Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Fame From No Locks or Looks

To your right, you see a picture of a birthday party in Binghamton, New York in 1927. At the bottom right, you’ll see a six-year-old guest you would only recognise if he were bald, wore glasses, and was being harassed by Morey Amsterdam playing Buddy Sorrell.

Yes, it’s Richard Deacon.

He grew up in Binghamton, where his father was a floor appliance salesman. He was in several different organisations, including the Boy Scouts, and appeared in high school plays. Remarkably, he wasn’t the only member of his class to move to Hollywood. A fellow actor was a young man named Harvey S. Bullock, who made a very comfortable living for himself writing situation comedies, animated and otherwise. And in 1939, Mr. Deacon was a panellist on a student-run version of “Information Please.” One of the other teenaged panellists was named Rodman Serling. Yes, that Rod Serling.

When WW2 rolled around, he was a corporal who headed to Washington, D.C. for a laboratory technician's course at the U. S. Army Medical School. His acting career resumed after the war, including a three-month tour with the Barn Theatre in Porterville, California.

While Deacon was a regular supporting player on Charlie Farrell’s summer show in 1956, his fame really came—sorry, “Leave it to Beaver” fans—when he took on the role of the humourless Mel Cooley on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Newspaper columnists suddenly took notice of him, and he was featured in stories by several different wire services and syndicators through the decade. There are some really interesting ones—Deacon wrote one himself that’s amusing—but I’ve only picked three. The first is from 1963. It’s ironic in that Deacon played the underling (and brother-in-law) of variety TV star Alan Brady, who was exposed as a toupee-wearer in a memorable episode.

Dick Deacon, TV’s Yul Brynner, Admits Bald Pate Big Boost in TV Career

HOLLYWOOD, May 27 (UPI)—Richard Deacon is an actor whose career improves as his hair gets thinner.
MOST ACTORS shudder at the thought of a bald head setting upon their shoulders. They devise various kinds of wigs to cover balding skulls. Where the hair is thin, makeup men will douse the head with black greasepaint. Usually an actor sees his career’s length in a direct ratio to the rate of hair fallout. When the hair is gone, they fear, so is the acting career.
Not so with Deacon. As time passes by and his hair disappears, Richard's popularity increases. For the past 2 years, Dick has played a bumbling television producer on CBS-TV'S "Dick Van Dyke Show."
“I’VE BEEN BALD since I was 17-years-old," says Deacon. "In high school I had a father image. Other kids used to ask my advice about whether or not they should neck on the first date."
Dick didn't know the answers, of course, but what he told his classmates had a ring of authenticity because the words originated under a balding and mature appearing head.
Deacon has a little hair around the sides of his head, Just enough to give him the appearance of' a bushy haired Yul Brynner.
“I’D RATHER BE a character actor than a leading man,” he said. "I play roles which I think you might call deskmanship. They're people who are behind a desk or counter and play God for a minute. Everybody knows the pompous hotel clerk who takes himself too seriously."
Some of Hollywood's biggest stars have hairline problems. There are those who won't be seen in public without a wig. It would be unthinkable for them to appear wigless on screen.
I CAN UNDERSTAND the young leading man who wears a wig," said Deacon. "He has an image to keep up. But I ask those other guys, ‘who do you think you're fooling.’ Everybody in this business knows who’s wearing a headpiece.”
Deacon says baldness hasn't hurt his chances of working in Hollywood.
“I work very little with a hairpiece,” he said. “Once I was appearing with Dr. Frank Baxter. He’s so bald that the producer asked me to wear a hairpiece so they could tell us apart.
“I imagine I wouldn't have gotten started acting and worked as much if I had hair. If they want me to have hair I just paste it on.”

This column from the National Enterprise Association appeared April 4, 1964. Deacon worked with his old classmates. Bullock co-wrote at least one Van Dyke show. And Serling hired him for a “Twilight Zone,” showing he was capable of more than comedy.

Tall, Bald And Ugly
Deacon Plays Good Guy Up
“Against A Lot Of Nuts”

Hollywood—(NEA)—Meet the man who “knows a lot, but just can’t think of it.”
The name is Richard Deacon—the deadpan funnyman who turned a stare into a career.
The weekly Dick Van Dyke show on CBS-TV took Deacon out of the "What's-his-name?" game audiences play with character actors. Almost everyone knows him now not only by face, but by name.
As Mel Cooley, the television producer of dubious talents who constantly heckles Dick, Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam, the "tall, bald and ugly" Deacon has it made.
The Descriptive Quotes are Deacon's and he's still amazed about his zooming career.
"If I didn't wear glasses and have 40 yards of unpaved road on my head, I probably wouldn't be working at all," he said.
His specialty of frustrated characters, in both movies and television has given him his first starring role in "The Brain Center at Whipples" on "Twilight Zone" (CBS-TV, May 15).
Deacon plays a factory owner who replaces all his human workers with robots and makes an unexpected discovery about automation. With critics of automation worried about people going out of style, Deacon feels "there is more truth than fiction to the show."
The stare that started it all for Deacon dates back to one of Jack Benny's television shows several years ago.
Deacon was hired to react, with a stare, to one of Jack's corny jokes. Jack stared back and Deacon just stood there, saying nothing and finally outstaring him. Well, it went on for five minutes and the audience laughed so loud that Jack invited Deacon back for two more "staring" appearances.
With his second guest spot, word got around to telefilm and moviemakers and everyone suddenly came up with a “Richard Deacon-type role.”
The parts ranged from beatnik to barber to professional men such as doctors and lawyers. "They are all frustrated," says Deacon. "They are good guys up against a lot of nuts."
Actors usually become frustrated when type-cast. But there is no frustration in Deacon's frustration.
"It is all alleviated when I cash those lovely checks," he says.
A bachelor, Deacon was born in Philadelphia.
He came to Hollywood, and television, in 1950 after World War II service, a college drama course and a year with a traveling stock company.

The last story is from July 23, 1968. Being from that era, it can’t explain the real reason Richard Deacon remained a confirmed bachelor.

Richard Deacon, Lifelong Bachelor, Will Play Kaye Ballard's Husband By VERNON SCOTT
UPI Hollywood Correspondent

HOLLYWOOD (UPI)—Richard Deacon, the bald and pompous character of the defunct "Dick Van Dyke Show," will be seen this fall as Kaye Ballard's husband in "The Mothers-In-Law" series replacing Roger C. Carmel.
Presumably he will be no less bald or pompous than before.
Deacon is a lifelong bachelor who luxuriates in his freedom to the dismay of married friends.
Says Deacon: "Something intuitive has prevented me from marrying. I was engaged three times, and I've seen two of the girls since. And am I lucky."
Deacon, clearly, is as much a character off-screen as he is on.
He has a girl friend whom he has known for 12 years. They date regularly and have a mutual agreement not to marry.
The actor and his girl friend have dinner at intimate little restaurants and attend occasional movies. But Deacon prefers to have her visit the house and cook for him there.
He lives in Beverly Hills. His home is a two-bedroom, two-bath modern with den, living room and a separate maid's room.
Lacking live-in help, he has filled the maid's room with rocks. Deacon is a rock hound who shops around Beverly Hills specialty shops for semi-precious stones. He takes them home, polishes them in a machine and mounts them on standards.
"They're very decorative," Deacon explained defensively. Real rock hounds find their prizes on the nearby desert, but Deacon is not one to do things the hard way.
He has decorated his canyon home with French provincial and antique pieces collected during the past 10 years. His touch with colors is such that visitors are constantly asking for the name of the professional interior decorator who "did" his house.
Aside from collecting rocks, Deacon's only other hobby— and perhaps of necessity—is cooking. He prefers a large steak Chateaubriand marinated in bourbon and soy sauce.
The recipe was given him by Rock Hudson who got the original from the late Tyrone Power.
“I don't exercise at all,” Deacon says proudly. “I've given up the beach because I'm not bathing suit size anymore.”
Deacon does, however, travel around the west to such scenic spots as Yosemite for long weekends.
His hours on the show require him to be on the set by 10 a.m. and he is usually home by 7 p.m. four days a week. On the fifth day they shoot the situation comedy in the evening with a live audience for NBC-TV.
Back at home he wears commodious robes not unlike togas, and sandals. Frequently his outfit includes a medallion around his neck.
Deacon is a nonconformist and proud of it. But in Hollywood so is everyone else, and Deacon blends into the atmosphere.

Deacon was only 63 when he died of a heart attack. The food and lack of exercise don’t appear to have done him much good in the long run. But he seems to have enjoyed life, a far cry from the dour Mel we’ve seen on the screen for 50-some-odd years.


  1. Great blog post. Deacon has always been a favorite actor since I was a kid. I would have loved to have known him in person.

  2. I more associate Deacon with his role in 1955's "Abbott & Costello Meet The Mummy" - the last film the duo ever did for what at that time was known as Universal-International, after a 14-year run there.