Wednesday, 30 January 2019

From Broadway to a Chimp

Why do actors sign up for obvious turkeys?

Let’s get an answer from Anita Gillette, who went from being a rising star on Broadway to Me and the Chimp in ten years. Who, in their right mind, would star opposite a short simian and Ted Bessell, who showed about as limited a range as anyone on a TV comedy in the ‘60s?

I like Anita Gillette. I think of her mainly of her appearances on the syndicated version of What’s My Line? in the ‘70s with Soupy Sales. She was pleasant, upbeat and had a sense of humour, the kind of person you’d like to talk with. Little did I know at the time about her breakthrough on the Great White Way. In fact, I didn’t know about it until I started working on this post. Here’s an Associated Press wire story from 1961 which sums up what happened and her rather short career to that point.
Anna Maria's Understudy Deplores Producer's Praise
Anita Gillette Says Statement She Was Better Than Star Was 'a Little Unprofessional'

Chicago Tribune Press Service
NEW YORK. Aug. 9—Surrounded by her 10-month-old son, Timothy, her dachshund dog and her Siamese cat, pint-sized Anita Gillette said today she was "on a cloud" after her smash performance the past two nights as Anna Maria Alberghetti's understudy in the Broadway musical. "Carnival."
But the hazel-eyed actress, who took the star's role because Anna Maria is in the hospital, said she thought it was "unnecessary and a little unprofessional" for Producer David Merrick to tell the press that he wished he had been "clairvoyant enough to know at the beginning that she was that much better than Miss Alberghetti."
In the living room of the ground-floor Manhattan apartment, where she lives with her husband, William Gillette, 31, a research physiologist in New York Hospital. Anita said:
"Thought He Was Kidding"
"I thought he (Mr. Merrick) was just kidding when he told me that during the performance. Then, when he said it for the press (after the show) I thought maybe he had had an argument with Miss Alberghetti. . . . He could say something like that to me but to say it to the press was something else."
Anita, who is under 5 foot 1, weighs 102 pounds, and who will be 24 next week, played the taxing role to an enthusiastic, standing-room-only audience at the Monday night performance.
"Miss Alberghetti does a marvelous job." Anita continued. "I do different things than she, and maybe Merrick liked my interpretation better. It's not a carbon copy of what she does.
"Last night I was in such a state of nerves I didn't even hear the applause after the first act. The show people said it was tremendous.
"I was very nervous . . . scared to death and I kept picking away at the sides of my fingernails," Anita said.
"Scared to Death"
At the close of the show, she received a telephone call from Anna Maria, who entered LeRoy, Sanitarium Sunday night for an abdominal disorder.
They spoke about 10 minutes and "the only thing she said was that she felt someone was frying to start a feud between us. She sent her congratulations, and she also sent me flowers and a telegram," Anita added.
Anita has been in an off-Broadway show, understudied in "Gypsy." had the lead in 1959 in the St. Louis Municipal Opera production of "Babes in Toyland," and in 1960 won a Daniel Blum Theater World Award.
Anita racked up some nice Broadway credits in the ‘60s and did some television. She gave it all up to move to Hollywood and work with a chimp. (I believe my reaction to the show, reading about it at the time, was “they’ve got to be kidding.”)

Why did she do it?

She explains in Richard Shull’s “Inside TV” column in Florida Today, published January 22, 1972.
Ten Years on Broadway 'Prepare' Anita Gillette for 'Chimp' Series
One thing and another and Broadway star Anita Gillette wound up 3,300 miles from home co-starring with a Hollywood actor-type, a chimpanzee and two child actors in a funky new midseason TV show.
She laughs about it, but at times her laughter has a hysterical edge to it.
The pert brunette Is a part of the new CBS cultural offering, "Me and the Chimp." The show originally was titled "The Chimp and I," but its star, Ted Bessell, insisted on the title change, even at the expense of grammar, to give his character precedence. That's indicative of something.
Anita takes the present turn in her career philosophically. "I thought I knew good plays, and you wouldn't believe the flops I was In," she said. "And I know nothing about television, so I won't attempt to say anything.
"Let's face it, no television is Shakespeare. The public makes the hits. I go to work and I do my job," she said.
But please, Anita, you must admit "Me and the Chimp" isn't the sort of title to inspire confidence.
"There's no way you can explain the show," she said. "Of course, well get clobbered by the press with this. The name invites it. But you know our motto in the theater 'Illegitimus non carborundum.' Don't let the —— wear you down."
She gave the impression she still was a bit dazed at the idea of playing a mother role in a TV situation comedy, especially one in which the family included a chimpanzee.
As she explained it, after 10 years on Broadway as star or leading lady of 15 shows, she went to Hollywood to try for a role with Darrln McGavin in a pilot film for a proposed series for next season. Barbara Feldon got the part.
"My agent urged me to take this. He pointed out that not one in 25 of the pilot films ever get to be a series, but this was a series definitely committed to be on a network.
"When he told me the title, I said, 'I spent 10 years setting ready for this!' Then I read the script and I found It was funny. "So instead of two weeks, It looks as if I'm in Hollywood forever. I still go home to New York on weekends. I left my kids in school there. (She's divorced with sons 7 and 11.) I've never been away from them before," Anita said.
So, how does she manage in Hollywood alone?
Well, she explained, she has a little apartment at the Sunset-Martini Apartments, a haven for dislocated New York actors who are la Hollywood - based series. Jack Klugman of "The Odd Couple" and Florence Henderson of "The Brady Bunch" are among the tenants who also commute home to New York.
"I break my back pulling the bed out every night. And I'm all alone, so I take lots of baths and read Agatha Christie novels," she said. "It ain't home, baby."
According to the story premise, Anita and the two children on the show adopt a stray chimp against the wishes of Bessell, who plays the father.
On April 3, 1972, CBS announced its new fall line-up. The Glen Campbell Show didn’t make the cut. Neither did Arnie, which starred Herschel “Charlie the Tuna” Bernardi. And neither did Me and the Chimp. Instead CBS announced it was scheduling some new comedies called M*A*S*H and Cousin Maude and one with Bob Newhart. They all did slightly better than a sitcom with a chimp and Ted Bessell, which was pulled after 13 weeks.

If you wonder why Bessell did the show, he told Gannett News Service’s Tom Green in 1972 “‘It's crazy,’ I said. ‘I'm not going to do a show with a monkey.’ Well, my manager read it and said it was good. Then I read it and I thought it was funny.” Gillette’s memory of the show wasn’t fun to Gannett’s Mike Hughes in 1985. She said “Working with the chimps wasn’t as bad as working with Ted Bessell. I think he was having a nervous breakdown.” (Bessell denied having a breakdown but admitted “I don’t think I was in terrific condition at the time”).

Whether Gillette or Bessell got new managers with better advice is unknown, but Bessell moved into directing while Gillette continued to appear on the stage and in television. In fact, Gillette is still working today and you can find out what she’s up to on her web site.


  1. For Ted Bessell, coming off such a successful run with " That Girl ", and taking the part in " Me and the Chimp " probably had him in a bad place mentally and morale wise. That has happened to a few actors/actresses. I remember the promos for the series back in 1972. Think I made it through one show. That's about all I remember about the series. Getting behind the camera helped Bessell a lot.

  2. I met her several times shortly after her husband died. She was coming out of semi-retirement to audition for the role of John Goodman's mom in a short-lived series. She was so sweet!!!

    1. Nice..I forgot about Yowp's abo ve comment at the toip, I like Ania Gillette, too, now that I remember her (still alive) and from that show..