Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Shakespeare's Second Banana

Howard Morris was so over-the-top when working with Andy Griffith and Sid Caesar, it’s hard to think of him as anything but a comic actor. Ah, but that’s how television pigeon-holes you.

Howie spent World War Two in Maurice Evans’ special services unit in the South and Central Pacific, performing in Hamlet, along with another chap named Carl Reiner. Morris and Reiner, at least according to the Boston Globe of February 9, 1947, had worked together on WNYC before they were drafted, appeared together on stage in “Call Me Mister” in ‘47, then worked together with Caesar. Morris moved into television after getting plenty of exposure on stage at the Ziegfeld in New York in a 1949 production of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

(Morris had returned to radio in March 1946 in the debut cast of a Friday night show on Mutual called “Passport to Romance.” Romance doesn’t come to mind when you think of Howard Morris).

Sid Caesar’s shows truly showcased Morris’ comedic talents. Caesar left audiences uproariously laughing with his outrageous dialects—but Morris was even more outrageous. And one of the funniest things ever broadcast on TV, as far as I’m concerned, is the “This is Your Life” parody on Caesar’s Hour, with Morris as an almost uncontrollable Uncle Goopy.

If you appreciate Howard Morris, you may appreciate these newspaper articles from 1955. They were published during the run of Caesar’s Hour, which aired from 1954 to 1957, the year it won the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Series.

TV Star Achieves Note As ‘The Little One’

United Press Staff Correspondent
NEW YORK, April 13 (UP) Television has brought street recognition of a sort to Howard Morris.
Those who spot him may not be able to lay tongue to his name immediately, but they don't need to.
“Oh, you're the little one,” they'll say.
And that's identification enough for themselves or for anyone else.
“The little one” can only be the one who isn't Sid Caesar or Carl Reiner, plus-six-footers both to Morris' five-six.
This member of the quartet that dominates "Caesar's Hour"—the fourth and distaff member is Nanette Fabray—is a legit dramatic actor turned comic who figures he has played in about 1500 sketches in six years on television.
"Just imagine that!" exclaimed the slight, serious-looking funny man.
“Why, if a stage comic had a career of 50 years, doing a new revue every year, he wouldn't appear in more than 250 sketches.”
Played Hamlet
Morris is one comedian who has no yearning to play Hamlet. He's done it. Well, not Hamlet exactly, but "Hamlet."
After New York schooling and a few seasons of acting apprenticeship with various groups, Morris spent four years in the Army during World War II. Three of those overseas in the Pacific with entertainment unit headed by the then Major Maurice Evans which, among other things, played a condensed version of the Shakespearian tragedy which was known as the "G.I. Hamlet." Morris was the Laertes. He was back in the role when a civilian version was presented on Broadway in 1946.
“I was a first sergeant in Evans unit,” Morris recalled, "and do you know who was one of my men? Carl Reiner."
Reiner has been with Caesar longer on an uninterrupted basis, but Morris was with him first.
From The First
“That was when Sid did his very first television work,” Morris explained. "When Max Liebman did the old "Admiral Revue" show for a season more than six years ago. I was around doing all sorts of bits for a while.
"Out of that came Max's ‘Your Show of Shows’ program for NBC, starring Sid and Imogene Coca, but by that time I had a role in the stage musical, ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ where I stayed for a couple of seasons.
"When I joined 'Your Show of Shows' in the fall of 1951, there was Carl again."
But for all the benefits, Morris considers three one-hour shows a month about all he or any other actor can take.
"When that fourth, idle week rolls around," he said, "I try to forget about television for seven days. I just stay home and relax. Or maybe 'collapse' is the better word."

This story is from the New York Herald Tribune December 25, 1955.

IS IT inconceivable that an actor, with stardom at his fingertips, would reject it?
But such thespians do exist and Howard Morris may be counted among them.
Morris is the diminutive pixie who, together with sidekick Carl Reiner, helps Sid Caesar dispense comedy on NBC’s “Caesar’s Hour.” He is what is known in the trade as a “second banana” and Morris finds it a comfortable lot.
“It’s a real cushy spot,” says Morris, who avers that his decision is not a compromise. “With Caesar, I couldn’t find a better showcase, or a better opportunity to become versatile. The ultimate aim of any dedicated actor is to attain perfection and he can only achieve that by working constantly, playing as many different parts as possible within his capabilities.”
“You know,” he continued, “years ago it was easy to tell the difference between a top banana and his second banana, or straight man. The second banana would feed a straight line to the top banana, who’d advance to the footlights and hit the audience with a knock’em dead punch line.
“But times have changed since then, and a guy gets a lot more opportunity to show his talent. Oh, we’re still called second bananas, but now we’re a more important part of the bunch. Today, there [are] as many different types of second bananas as there are styles of comedy. Why, we second bananas today have as many funny lines and bits as the top comics.”
Second bananas today, Howard explains, may be insulting, pessimistic, cynical, language-fracturing toughies, or character men who can play anything from bulbous-nosed Prussian generals to waterfront hoodlums.
What’s more, they have become among the best-paid performers in television and have acquired almost as much of a following as the top bananas themselves. Viewers of the Caesar show are often moved to fits of laughter by Howard’s antics. He particularly falls into the category of the aforementioned character type, in that he is often called upon to play entitled noblemen, meek bank clerks, eccentric little music teachers, amatory Frenchmen, and the like.
Howard’s talent is unique in itself, combining a great sense of timing with an uncanny knack of facial expression and posturing. He can sway an audience into sympathy for the little man, squeeze every drop of humor out of a gag situation, yet subtly underscore a situation by merely letting the others take the fore. He can take up the slack when the line of funny business wears thin in spots. To Caesar, Howard’s a funnyman’s funnyman.
Hard to imagine this little guy was once a Shakespearean actor. His heart’s in television, though, much as he enjoyed doing the Bard.
He loves Shakespeare. But he loves Caesar more.

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