Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Enough of the Hi-Ho

Louis Nye was among many actors who learned there was a big difference between the way your career was affected by television than it was by radio. In radio, you could be versatile, playing comedy and drama without anyone really noticing. In television, the viewer could see you and henceforth would only accept you in the kind of role they saw. Television equalled typecasting. It was the price of fame. And if you had a character that caught on with the public, especially one with a catchphrase, you were forced to ride it out until you, through no fault of your own, wore out your welcome.

Nye was one of those radio actors who got huge exposure only after Steve Allen hired him as a sketch player and then found the audience decided to adopt him as his characterisation of the Madison Avenue phoney, Gordon Hathaway. It finally got to where Nye refused to do Hathaway in his nightclub act in the ‘60s in an attempt to escape the role, one of many in Nye’s repertoire, though paying patrons no doubt anxiously awaited witnessing him say “Hi-Ho, Steverino” in the flesh.

Syndicated entertainment columnists gave Nye a fair bit of attention in the late ‘50s and through the ‘60s; at least, I found more interviews with Nye than I thought I would. Here’s one from the National Enterprise Association dated July 26, 1957 that gives readers some background about his career.

Madison Avenue Laughing Boy

NEW YORK —(NEA)—Critics frequently charge that television doesn't breed its own stars. But nobody can deny that it develops amazingly talented "second bananas" — men like Sid Caesar's Carl Reiner and Jackie Gleason's Art Carney.
And now you can add Steve Allen's Louis Nye. His most frequent character — the Madison Avenue laughing boy Gordon Hathaway — is a small gem. And Nye does so many other characters on the Allen show, many of them under heavy makeup, that chances are you don't recognize him half the time he's on.
This, of course, is a tribute to his own acting skill. Reiner is always Reiner and even Carney is easily spotted. But Louis Nye's face and voice and even his carriage change with each of his portrayals. He is, first and foremost, a highly talented actor.
This comedy streak in him is a late-flowering facet of the man. He was, for many years, a radio actor. He called himself "an emotional juvenile," and generally played highly-charged roles. He was also a competent "double," a radio term meaning that he could and did play two parts on the same show.
Felt He Was Funny
"All this time," he says. "I had a feeling, inside, that I was funny. To myself, thought that I was a funny guy. So what I'd do would be to play benefits. I'd do monologs, whatever came into my head.
"One time, I did one of these monologs and a Broadway columnist was there. He wrote me up for a whole column. I was so scared somebody would offer me a job as comedian that I ran home and hid." Nye, during this period, had no confidence in himself as a funny man. There was something inside him, wanting to come out, but he would have died of fright on a nightclub floor. It's a strange situation, one he won't go into very deeply, but one that is happily over.
"Now," he says, "I could do a nightclub. But there's no longer the great need there once was. Before, I wanted to, but I couldn't. Absolutely could not face it."
Changed in Army
What changed him, more than anything else, was the Army. He began to do little things in the recreation hall at Camp Crowder, Mo. He did sad monologs and funny monologs and patriotic monologs. (At one time, he had a partner for some of these—Carl Reiner.)
He came out and went into Broadway shows, like "Inside U.S.A." and the sensational flop, "Flahooley." And then he began to do some TV work. About five years ago, he worked an ABC-TV show called "Talk Of The Town." At the same time, Steve Allen was doing the old amateur songwriter show, "Songs For Sale."
Allen and Nye exchanged fan letters. Then they met on an elevator and Steve said, "You'll be hearing from me." As soon as Allen got his "Tonight" show, he kept his word. He and Nye have been working together, off and on, ever since.
Nye comes from Hartford, Conn., where, as a kid, he says he had to play a part.
Skinny and Weak
"You know how kids are," he says. "Every kid has a certain role in life to play. There's the tough kid and the cry-baby kid and the best ball-player kid. I was kind of skinny and weak and I didn't have a part. So I began to do imitations of the neighbors and then I had a part—the funny kid." At 18, he was working on a Hartford radio station for $2.50 a broadcast. He's been working pretty steadily since then.
All these years, he's been observing people. He has a great gift for mimicry. With a gesture, a facial expression, a tone of voice, he can capture a personality type. His Gordon Hathaway is that sort of characterization; it is nothing like Nye himself.
They're Opposites
Where Hathaway is hail-fellow-well-met, Nye is quiet. Hathaway has a ridiculous expression, Nye is serious. Hathaway thinks of himself as quite a wit, Nye seldom says anything funny. Hathaway is dapper dresser, Nye is a sober dresser. They are opposites, in every sense.
Nye is married to Anita Leonard, the songwriter who composed "Sunday Kind of Love" and the hit, "Graduation Ring." They have a 3 1/2-year-old son. While Nye leads a comfortable life, he admits to the urge to have his own show, "provided I find something that I would fit into." Meanwhile, he goes on with Steve Allen. The strange thing is that there is no contract. He waits until Allen calls him, otherwise he doesn't go on (and doesn't get paid). The best second banana currently working, in other words, is up for grabs.

For a while, it looked like Nye could be a first banana. Interstate TV signed him in September 1957 for a series called “Fancy Dan.” Shooting was supposed to begin the following January. Whether a pilot was ever made is unclear. Nye eventually abandoned the project and stuck with Allen and the typecasting Hathaway brought him. Eventually, like other stars in the same predicament, Nye accepted the fact people loved his character like an old friend. So after being banished for part of the mid-‘60s, Gordon Hathaway began to periodically appear on television again.

Hathaway wasn’t Nye’s only problem. Here are some of his travails which probably weren’t funny at the time but are pretty easy to imagine just from the description. This is from the Long Island Star Journal of August 25, 1964.

Louis Nye’s Fans Aren’t So Funny
(Special to Star-Journal)
Comedians, like most of their jokes, seem to be in public domain. For some unfathomable reason, people often take liberties with comics that only friends and family would put up with. Frequently, fans miss the thin line between admiration and abuse.
For some, it is even difficult to greet a funnyman with a simple "Hello." More often than not, the fan opens with a challenge, thus: "Say something funny!"
• • •
"WHY?" retorts Jack E. Leonard. "So you can repeat it!"
"Actually, though," said Louis Nye, "Those aren’t the worse kind of fans." Nye, who rose to fame doing the Gordon Hathaway character on Steve Allen’s old Sunday night TV show, should know. Recently, Louis took time out from his busy schedule to discuss fun and games with fans.
• • •
"COMEDIANS," he said, "are always running into guys who wanna stop them on the street and tell you a joke. Just last week it happened again. I thanked him for his joke and excused myself.
"He followed me right along anyway, all the way to the end of the block, 10 jokes later. And the jokes—" Louis shook his head sadly. "How did you get away from him?" someone asked.
• • •
"CAB," he said. "Hail a cab. Sometimes you’re just going a block, or two, so you ride around until it’s safe to get out."
But there are times when a cab can’t be hailed.
"Not long ago," Louis continued, "a guy breaks into my dressing room to tell me how much he likes me. I said, ‘Thank you, it’s been great meeting you,’ and I shook his hand.
• • •
"FINALLY, I had to go on, so I locked up the dressing room. He went out into the club to find his table and, of course, his seat had been taken. I go on now and while I’m trying to do my act, he’s yelling at the head waiter that he wants to sit down. It goes like that for half of my act.
"Another time," Nye went on, "a fellow stops me on the street. He wants to tell me some jokes. I said, ‘please, sir, I just want to walk by myself.’ But you can’t tell them that. He says, ‘Oh-h-h! If it wasn’t for people like me . . . It’s people like me, we made you a star!’ "He was yelling now and he started to run after me. There were two women passing by then, and one of them said to the other, ‘There’s Louis Nye.’ So I tipped my hat to them. The guy is running. Now they turn around and start following me.
• • •
"ONE of the women says, ‘I’ll bet you miss New York.’ Then the other one says, ‘I’ll bet you miss the good restaurants.’ They were very pleasant, very casual.
"And the whole time this guy is swearing at me, a crowd is gathering and they’re completely oblivious to it. Martial law is about to be declared, and they’re not even aware of it."
"Louis," someone said, "how’d you resolve the situation?"
"Cab," he said. "I got a cab."

Much was made of Betty White’s career revival in her late 80s, but doing it before her was Louis Nye. He reached a whole new generation of TV fans who wouldn’t know Sonny Drysdale from Don Drysdale when he appeared on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” while he was in his late 80s. Nye died at the age of 92 in 2005. By then, he had long hung up his hi-ho.

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