Saturday, 14 January 2017

Birdie, Eating Ham and Dressing For the Hood

Actors can be easily typecast, but Dick Gautier wasn’t one of them. In his TV career, he played a secret agent robot programmed for niceness, a satiric version of Robin Hood and the friend of a super-hero gas station attendant.

On top of that, Gautier could write songs, draw caricatures and won raves for his stand-up comedy. Composer Charles Strouse saw him at the Blue Angel in New York and asked him to audition for Bye Bye Birdie playing a parody of Elvis Presley. It was his first professional role and for it he landed a Tony nomination, as well propositions from older female audience members.

Gautier died this past Friday the 13th. He was 85.

Regular readers to this blog, I suspect, remember him best as Hymie on Get Smart which, for the first few seasons, was one of the smartest shows on TV. Gautier made such an impression, it’s hard to realise he was only on the show occasionally. He ended up going for the security of a regular role in a series. Unfortunately, the series was Mr. Terrific which, for its only season, was one of lamest shows on TV.

Here are a couple of newspaper interviews with Gautier. The first is the Brooklyn Eagle, December 19, 1960 (the photo with it of Gautier with Paul Lynde and Michael J. Pollard is from the Museum of the City of New York). The second is a syndicated piece pulled from the September 27, 1975 edition of the Utica Observer-Dispatch.

Norman Wilner Interviews
I asked Dick Gautier, who plays one of the leads in "Bye Bye Birdie" if he suffers from stagefright. “No,” he said. “I may yawn from nervousness and sometimes I urinate but no real stagefright like some performers. One thing that bothers me a bit is the stigma of being classified as a rock and roller because I play an Elvis Presley type in ‘Birdie’.”
I said you don't mean to say people are actually idiotic enough to identify you with the role you play? He chuckled. "You're not going to get me to say that in print, Charlie. I’m a moody guy but I'm not temperamental. I never take out my temper on people but I did used to put my fist through doors when I was younger. People who took advantage of somebody gullible get me mad but I'm not actually hostile to anybody. I can't be hostile, it's not my nature. I may be intolerant of people who are lazy mentally, people who speak bad English because they are slothful but that's about it."
Gautier was sitting in his shorts in his dressing room. He is 6 feet tall, weighs 180 pounds, has heavy eyebrows, looks like one of these virile French Canadians but actually, he was born in Hollywood. Only 29, he is extremely literate, well read despite the fact that he only completed high school and I commented on that. He said "I don't believe the educational system teaches you how to think. Education teaches you how to memorize and compete, that's all.
The more a person seeks knowledge and, even more important, develops a sensibility for beauty, the better educated he is, in my opinion."
Young Gautier draws, paints, sculpts, has written over 300 pop tunes, short stories, takes singing and jazz dancing lessons and manages to find time to play with his two young children. "I'm not great at painting but I enjoy it. Sure I sell some of my paintings but I don't like to make a business out of it, I'd rather keep it as a hobby. I'm aggressive as a person but not in a business sense. I mean I don't beat around the bush, I say what's on my mind, I tell people what I think but I'm not a go-out-and-hustle-guy. I made about $20,000 last year but if I weren't happy in "my work, I'd quit it tomorrow. I don't care if Jackie Gleason makes a million bucks a year, more power to him, I don't envy anybody. My ambition is happiness."
Gautier started working with puppets when he was 6 years old and just naturally gravitated into show business. He has played the smart clubs like the Blue Angel and the hungry i. One of his routines is a satire on Oedipus Rex." Any kid who loves his mother that much can't be all bad." Funny line. He writes much of his own material with the aid of Gary Belkin, a professional gag writer. They sit around and throw material back and forth at each other until Gautier has a routine worked out to his own satisfaction. The running rate for most comedy material is about $100 a minute. He once took a walk-on part in a Sid Caeser TV show just so he could meet him. He considers Caeser a genius. "Even at his worst, he was better than most TV. [I] also admire Chaplin and W.C. Fields. I'd love to produce and direct movies some day but who can predict? Right now, if I personally can come up with one good joke a day, I consider that I'm doing great. I think I get a better feeling out of doing my nightclub act rather than the theatre because it's me. I don't do mother-in-law jokes, there's so much to satirize."
He likes to cook, has a marvelous recipe for Chinese Cinnamon Chicken. He is not politically minded, although he voted for Kennedy and before that for Stevenson. He is a liberal. Then we had a big argument about the literary merits of J. D. Salinger and Dostoievsky. Then I asked him about religion. "I don't believe in organized religion. I believe if there were no such things as semantics, there would be no separate cults. Not eating fish on Friday or ham is unimportant. I don't think God really cares. I believe I can pray in my own way better."
Gautier gets up around 11 and keeps going till bedtime. He loves movies. He believes in having fun. When I asked him how he could possibly love some of the dopey movies around, he grinned "I don't believe in getting snobbish. It's like song writing. If I were to try to compete professionally with song writers, I'd be a real dud. I think I'm a good comedian but I've still got a lot to learn." He got dressed and went off to Sardi's. I went off to Paddy's Clam House.

Gautier’s Biggest Problem Is Baggy Knees in His His Pants

HOLLYWOOD — Actor Dick Gautier has two big problems with his ABC series "When Things Were Rotten": remembering to fence right-handed and to keep his knees from sagging.
He says:
"Being left-handed was never a problem for me before I was signed for the show — and everyone had to learn to fence. It took five weeks of coaching, three times a week, before I reached the point where I wouldn't be dangerous to everyone — including myself. I not only developed some style, but leg muscles as well. Errol Flynn, eat your heart out."
Gautier had a tough time with his costume.
"We are all suffering from baggy knees.I wondered why wardrobe advised, me to keep my nails buffed smooth and shot when they handed out costumes, but after the first hour — I knew why: I'm always pulling up my tights. Can't let Robin Hood — legendary swashbuckling English folk hero — have baggy knees. Not neat.
"The next hardest thing for me — for everybody on the show — is to keep a straight face when we're fighting the giggles because of the absolute madness going on in front and behind the cameras."
Twenty-five years ago, Dick's friends in the high school drama club were less successful fighting the giggles at his classroom antics that eventually got him suspended. That marked the end of his formal education and the beginning of his professional career.
"I grew a moustache, lowered my voice and got a job doing classic blackout sketches between the strip acts in a San Diego burlesque house," he said.
From burlesque he became a band singer before enlisting in the U.S. Navy where he managed to combine four years in Special Services with appearances on San Diego TV, in a local nightclub, and singing with Horace Heidt's band. Following his discharge and a year performing in a San Francisco nitery, the Culver City, Calif., native headed for New York, where he sustained himself designing greeting cards, working as a sandblaster, waiter, and pogo stick demonstrator, until getting a job at Upstairs At the Duplex in the Village. From there he moved his comedy patter to the Blue Angel and Bonsoir nightclubs, and TV appearances with Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, and Jack Paar.
After a concert tour with the Kingston Trio, he beat out 500 aspiring actors for a lead in "Bye Bye Birdie" and steady work for 996 performances along with a Tony nomination and being named Broadway's most promising newcomer in 1971 [1961].
He hasn't stopped working since.
Films include "Divorce, American Style," "The Manchu Eagle," "Ensign Pulver," "God Bless You Uncle Sam" and "Mary Jane," which he coscripted, and musicals "Little Me," "Cabaret," "South Pacific" and "The Owl and the Pussycat," inbetween TV guest roles and his earlier series "Get Smart" (He was the lovable robot), "Here We Go Again," and "Mr. Terrific."
Gautier sums up:
"I consider myself very fortunate. There are lots of good actors here who never break out of a category, and I have. I was offered more parts, better roles and more series and I just keep growing.
“This is a hard business. There's a lot of physical stamina required. A lot of really talented performers don't last because they don't have the energy. No other reason.”
Actress Barbara Stuart is Dick's second wife. "We met on a blind date. We went to the opening of 'Mutiny on The Bounty — the second one with Brando. We went together two years and have been married eight." A short pause for dramatic effect — for breath, and he continues. "Barbara just completed a pilot with Barry Nelson and if it sells she'll be working in New York five or six months a year. Before we were married we worked together on two pilots which didn't sell, and game shows like 'Tattle-tales' are all we've done together since getting married.”

I really didn’t fully appreciate Gautier’s talents until I read Kliph Nesteroff’s interview with him. Gautier was smart and articulate. Kliph, you should know, is the man to go to when it comes to stand-up acts of days gone by. Read his interview here, here, here, and here.

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