Oh, what characters!

Aug 27, 2001  •  Post A Comment

When a grown TV critic starts getting weepy while watching an infomercial, it’s a sure sign that (A) it is time to adjust his medication, (B) he is pregnant, (C) he has just remembered that another TV season is right around the corner, or (D) the infomercial is for taped highlights from “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
The final answer is (D). And yes, the TV critic who got weepy is the one writing this column. There may be extenuating personal issues involved-problems with the IRS, insufficient income and so on. But the other day around 4 a.m., there he was, sitting in his underwear before the glow of his big Sony, watching clips of Carson with superstars and old ladies and monkeys and a talking bird or two and laughing and crying at once.
God, it was funny and, damn, it was sad. The Carson charisma was wondrous, those elegant Oliver Hardy takes to his “slave” camera were things of beauty, and the ability of the man to hold the throne for 30 years without ever threatening to wear out his welcome is awe-inspiring. Yeah, I’m a guy who still misses Johnny, and damn proud of it too.
Forward into the past: One of the best things the new technology can do is transport us back in time to days, and nights, that seemed richer, kinder, sweeter and much, much funnier. Johnny Carson, with admirable class, has walked off into the wings and stayed there, but you can get him back through the Internet. As reported recently in USA Today, all you have to do is visit Johnnycarson.com.
Which I did. I expected to hear Doc Severinsen and the old “Tonight Show” theme when I reached the Web site, but instead, there were just some random odd sound effects. But there’s also a trove of Carsoniana and, of course, the chance to buy some for yourself.
The multitape set of Carson highlights has been available for years, and it’s still selling on the Web. In addition, a new DVD version, with added footage, will be available next month and, how convenient, can be pre-ordered now. “Many of the extras included in this special edition,” the Web site says, “were recently discovered among the 4,000 episodes of `The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson’ stored 54 stories underground in a working salt mine outside Kansas City.”
Hey, Johnny – back to the salt mines, heh heh heh.
“Believed to be one of the largest single television archives in the world, the film and video repository is naturally climate-controlled and protected from both earthquakes and fire,” it says. Let’s hope that also goes for nuclear attack. Like the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, this is material that simply must not be allowed to perish.
NBC already destroyed dozens of hours of Carson’s “Tonight” shows-the oldest and thus potentially most valuable editions, from Carson’s first decade-because a number-crunching bean counter said it would be cost-effective to erase the tapes and record over Johnny. Talk about your indignities. Similar Philistines also destroyed many priceless hours of the “Tonight Show” when Jack Paar was its erudite and electrifying host.
Sid Caesar doesn’t have an infomercial but, like Carson, he does have a Web site: Sidvid.com, where you’re greeted with a chance to buy tapes of classic sketches and a huge lode of lore. Touchingly, the Web site is currently featuring tributes to Imogene Coca, Caesar’s recently deceased leading lady during his arguably funniest years, back when he did “Your Show of Shows.”
Caesar himself writes: “Imogene was something that was special, and when we worked together, it was just magic, and you don’t question the magic. There was no one like her back then. She was one of a kind.”
Buried treasures
Like Carson’s prodigious output, the work of Sid Caesar and his celebrated cronies is too good to lie in a vault or to be considered out of date. If it makes you laugh, and it probably will, dates are irrelevant. Caesar talked about that in an interview with Filmfax, my favorite movie magazine.
“In 1972, [producer] Max Liebman and I put out `10 from Your Show of Shows,”’ Caesar said. “That was released as a movie. Then, we tried to interest the networks in re-airing [the sketches]. These executives are all 28 to 32 years old, so they’ve never heard of me. They see it’s black-and-white and they don’t even look at it.”
In the interview, Caesar estimates that 4,500 hours’ worth of material has been preserved. And he says that some of his most ardent fan mail comes from kids and young adults discovering him for the first time.
For the Kathleen Freemans of the world, there are neither Web sites nor infomercials. Freeman was a longtime member of that vast army of durable character actors who specialize in comedy. She spent a half-century in show business and died late last week at the age of 78. I remember her best as the irked and astonished maid Katie on the TV-series version of “Topper”-always wondering why chairs and teapots were floating around the house (because ghosts George and Marion Kirby were carrying them).
Jerry Lewis loved her and used her in at least 10 of his movies. And she was employed at the time of her death, playing a key role in the Broadway musical “The Full Monty.” Kathleen Freeman was the full monty.
The Variety obit concludes, “She is survived by her best friend, Helen Ramsey.” Look out-here I go again. That kind of thing, a little succinct and revealing sentence like that, socks me right in the heart. Obits always say who people were survived by. They can’t say who they’ll be remembered by, because so many will remember. And that includes those who don’t even realize they remember.
Last Monday, Turner Classic Movies aired Mel Brooks’ riot “The Producers,” which is also currently a musical on Broadway. Robert Osborne, the TCM fixture who introduces the films, gave the standard intro to “Producers,” blab blab blab, Mel Brooks is a genius (debatable), blah blah blah. Couldn’t lazy Osborne have taken the trouble to point out that only two weeks earlier, “Producers” cast member Christopher Hewett had died at his home in Los Angeles? Couldn’t he have maybe shut the hell up about Mel Brooks and dedicated this airing to Hewett’s memory?
Hewett is best known for playing “Mr. Belvedere” in the ABC sitcom that ran from 1985-90. But all five years of that wasn’t the equal of Hewett’s five-or-so minutes in “The Producers,” wherein he played, fabulously, Roger DeBris, the worst director on Broadway. Hewett makes his entrance in a dress-correction, a gown-and has this exchange of dialogue with stars Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom:
Hewett: “Ah, Bialystock and Bloom I presume. Forgive the pun.”
Wilder: “What `pun’?”
Mostel (whispering): “Shut up. He thinks he’s witty.”
God, I love the character actors. I loved the group that worked on the Astaire-Rogers movies, I loved the gang that Preston Sturges assembled for his classic comedies, I loved the supporting cast-including Howard Morris and Carl Reiner-on Sid Caesar’s show.
I hate it when the stars go out, but in a way, I hate it even more when the great character actors leave and hardly anybody seems to notice. As with Willy Loman, attention must be paid to such people. They worked so hard and asked for so little fame in return. Quick-get me to the Internet!
And where the hell did I put that box of Kleenex?