Monday, 26 December 2016

From Broadway to Underdog

Here’s some Broadway trivia:

When Hans Conried left the cast of “Can-Can” in 1954, he was replaced by George S. Irving. Conried didn’t set foot on the Great White Way again for 20 years. When he returned, he was hired as a replacement to play Madame Lucy in the musical “Irene.” Whom did he replace? George S. Irving.

Irving (who was plain old “George Irving” until 1947 when Equity forced him to change his billing) had an impressive string of Broadway appearances, but is probably best known to you and me as being part of a good little voice cast employed by Total TeleVision Productions. Irving is the one who reminded us of the evil things that Simon Bar Sinister did to Sweet Polly Purebread on the last episode of Underdog. Irving’s narrator voice was pretty recognisable and you could hear him on commercial voiceovers that came out of New York, though he insisted that wasn’t his forte.

Perhaps his most unusual role was as that most unusual president, Richard Nixon. Irving played him on stage while I-Am-Not-a-Crook was still in his first term in the White House. Harvey Pack’s TV Key column wrote about it on May 18, 1972.
A TV Commercial Face as Mr. President
NEW YORK— When George S. Irving, familiarly seen in TV commercials, was growing up in Springfield, Mass., he never thought he might end up President of the United States, but at least for the present that seemingly impossible idea has been realized— thanks to Gore Vidal's entertaining yet frequently heavy-handed Broadway satire, "An Evening with Richard Nixon And..."
Even if the play folds, tomorrow, Irving has enjoyed his brief tenure as Chief Executive of Broadway, and during a recent luncheon at Sardi's I heard him greeted by at least a half a dozen people as "Mr. President," and then watched him respond by clasping his hands over his head in the manner of the man who is more concerned about the possibility of closing in November than Saturday night.
Irving does not look exactly like Nixon. He has the same general facial structure and — aided by a wig and a Nixon nose, which the show's make-up man (who has made up the President for TV) bakes in an oven by the dozen — he does an amazing job on stage.
A working actor and member of the regular company of David Frost's syndicated revue show, George once did a portion of the famed "Checkers" speech in a sketch, the producers of the Vidal play saw it and he was invited to audition. A McGovern Democrat, Mr. Irving does, not make his characterization of the President into a caricature. "Remember the words we use are his own, and, if I overplayed the part, I would shift the emphasis from the dialogue and hurt the play," said Irving.
The play has enjoyed a mixed reaction. Even at this writing nobody knows whether it will be running next week. It suffers primarily from its biased point of view which is so obvious it infuriates people who are pro-Nixon; anti-Nixon liberals react as liberals invariably do by siding with the underdog — in this case President Nixon. In addition, Mr. Vidal has directed his barbs at such American heroes as Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Washington which, combined with his treatment of Mr. Nixon, reminds me of the line Mort Sahl always used at the end of his act: "Are there any groups or individuals I have not picked on tonight?"
But no matter what fate may be in store for Mr. Vidal's political diatribe it has been a triumph for George S. Irving. George and his wife, Maria Karnilova, who won a Tony for her performance as Tevya's wife in "Fiddler on the Roof," have succeeded in raising a family in New York while working in the theater without ever moving to Hollywood or doing a daytime drama on TV.
George has been in scores of Broadway productions but never really enjoyed the recognition he has won for his impersonation of President Nixon. "Now that I've played a lead... a title role, in fact... I guess I've proven something," Irving said.
As a working actor George is in no position to enjoy the thrill of playing a lead. He was on his way to an audition for a Broadway play scheduled for the fall and he still makes his daily rounds for commercials.
"I've lived off commercials for years," he said. “They paid for our summer house upstate as well as for some peace of mind. Oddly enough I've never had any luck with voice-overs. I have the kind of face the sponsor wants to see on camera. I suppose you could call it the average man look,” and, at the thought of President Nixon as Mr. Average Man being very employable for TV commercials, we both laughed.
Irving won a Tony for a role which wasn’t his to begin with, as Best Supporting Actor opposite Debbie Reynolds in “Irene.” Let’s see what “Midnight Earl” had to say about it. This column appeared in newspapers around March 17, 1973.
Irving won't be stereotyped

"They're not going to typecast me," strong-jawed George Irving said the other night in Sardi's looking across the dining room at Debbie Reynolds and her chorus-girl daughter Carrie. "In 'Irene,' I'm an effeminate courtier named 'Madame Lucy' and not many months ago I was President Nixon in Gore Vidal's show and also on a David Frost Special.
"Besides that," I pointed out, "you're all over TV doing commercials."
Irving sipped some applejack and gingerale and permitted some kidding about the commercials. He pretended not to remember the name of one cigar, but he remembered asking the president at a tobacco firm, "Do you smoke these?" and the prez shook his head no. "I have a roomful of Havanas," the prez declared. He also has a soap commercial and, laughingly he said, "That stuff'll kill you...take the hide right off of you."
The portrayal of President Nixon was fresh in his memory about three months ago when he was in Boston in a show called "Comedy" which folded. He was out of work. He had delighted everybody with a "Nixon inaugural address" for Frost.
The President had been dividing his time between the Washington White House, the San Clemente White House, the Camp David While House and the Key Biscayne White House, and "now I'd like to announce the opening of a swell new White House at Disneyland where you can eat all you want for $3.95," the President said (in the sketch).
"The next four years I will continue to do battle against the three isms that threaten us—communism, fascism and journalism," he also had the President say (courtesy of writers Tony Geiss and Gary Belkin).
That was over, too. Agent Milton Goldman urged him to rush back to N.Y. to see Sir John Gielgud, director of Debbie's new show "Irene" which was in much trouble. Billy DeWolfe decided he didn't want to continue playing Madame Lucy, a New York courtier who never made good till he went to Paris and began calling himself "Lucy."
"It's an extravagant, elegant character with little zany gestures. I took the part and when Gower Champion came in as director, he made it a little nuttier," Irving said.
The result is one of the funniest characters in years, especially when Irving (who has sung with the New York City Opera), flounces around with "Madame Lucy and the Debutantes" singing "They Go Wild, Simply Wild Over Me."
Madame Lucy, in fact, sings all over the place and gets into a delicate situation with Patsy Kelly, the Irish mother of 9th Avenue Irene, which isn't fair to discuss further until you've seen the show. George E. Irving isn't his real name and I don't know what it is. He's from Springfield Mass., has been married 25 years to beautiful actress Maria Karnilova, has two grown children and is Russian-Jewish. He's a New York actor who's never gone to Hollywood and has made it acting and not going to side jobs.
The jokes fly. In one scene he teaches the girls to model. "At the least sign of impertinence knuckles will be rapped," he announces. And hits the desk, rapping hell out of his own knuckles. "That was my thimble finger," he shrieks.
Saturday morning cartoons didn’t get much respect until the people who watched them grew up and then wrote about them. You won’t find newspaper stories in the 1960s where Irving comments about his earnest narration in Underdog, or a decade later when his voice appeared every Christmas as the Heat Miser in the TV feature The Year Without a Santa Claus. But you can read about the producers of Underdog in Mark Arnold’s book, and of the many stop-motion and animated works of the Rankin/Bass people who brought you the Heat Miser in Rick Goldschmidt’s book.

1 comment:

  1. You didn't mention it, and I don't know if you knew or not when you published this, but Irving died Monday at age 94.