Wednesday, 7 October 2020

From Umquaw to Siegfried

Get Smart may have been the best satire on TV in its early episodes. It took the spy movie genre and made it silly.

One of the recurring characters was Siegfried, the Nazi mastermind of the enemy agency KAOS, played wonderfully by Bernie Kopell. Siegfried tried to maintain an aura of stiff militarism while trying to appear threatening. Kopell wasn’t way over the top, but he didn’t treat the character all that seriously.

Kopell went on to arguably greater fame on The Love Boat, but Siegfried is still my favourite role of his. At the same time, he was also appearing occasionally on That Girl in a ho-hum role as Marlo Thomas’ neighbour. But his career went back a little further. He aspired to be a Shakespearean but it didn’t quite work out that way.

First up is a column from the Pittsburgh Press of October 20, 1964. Kopell was appearing in guest roles on TV and in several movies at the time. Next is what looks to be an NBC publicity handout that appeared in a number of papers in mid-March 1969.

Actor's Ideals By The Boards


You may never have heard of Bernie Kopell but you may soon, the man's that ambitious.
Kopell is a television actor who's maybe halfway there—past the starving stage, but not yet a star.
I'm saying I knew Bernie Kopell when—early.
Seven years ago, Kopell and I were able bodied seamen aboard the U.S.S. Iowa, a showboat battleship in a peacetime Navy.
He had the library watch; I mimeographed the ship's news.
When not forced to perform his hated nautical duties, Kopell talked about things like Shaw's "Doctor's Dilemma" and the idealistic ego of Howard Roark in Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead."
He also said he wanted to be a straight, dramatic actor. Shakespeare, mostly. He called himself a "classical purist."
A week ago, Kopell played a comical Indian on "Petticoat Junction."
And was glad to do it. He says he's "grateful to be where I am."
Yes, he has swallowed a false pride, deflated his stuffed shirt ideals.
Because of that, he Is making it in Hollywood. He may make it big.
"My secret hope," he said on the telephone yesterday, "is that Steve Allen comes up with that second show for CBS. If he does, I'm his boy, his number-one comic."
Kopell has appeared on the Allen show 27 times. He has done seven shows for Danny Kaye, four for Jack Benny and co-starred in a "My Favorite Martian." And he has done a pilot for a prospective new TV series called "Sally And Sam," the latest in the intern cycle with Gary Lockwood and Cynthia Pepper.
His movie credits include "Good Neighbor Sam" with Jack Lemmon, "The Thrill Of It All" with Doris Day and the not-yet-released "The Loved Ones."
Someone Else's Opinions
Whatever happened to Bernie Kopell, purist?
"I felt I was hung up on all that training," he said. "Sometimes you use someone else's opinions as your own. Out of respect to them, you say what they say, not what you say."
Kopell, 31, is Brooklyn-born and New York University-educated.
Perhaps in his haste to leave the dese and dose files of Flatbush, he became too impressed with absent-minded professors and serious-minded acting instructors. "The image was too fixed in my mind," he said. "Didn't you," he asked, "ever want to be a diamond merchant instead of a newspaper man?"
Going from the actor's Utopia to Umquaw, the "Petticoat Junction" Indian, "is not a comedown," he said.
"My own personal nature has always been to be a funny guy. Now I really dig the stuff as work," he said. "I develop character comedy. I've been called a comedic actor."
And—most importantly—he says he can't remember when he last missed a week's work.
What about in the beginning?
"It was impossible. I drove a cab, washed dishes, the whole smear. Actually, I wasn't able to build up enough to get a decent wage from the unemployment people."
That was about four years ago.
One day a fellow cabbie told him they were looking for somebody for "The 49th Cousin," a play which bombed on Broadway.
Hit Play Opens Things
In Hollywood, it ran eight months and Bernie received "fantastic" reviews. "It kind of opened things up."
Now he drives a big, new car. "It's the first new one I ever owned and it's kind of thrilling."
He wears $125 suits and his apartment has "two bedrooms and a nice back yard."
To do the "Sally And Sam" pilot, he turned down work in "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Wendy And Me."
He spoke of the Hillbillies and Wendy in the same reverential tones he once used for Shaw and Shakespeare.
"Hollywood is like a whole new world," he said.
"People swing here. Marriages last eight months—like mine."
Meanwhile, he keeps working. He did a TV pilot, too, with Dennis Day and Hal March. And he has talked with David Susskind.
Bernie Kopell is not just getting a plug today from an old Navy buddy.
Instead, this Is a column on just one of a thousand actors who once was choked by Shakespearean sawdust . . .
One of a thousand clowns now making a little money . . .
One of a thousand who wanted to play Macbeth but will now settle for Macbeth's ambition.

Bernie Kopell Alias Siegfried Gets Laughs
HOLLYWOOD—Bernie Kopell wanted to be taken seriously, but everyone laughed at him.
"I started out as a terribly formal, serious student of drama at New York University," he said. "I was doing straight things and they were coming out funny. I was getting unintentional laughs."
Gradually, as he realized that he wasn't getting anywhere as a dramatic actor, Bernie made the transition to what seemed more in character.
That's how he happens now to be playing Siegfried, the head of KAOS, on "Get Smart," colorcast over the NBC Television Network Saturdays. He will be featured in particular in a two-parter, "The Not-So-Great Escape," March 22 and 29.
Kopell described Siegfried as the "non-smiling, angry, vicious leader of a corrupt organization. He is supercilious. He tries to control himself but it's a veneer. He is constantly frustrated and loses control. Kids love it. People enjoy it. It makes them laugh."
Kopell personally is more like the "sympathetic, nice guy next door" which he portrays in "That Girl," starring Mario Thomas.
In fact, Siegfried is Kopell's first German character.
"My agent called me one day and asked if I could do a German, Bernie recalled. "I did a Viennese accent, which is too soft. Then I did a movie-German." At one time Bernie was typecast as a Latin.
"This was back in '61," he said. "Things couldn't have been worse. I was working on an estate, mowing the lawn, and living in the toolshed.
"My agent asked if I could do a Latin American. I did an imitation and got the role of a Latin American heavy on a daytime serial, 'The Brighter Day,' for three months. For the two years I did Mexicans."
Kopell does not consider himself an impressionist, though.
"I don't do stars," he said. "I'm just not interested in that. I do characters, like a 70 year-old Chinese trying desperately to do all the parts in 'Hamlet.' I also do 'Japan's foremost comedian'."
Kopell does not think of himself as a comic. Right now he sees himself as a "comedy character actor." He hopes to emerge eventually as a "comedian."
"I would like to promote just one image," he said. "It's becoming easier and easier to appear as myself now because I am becoming less and less afraid to succeed as myself. As you develop inner security, nothing bothers you any more and you don't try for masks."
Meantime, he has three "masks" going for him—his work in TV commercials, Mr. Nice Guy of "That Girl," and Siegfried. His disguises are sometimes a little too effective for ego satisfaction.
"People who know me don't know it's me," he said of his "Get Smart" role.
Even executive co-producer Sam Denoff of "That Girt" had a delayed reaction. According to Bernie, Denoff saw an episode of "Get Smart" and suddenly exclaimed, "Hey, that's Bernie! He's on our show!"
Bernie admits that at times he's mistaken for Arte Johnson, who portrays the "verrry in-ter-esting" German on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" over NBC-TV.
"We both wear glasses," said Bernie. "People mistake me for him. Then they say, 'You look like Arte Johnson, only taller'." Bernie recently turned the tables on Arte. He walked up to Arte and said, "You know who you look like? A short Bernie Kopell."


  1. Bernie is definitely the " Mister Everyman " of acting. I remember an early appearance on " The Jack Benny Program " during one of Jack's many " Talent Show " episodes. A Knife throwing act that ends in disaster. But, who would expect less from a Benny " Talent Show " segment?" Siegfried was Kopell's signature character without doubt, and one of my favorites. He could wear many masks and be believable,and bankable.

  2. Coincidentally, Arte Johnson also did a hilarious turn on the Benny program, playing the part of a boom mike operator who became angry with Jack over the way he was telling a joke.

  3. Kopel will ALWAYS be Siegfried to me. My favorite line of his comes in an episode where Max and Siegfried are disarming themselves prior to negotiating for hostages - the ususal guns, knives, etc. Max puts up his suicide pill, and Siegfried offers his suicide ring. Max: A suicide ring? How does it work?" Siegfried: "If I ever take it off my wife will KILL me!"