Dick Gautier, the one and only Conrad Birdie, at the 1960 recording of the Broadway cast album
To his credit, Gene Saks honored the show with his excellent 1995 TV version of the show which, apart from the original stage production itself, remains the definitive "Bye Bye Birdie." I shudder to think what NBC will do with its planned "live" version of "Birdie" threatened for later this year.
But back to the truncated '63 film... Among the innumerable mistakes made by Sidney and Columbia was the decision not to cast the actor who created Conrad Birdie on stage in 1960. That would be Dick Gautier.
Instead the role went to Jesse Pearson, who played Birdie in one of its touring productions and brought a distinct smarminess to the character.
I would like to believe that Gautier was passed over because he simply was too old for the role when the movie was filmed. (The camera never lies when it comes to someone's age.) All I know is that I missed the sly humor that Gautier brought to the role, for which he was Tony-nominated.
The comedic touch that Gautier brought to Birdie was no accident. When he was spotted by director Gower Champion and cast in the role, Gautier was doing stand-up at The Blue Angel, opening for singer Margaret Whiting.. He was reportedly surprised when Champion offered him the role because he claimed he wasn't all that familiar with Elvis (on whom Birdie is based) or his music. He said that he preferred Gershwin.
The idea of Dick Gautier being a stand-up comic is one difficult to grasp because, well, he didn't look like a stand-up comic. He had the looks of a movie star. But after "Birdie," he went back to comedy, working with Mel Brooks and Buck Henry on "Get Smart" and with Brooks again on the promising but short-lived Robin Hood satire, "When Things Were Rotten."
Movie-wise, it is interesting to note that Gautier had roles in two films that reunited him with former "Birdie" cast members.
In his film debut in 1964 in Joshua Logan's "Ensign Pulver," he played the seabee Stefanowski among a crew that included Tommy Sands, James Coco, Jerry Orbach, James Farentino, Larry Hagman, Peter Marshall, Gerald O'Laughlin and, yes, Jack Nicholson. Kay Medford, who played Dick Van Dyke's mother in "Birdie" on stage, played a head nurse who gives Walter Matthau a difficult time while flirting with him. Given that "Pulver" was a released a year after the "Birdie" film, I've often wondered if Logan hired Gautier and Medford because both had been overlooked by Sydney and Columbia.
The sequence in "Divorce American Style" in which all four actors appear, hashing out the details of the divorce, is a comic high point of the film.
Dick Gautier died on January13th. He was 85. Long live Conrad Birdie.