Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Arch Supporting Steve Franken

Television of the 1960s was awash with fine comic actors who were cast as one type of character and took it from show to show to show. Steve Franken was one of them. He died of cancer last Friday, according to TV historian and interviewer Stu Shostak of stusshow.com.

Franken was the small screen’s definitive spoiled, snooty mama’s boy, pretty much defining the character as Chatsworth on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” That was his big break on TV. He’d been a teenaged stage actor, appearing in productions of “Hansel and Gretel” and “Charley’s Aunt” as a member of the South Hills Players in Charleston, West Virginia in 1952. He parlayed that into a small role in Paul Muni’s “Inherit the Wind” on Broadway in 1955. Walter Winchell pointed out in a column that Franken was born an hour after his mother Edith had seen Muni in “Counsellor at Law.”

Franken was a New Yorker who grew up in the Eton Hall Apartments on 118th Street. He was the son of Merritt Franken, a newspaper reporter who later became director of publicity of Television Programs of America. His dad wasn’t crazy about his son’s chosen profession, as we read in this Panama City News Herald story dated July 7, 1963 about the things a guy has to do on his way to his big break.

The “inch-by-inch” career of Steve Franken now seems to be leaping and bounding

Fame of a strange sort has come at last to a diminutive former heel packer named Steve Franken.
The 28-year-old actor is known principally to TV viewers as the filthy rich Chatsworth on “The Dobie Gillis Show.” Brooklyn-born Steve made about 45 appearances on the Gillis series, which is now a-dying. He, Dwayne Hickman, and Bob (“Maynard”) Denver were known on the lot as "the world’s oldest teen-agers.”
After working at odd jobs to enable him to speak one-liners on stage in the evening—a career that has progressed “inch by inch,” the young man says slyly—he has now achieved immortality of sorts. Come fall, he’ll apparently be the first performer featured in two TV series at the same time. Both shows are NBC offerings. On one, Steve will have the roll of a wacky Marine lieutenant in a new comedy called “The Lieutenant.” The other show has him portraying a mild biology high school instructor who has Dean Jagger for his principal in “Mr. Novak.”
Steve didn’t deliberately set out to capture the two roles. His experience is typical of a business where you push and shove for a specific thing, only to have an advantage unexpectedly drop in your lap from left field. He did a pilot for one show, then was spotted by someone for the second show. Result: an envied TV double exposure.
A one-time NBC page boy who was almost fired for practicing his German accent on a German-speaking woman, Franken has succeeded in his career by sheer determination. His father, a well-known publicist, did not want him in show business and refused to help him.
Steve’s long, long trial included working in the complaint department at Macy’s in the daytime so he could utter his one-liner at night on Broadway in “Inherit the Wind.” He portrayed an eager-eyed youth who leaped out of the crowd and shouted: “Train coming and I see the smoke way up the track!” For that he got $16 per week. He also recalls standing behind some pretty distinguished actors in the Hollywood unemployment compensation line. “They pay the best unemployment compensation anywhere,” he said.
But Steve’s most fascinating sidelight was at an arch support factory. The factory was operated by some displaced Hungarians in New York, and Steve held the job while trying for the theater.
“I know it sounds like a ‘What’s My Line,’ but it's true,” he said. “I was a heel packer. I stood on my feet all day, and one day I got so tired I sort of sagged. The head arch support man, a master leather craftsman who looked like someone out of the Old Testament, asked: ‘Hey kid, you got hurt fits? Don't worry. I fix.’
“He made me a pair of elaborate arch supports, but when I put them on, they killed me. I stood them all day and almost died. I worried all that night about the sensitive old man, and how he’d feel if I didn’t wear them the next day. I just couldn’t face him, so I never went back.”

Franken soon moved on to play the best man who moves in with his buddy and his new brand-wife on the forgotten 1964 sitcom “Tom, Dick and Mary” (it didn’t have a prayer opposite “The Andy Griffith Show”). He played a doctor. Hollywood maven Rona Barrett, in her column of September 27, 1964, noted the irony that his parents wanted him to be a doctor in the first place (his grandfather was the chiropodist at the Hotel Astor for 33 years). And he was on the way there for a while. Here’s part of her story.

Physically he [Franken] doesn’t remind you of Kildare or Casey. He’s 5 feet 7, 140 pounds and has blue eyes that seem to pop cut at you. But the minute you hear him you can understand why momma and poppa Franken, the latter a Hollywood press agent, wanted little Stevie to be their son, the doctor.
HE’S a sensitive fellow, who’s probably too idealistic for his own good, but just the right type to fit into the idealistic profession of medicine. Only when he hears bells ringing and birds singing does he know he’s in love. At the moment all’s silent on the Franken front.
“I’m beginning to think monogamy is the answer to convenience,” he said staring after a pretty blonde who had just walked by. “It doesn’t pay to be too intellectual,” he then added.
“When I graduated from Cornell University (where he started out being a pre-med student, later switching to English), my BA degree couldn’t get couldn’t get me a doughnut.
“I do believe there’s some truth to the Hegelian theory that one must suffer a little in order to appreciate what he does get. But there is such a thing as diminishing returns. And I can remember in the beginning when going out into the cruel world that I ate less times than more.
“There were months and months during which I couldn’t get a job. When I finally did it was for a hand commercial. And wouldn’t you know it, when I went for the job, they told me my hands were perfect but my fingernails too short. And what made it even worse, I had just cut them for the first time in months earlier that morning.”
During the lean periods, Steve found happiness and contentment as a complaint adjuster at Macy’s and as a heel packer in an arch support factory run by Hungarians who couldn’t speak English.
For the experience in relationship to acting he said, “I’m happiest when I’m working. But an actor’s work is everyone’s business. No one asks the plumber how he fixes a pipe.
“However, it is far better than having a woman want to return her bed after four years because she’s just discovered bed bugs, or having to wear a pair of arch supports that don’t fit you in order to keep a Hungarian arch artisan happy so you can keep a job.”
HE constantly knocks wood in grateful appreciation of the day he finally made Broadway. His first acting experience was as a broom in the “Travels of Lucky Peter.” It wasn’t until after he appeared in “Inherit the Wind” as part of the scenery that his biggest break finally came: a part in Jose Ferrer’s “Edwin Booth.” [1958]
“I was introduced to Ferrer on the phone and before he could ask me any questions, I recited a speech from Richard III and got the part.”
When he finally landed in films, he said, “I had so much fun working that day I felt guilty about taking the money. I wanted to return some of it.”
And today you get the feeling that if he had to work in “Tom, Dick and Mary” for nothing he would. After all, not only is he satisfying his favorite vocation, but his folks can still call him, “Our son, the doctor!”

Franken may be best known for a pile of different roles on “Bewitched,” including one where he’s a smug client of Darren’s who hires a detective to snoop on Samantha. And he played against type in a great turn as the killer in an episode of “Perry Mason” (the one where Perry actually lost at the beginning).

As an actor, it probably gets a little disheartening and unsatisfying playing the same type over and over again. But someone has to have real talent to convince an audience of their portrayal so much they want to see it again and again. They may not be stars but they become a familiar presence in the living room that TV viewers look forward to seeing like a friend who pops over every once in a while. That was Steve Franken.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting to watch Season 1 of Dobie and look at the transition over to Franken from the show's original rich rival to the title character, Warren Beatty. As Milton Armitage, Beatty made a more logical rival for the affections of Thalia Menninger. But other than watching him get mad after Maynard dropped him through a trap door in one episode, he wasn't naturally funny, and when they tried to make him into more of a mama's boy (in what I believe was Warren's final episode) the results were painful to watch.

    Warren Beatty whining like a spoiled brat to Doris Packer is only funny if you enjoy watching how uncomfortable Warren Beatty is in playing a rich, wimpy spoiled brat. Franken's character was a far better vehicle for comedy, especially since Tuesday Weld wanted out of the show almost as much as Warren did (and Packer would even get her last name changed on the show from Armitage to Osborne, reflecting how successful the new rich , wimpy spoiled brat Franken played was with the audience). The downside was Steven ended up typecast into his personality as much as Bob Denver was to his, but Denver's supporting role was far easier to turn into a likable starring character.