence here when he was 9 years old.
“I won a book of Shakespeare at Pasadena City College,” he remembers, “for giving the best reading from that author’s works. But I recall even then, when I was trying to be tragic, everybody seemed to laugh at my Hamlet’s soliloquy.”
For several years he continued to resist the tragic fate of being comic. He graduated from the Playhouse in the same class with George Nader, but not without being kicked out of school a couple of times for insubordination, for circulating angry petitions, and for fomenting student protests. Even as a student-protest leader he was not recognized as a comedian.
And in New York, where he went to study at the American Theatre Wing, he was taken seriously. And on Broadway, in his first big break, he was cast as the semi-tragic young man in “Tea and Sympathy,” creating the leading role opposite Deborah Kerr, and continuing to play it opposite Joan Fontaine and Mary Fickett.
Even in films and television he has usually been cast as a reasonably solid citizen, in “The Americanization of Emily” and “Move Over, Darling,” and “The Wheeler Dealers”; or on “Twilight Zone” and in “Many Happy Returns” or “Wild, Wild West.”
“But in ‘The Wheeler Dealers,’” he says, “somebody discovered that I looked funny when I rolled my eyes. After that I got a lot of offers to do eye-rolling scenes, but I turned most of them down. That kind of thing can ruin a career.”
To express his horror at the thought of it, he rolled his eyes. He has startling eyeballs that are inclined to bulge, and a habitual half-hurt, half-humorous look of protest.
The discovery of his comic cast of mind occurred — as many Hollywood discoveries do — at a party. He and his wife, Phyllis, were so funny together that somebody suggested they ought to do a night-club act. Matters were set in motion toward that end. The act was a success, and is still reactivated between acting assignments.
“Actually,” he says, “I hate night-club work. See this scar on my forehead? I got that when a drunken woman threw her glass at me. Another time a man reached out and ripped my wife’s dress. The women are the worst. The next day they always come back and apologize—the nicest people you can imagine. But in night-clubs, drinking, they can be vicious.”
What he likes about “The Mad Show,” which is a series of skits and sketches and songs and nonsense, is not merely that nobody throws glasses (only soft drinks are served in the intimate little cabaret-theatre), but that each of the performers gets a chance to play a wild variety of roles during the evening.
He likes it also because it avoids the danger of typecasting — except as a madman. “I was becoming type-cast in films as the nervous, harried person. In ‘The Mad Show’ I’m not just nervous, I’m completely nuts.”
His family has abandoned Pasadena for a ranch near Solvang, but he occasionally gets back here to renew old friendships. For the future, he has written a movie script (“Several studios are willing to buy my script, but the author won’t sell unless he can pick the star, which will be me”); and he has a TV pilot making the rounds. He is also deep in the greeting-card business, with a new humorous “gimmick-card” coming on the market. It is too secret for him to describe, but he laughed aloud at the very thought of it.
Meanwhile, there is always “The Mad Show,” if he can survive the demands of its demented script. He has lost 30 pounds since the strenuous show opened several weeks ago, but he insists that he has not lost his sanity.

There’s an interesting gay subtext to the article. Nader had a long-time husband—both were close friends of Rock Hudson—and when Sues’ wife got a divorce in the late ‘50s, she was working in Liberace’s stage show.

Sues’ main sketch characters on ‘Laugh-In’ were outrageous gay stereotypes. Then, they were seen as fun campiness. Who knows what future generations will think; people over the years have warmed less and less to any kind of stereotypes. Sues himself is far less remembered today than two other not-very-veiled gay men on TV about the same time—Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly. Those two had the advantage of playing “themselves,” spouting clever, bitchy wit on game shows. Sues was buried in a bunch of characterisations on a show that very quickly flamed out of the top of the prime time ratings. Still, there he was, lending a “we’re here, we’re queer” validation to ‘60s gays looking to see any positive trace of themselves anywhere. That’s not a bad legacy.

‘Laugh-In’ hasn’t aged terribly well, and the show’s ubiquitous laugh track annoyingly stepped on everyone’s punch lines, but there’s something you have to like about Sues as Uncle Al the Kiddies’ Pal screaming back and forth at the constantly-interrupting Jo Anne Worley. Alan Sues made people laugh. Even as a musical Roach. That’s not a bad legacy, either.

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