Saturday, January 14, 2017

façade: dick gautier

Dick Gautier, the one and only Conrad Birdie, at the 1960 recording of the Broadway cast album

Anyone who keeps up with this site is familiar with my disdain for George Sidney's 1963 movie version of the terrific Broadway musical, "Bye Bye Birdie."  Columbia approved so many unnecessary changes that one wonders why the studio even purchased the film rights to the show in the first place. And don't get me started (again) on the casting of Ann-Margret.

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.

And in Bud Yorkins' "Divorce American Style," released in 1967, Gautier played Dick Van Dyke's attorney, handling his divorce from Debbie Reynolds. Van Dyke also has a history with the actor who played Reynolds' lawyer - Shelley Berman.  The two had starred in the musical revue, "The Girls Against the Boys," which was toplined by Bert Lahr and Nancy Walker and opened in 1959, a year before "Bye Bye Birdie."

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.


Charlotte said...

A funny man with - you're right - amazing good looks. I'm sure he was an influence on Patrick Warburton who played David Puddy on "Seinfeld" and has the same comic timing and handsome looks.

wwolfe said...

Gautier was also a talented artist. My wife and I stumbled across his web site ( last year when we looked him up at Wikipedia and were impressed by his work. I sure wish he'd played Conrad Birdie in the movie! Thanks for the nice appreciation of his work.

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Bill. Yes, I'm aware of Gautier's talent as a caricaturist and cartoonist. However, I didn't learn about it until his passing. Quite a revelation. Talented man.

Janine said...

Joe! I remember seeing Gautier in "Bye Bye Birdie" at the Shubert Theater in Philadelphia when I was a kid. My first Broadway show.