When you think of Shakespeare, Harvey Korman doesn’t come to mind. Well, unless he’s doing the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet with Tim Conway and they’re cracking up. But before audiences typecast him as a sketch comedian, Korman was a dramatic actor on stage, as the clipping to the right from 1949 attests. In fact, he was one of the first three players signed for the stock company of the Los Angeles Summer Playhouse in June 1963; he only had a handful of TV guest shot credits at that point.
“When people ask me what my credits are,” Korman told the Archive of American Television, “I did a couple of good Mel Brooks pictures, and I did The Carol Burnett Show. That is my biography. Because the rest of it was pretty awful in one way or another.” Of course, if that had really been the case, Burnett would never have cornered him in the parking lot of CBS in 1967 asking him if he’d be interested in being part of her soon-to-be-starting variety show.
Korman, like other very funny people, failed in situation comedy. For viewers, seeing someone as a “real” character over a half hour is a lot different than seeing them in short, over-the-top routines spread out in between other variety elements. Korman was almost a regular sitcom supporting player in the early ‘60s, but fate intervened. He was hired to play the father in the teenaged sitcom “Karen,” and filmed the pilot in December 1963 to air the following September. But then Korman landed a banana job on the Danny Kaye variety show, so his role on “Karen” went to Richard Denning.
Here are a couple of pre-Burnett newspaper pieces about Korman. Both may have been CBS publicity handouts as they have no bylines. The first one appeared in The Dover Daily Reporter of March 14, 1964.
INDISPENSIBLE SECOND BANANA
Who's Harvey Korman? Danny Kaye Tells You
Up until just recently, Harvey Korman could walk down the street of almost any major city and no one would recognize. This even included Hollywood. In fact, most people on reading this might still ask: "Who is Harvey Korman?"
He has been, during the last few months, a Nazi prison camp commandant, a shipboard steward, Robin Hood's Little John, an old time movie tycoon, a horror-movie monster, an officer of the Northwest Mounted Police.
More accurately, Korman is the "second banana," or utility player, on CBS-TV's "The Danny Kaye Show," appearing in various guises, almost always made up, costumed or be-wigged so that no one could possibly recognize him as he actually is.
When neither makeup, costume nor wig is called for, Korman manages to lose his own personality simply by adjusting the set of his shoulders or calling upon his remarkable ear for dialects and accents.
On a recent show, in a well-deserved tribute, Kaye brought Korman into the show's "sitdown" spot and introduced him formally to the TV audience.
"Harvey Korman," Kaye said feelingly, "is the most capable and versatile utility player I have ever worked with. He has become one of the rock-like foundations of this show."
"We figured out the other day," Korman muses, "that I've done over 50 different people in various sketches on 21 Kaye shows. If I were the type to have a split-personality problem, I'd never know who I really was.
"But, you see, I really think I'm always myself. If a script is well-written, and if the actor is good—and I think I'm a good actor—you can interpret who you're supposed to be without changing who you are. If I make myself clear."
He doesn't. But he believes it.
Korman's rare talent is best appreciated when it is realized that he is only the fourth genuinely versatile second banana to come along in 16 years of commercial TV. The other 3 are Carl Reiner, Howard Morris (who has now attained guest-star status and frequently appears on the Kaye show) and Art Carney.
Korman also is unique in other ways. Unlike most other comics, he was born in Chicago rather than New York and has already played Hamlet—not once but twice. That's a record not even his boss can boast.
And this appeared in the El Paso Herald-Post on June 12, 1965.
Versatile Comedian Plays Farce or Drama
HOLLYWOOD.—For an actor to play Hamlet is to have lived — to have accepted the drama world's greatest challenge.
But when Harvey Korman talks about his Hamlet, the expression "to have lived" takes on even greater meaning.
"HAMLET," says Korman, "saved my life. I was at a point in life where I had become so frustrated — so torn by self pity — that I debated whether I wanted to live or to die."
The tall, young character comedian of The Danny Kaye Show told us the story over a luncheon table just before a rehearsal for the weekly show, his 51st as Kaye's favorite utility actor.
HE PLAYS different characters every week, some in makeup, some as his handsome self. After 50 shows with Kaye, his character creations add up to more than 100. In many ways he is to Danny what Carl Reiner was to Sid Caesar in their triumphant TV days.
But over the luncheon table, Korman looked back to the year 1955 when he first came to Hollywood. Summer stock around Chicago, his home town, had kept him busy as an actor but real success had become a will o' the wisp.
"NO ONE," he went on, "seemed to want me as an actor, so I applied for a job as a $45-a-week warehouse freight cashier. I was turned down because I lacked experience. That's when I went into a frenzy of self pity. I walked away from the warehouse with tears in my eyes. Then, in a strange reaction, I started soliloquizing to myself, 'To be or not to be, to live or to die . . . " I had played Hamlet in college and the words came rushing back.
I remembered how confident I had been as a college boy and I said to myself; " 'Boy, oh boy, could I play Hamlet NOW.' "
KORMAN CALLS it "pure fate" because the next day a friend told him about a production of Hamlet being planned at a Hollywood little theater. Korman auditioned, won the role and played it for six weeks. From a distinguished member of one night's audience — Bette Davis no less — Korman rewon confidence in his acting career.
"Thank you, honey," said Bette, after seeking him out backstage, "Now I know what this play is all about."
WHAT HOLLYWOOD now knows about Harvey Korman after 100 varied roles on the Danny Kaye show is that he can play anything from broad farce to straight drama.
Kaye thought so much of Korman he signed him to a personal contract.
A situation comedy series of his own is the 33-year-old actor's dream for his future which already includes becoming a father in July. Mrs. Korman is former Chicago model Donna Ehlert.
It goes without saying to anyone who has ever watched the Burnett show that Korman was a smash hit. Here’s an Associated Press story from October 13, 1968.
Television's Best 'Second Banana'
By CYNTHIA LOWRY
HOLLYWOOD (AP) — If Harvey Korman had chosen baseball for a career instead of acting—and had been as good at it—he would have wound up as the best catcher in the business. And he would have yearned, but not too much, to have been a star pitcher.
As it is, Korman, at 41, has achieved a success more appreciated inside the acting business than outside it—as the best and strongest support a comedian or comedienne can have in a variety show with its diverse requirements.
Korman backstopped Danny Kaye through four years of that star's weekly show and moved right over to perform the same function for Carol Burnett and her variety hour.
Six-feet four in height and a calory-counter, Korman can sing enough to get by, fake a little dancing but becomes a giant in the sketches—which is the place, these days, when the chips are down. He is a master of accents.
"My job is to help the star," Korman says flatly. "Whether it was Kaye or is Carol, I'm there to offer all the support. I can. And, I may say, it is a joy to work with them—as it is with Lucille Ball, Dick Van Dyke, Jackie Gleason and, of course, Jack Benny. Every one of them is a consumate actor."
Korman, although he participates in some wild comedy, considers himself an actor who is playing comedy parts in a variety show. Other pretty funny people have been careful to make the same distinction between being a comedian and an actor. Benny and Art Carney are among them.
Korman, as backstop man for the stars, however, slips into all sorts of different rote. On the Burnett show, he has numerous acting chores to perform depending on the whims of the show's writers, but has registered solidly in sketches in which he plays Carol Burnett's husband.
"I don't look for comedy in the sketches," Korman explained.
"The thing an actor always looks for is the give and take with the other performers. In the case of Carol, there is plenty of it. If I can find some place" in the sketch that I can make a statement of some sort, Carol adores it...but of course, not all performers like to work that way when they are stars."
Co-star and general utility man for "The Carol Burnett Show" though he is, Harvey still would like to reach the top of his profession. But being the No. 2 man in a show has many advantages—financial security, steady employment, longevity in career and none of the trauma involved in trying to keep your own show somehow in the top third of the Nielsen ratings. Still, there is something about being the second banana that makes a performer just a little bit wistful.
He is, however, one funny fellow who does not dream of the day when he can play "Hamlet." He already has done that, on the stage, in Chicago, and to excellent critical notices.
He is a native of Chicago, was educated there and was hooked on acting in high school, which pushed him on to four years of dramatic studies at the Chicago Art Institute's Goodman School of Drama. Fellow students included Geraldine Page and Shelley Bennan, another artist who although he has made good in the comedy field, still insists be is. first of all, an actor.
Five years of trying to break into the New York theater led Korman to little except odd jobs for bread and butter, so he turned to summer stock and commercials. Eight years ago he was cast in a role in a Chicago play which brought him to the attention of Seymour Berns, then Red Skelton's director.
Three years later, Berns recommended Korman as a "character comedian" for Danny Kaye's show—a job that lasted four years.
When Carol Burnett and her producer-husband, Joe Hamilton were working out plans for her hour-long variety show two years ago. Carol remembered the actor's all-around work on the Kaye show and suggested that they get "a Harvey Korman type" for her.
"Why not try to get Harvey Korman?" asked her husband. And it was as easy as that.
What else does Korman want from his career?
"Well, everybody wants to be a star." he said," "but I just want to keep acting—in television, in movies, on the stage. And, later, I think I'd like to buckle into a bit of directing."
I suppose it’s understandable that after ten years of doing the same thing, Korman wanted to move on, especially when it’s ten years of not being the star. So he left the Burnett show in 1977. In an interview with United Press International, Korman makes an interesting comment that he considered leaving the show at the time Tim Conway joined the regular cast. Korman’s probably best-known for his byplay with Conway on the show.
Korman Steps Out On His Own Limb
By VERNON SCOTT
HOLLYWOOD, Aug. 14 (UPI) — Harvey Korman, among the most talented second bananas in television history, has departed "The Carol Burnett Show" to tackle the perils of becoming a top banana.
The enormously talented Korman hasn't made the move without trepidation. For the past decade he has enjoyed the security of a steady job — no small matter to show folk — in a top show, earning big bucks and without the awesome responsibility of carrying the load.
Korman is aware that some of his second banana friends have cut out of successful television series to star in shows of their own and have come up empty.
"I thought about leaving the Burnett show for a couple of years," Korman said. "I don't know now much personal courage it took on my part to leave, but it was now or never. There were all the reasons in the world to stay and none to leave. I'm coming up on my 50th birthday and if ever I planned to expand my career beyond work, then I'd better do it now."
Over his 10-year hitch as Carol's leading man, Korman was a one-man repertory company. By his own count, he appeared in nearly 1,000 sketches, three and four a show, in the course of 250 shows. He played everything from yokels to Ronald Colman-like movie stars with aplomb, panache, savoir faire and great gobs of hilarity.
Korman is virtually irreplaceable, according to Carol and her producer-husband, Joe Hamilton. The measure of his worth is that his job this season will be filled by Dick Van Dyke, himself one of the finest comedians the tube has produced.
"If you work as long as I have doing sketch material, you begin living a sketch life. Off-stage you begin to believe you have a sketch
wife, sketch children and a sketch doctor.
"Hell, maybe I'm having a middle life crisis. But this is a very positive move in my life something I feel compelled to do."
Korman's immediate future is solid enough. He is starring in Mel Brooks' new comedy, "High Anxiety," in which he and Cloris Leachman play a pair of heavies running the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous, a loony bin in which the operators are nuttier than the inmates. He also has a five-episode commitment with ABC-TV for "The Harvey Korman Show," a situation comedy for which he already has made the pilot.
"I've discovered it's hard to play one guy with consistency after so many years of doings sketches," Korman said. "I'm in the process of establishing a dimensional character. He's an unemployed actor who teaches drama. He's something of a charlatan. Larger than life. The supporting cast includes his daughter and an agent.
"Just as I'm putting together his characteristics, I'm involved in establishing different dimensions in my personal life. I'm gravitating to more work and interest in my career. I'm involved in casting, writing and producing the show, which is very exciting to me. On the Burnett show I was just handed a script.
"Being on my own for the next year will be all right financially. I won't need any handout." Then, unable to resist voicing the actors' age-old insecurity, he concluded:
"But check with me next year. It could be different."
Korman tried several TV ventures. All of them failed. He had far more success uniting with Conway and hitting the road, bringing back memories of their Burnett successes to grateful audiences.
Harvey Herschel Korman was born on February 27, 1927 to Cyril Roy, a travelling salesman, and Ellen (Blecker) Korman. His father was Russian and his mother French. He spent about the first ten years of his life in Jackson, Mississippi before he, his mother and younger sister moved back to Chicago by 1940 (his father stayed in Jackson and remarried). He died in Los Angeles on May 29, 2008, leaving behind millions of laughs. He never would have done that with Hamlet.