Sunday, July 15, 2018

façade: Dick Shawn a much-needed word about Ernie Kovacs
The late comic Dick Shawn popped up in my mind recently when I found myself reading an old Dave Kehr DVD critique of Blake Edwards' sadly neglected 1966 wartime comedy, "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?"

Dave jogged my memory with his generous mention of Shawn's performance in the film: "... the picture really belongs to the innovative stand-up comedian Dick Shawn, here in his most significant movie role."

Yes, his most significant movie role - unfortunately. For us.

Born Richard Schulefand in 1923, Shawn died of a heart attack in 1987 at age 65 and he was yet another example of a talent  misunderstood and misused by Hollywood, wasted in small roles in films that starred other people - supporting (and hilariously, I hasten to add) Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in "The Producers" (1967) and Natalie Wood in "Penelope" (1966).

He never quite made the leap to the kind of name-over-the-title parts that went to Jack Lemmon, whose roles Shawn could have handily played. ("Some Like It Hot"? "Mister Roberts"?) Both he and Tony Randall pretty much lived in Lemmon's shadow, perhaps getting Jack's castoffs. They were all the same and yet each man was different

In the scheme of things, Jack was the normal everyman, Tony was the urbane neurotic and Dick was very definitely the sexy cool cat.

This was evident in Stanley Kramer's ensemble comedy, "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." where, stripped down to a vintage red squarecut bathing suit, Shawn did a wild twist with that eternal dish, Barrie Chase.

Shawn was a leading man trapped in a comic's career.

After years doing stand-up in clubs and on television, Shawn made his movie debut in 1960 - "and introducing Dick Shawn" - for director Mervyn LeRoy in Twentieth Century-Fox's pleasing "Wake Me When It's Over," based on Howard Singer's 1959 novel about military bureaucracy and the teasing, newly-found sexual freedom being tested at the time.

The great cast, which LeRoy reportedly selected to closely match the characters in Singer's book, includes Ernie Kovacs (and more about him later), Jack Warden, Don Knotts, Marvin Kaplan, Raymond Baily, Nobu McCarthy and Margo Moore.

Shawn's next film came three year's later -  Kramer's "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" - followed by Michael Gordon's 1965 "A Very Special Favor," with Rock Hudson and Leslie Caron, Edwards' "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?" and two more 1966 films, Arthur Hiller's "Penelope" and Gordon Douglas's Jerry Lewis film, "Way ... Way Out." He gave a rare dramatic turn in Richard Brooks' "The Happy Ending" in 1969 and, of course, there was Mel Brooks' "The Producers," but the remainder of his filmography is negligible. His movie career should have been better.

Minor film roles and a lot of forgettable TV monopolized the rest of his career. Shawn's last film, released in 1988 after his death, was "Rented Lips" for Robert Downey, Sr. in which he co-starred with Martin Mull, Jennifer Tilly and Robert Downey, Jr.

In 1964, Shawn interrupted his then-young movie career to do the stage comedy, "Peterpat," written by Enid Rudd, co-starring the also much-missed Joan Hackett and directed by Joe Layton. It's what Broadway types call "a two-hander." Dick Shawn and Joan Hackett? Together. On stage. Sure, "Peterpat" flopped and closed after 21 performances, but it sounds like absolute heaven to me.

If only they had made a film together, something that would have lived on.

Or did they?

Notes in Passing: Getting back to Ernie Kovacs, this late, great comic actor is also long overdue for a rediscovery. Sure his TV standup routines have been showcased on DVD but how about a boxed set of the films he made for Columbia? That would include Sir Carol Reed's "Our Man in Havana" (1959), Irving Brecher's "Sail a Crooked Ship" (1961), with Robert Wagner and Delores Hart, and three titles that he made with Richard Quine, "Operation Madball" (1957), "Bell, Book and Candle" (1958) and "It Happened to Jane" (1959). And his fourth film for Quine and Columbia - 1960's "Strangers When We Meet"- has undergone a well-deserved rediscovery and re-evaluation in recent years.

"Peterpat" opened at the Longacre Theater on January 6th, 1965 and closed on January 23rd. It played nine previews (starting on December 29th, 1964), before its opening, and as noted, 21 regular performances.

Shawn also did a "two-hander" - with Anne Bancroft - for ABC Stage67. It was an original TV play titled "I'm Getting Married," written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and directed by Gerald Freedman.

It aired - live - on March 16th, 1967.

Finally, by all means, check out the aforementioned review of Edwards'  "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?" that Dave Kehr wrote for The New York Times way back on June 3rd, 2008.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

(from top)

~Dick Shawn with David Hartman in a scene from the "Glass Cage" episode of "The Bold Ones"
~photography: Universal Television/NBC 1971©

~Shawn and Barrie Chase in a scene from "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" 
~photography: United Artists 1963©

~Poster art for Twentieth Century-Fox's "Wake Me When It's Over"

~Shawn with Natalie Wood in "Penelope"
~photography: MGM 1966©

~Playbill for "Peterpat"

~Ernie Kovacs, circa 1960


diane said...

Thank you for putting a spotlight on Dick Shawn. He truly was a unique talent and I for one miss him very much.

Harry Kain said...

I loved watching these movies with my mom. I have been looking for films like these because I consider them funnier and more entertaining than some of the garbage that is being served to us as entertainment today. I liked both Dick Shawn & Ernie Kovacs back in the 60'S. Genuine comics who didn't need to swear to be funny.

David said...

He always struck me as an unfunny loser. Annoying and deserving of his relative obscurity. =D

Billy from Philly said...

Hey David,
Are you a Jerry Lewis impersonator?
Dick Shawn just wasn't your thing but
other comics loved him

Mike Schlesinger said...

1) I disagree a little with your basic thesis. Like his MAD WORLD co-star, Jonathan Winters, his was a unique and distinctive talent; it made him difficult to cast. Yes, he could have played Lemmon roles, but it would have been a waste of his talent, not unlike putting Clint Eastwood in a slapstick comedy. The kind of off-the-wall roles he excelled at were hard to find, especially in an era that discouraged experimentation. Which leads me to--

2) Small correction: His next film after WAKE ME was THE WIZARD OF BAGHDAD, a rare leading role for him. And a bad one. See #1 again.

3) All of Kovacs' Columbia features have been released already on DVD, making a box set somewhat redundant. (Plus in most of them he's in a supporting role.)

Brian Lucas said...

I agree with Mike. Dick Shawn fell somewhere between Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams - although Williams certainly adapted to mainstream comedy roles.

joe baltake said...

Thanks to Mike & Brian. I agree that Shawn could have taken the same movie route as Robin Williams. As for his lead role in "The Wizard of Baghdad," which if I recall co-starred the divine Diane Baker and another neglected talent Barry Coe, that's not saying much - although, Mike, your mention of this curiosity makes me want to see it again. -J

Keith Woronov said...


After reading your post on Dick Shawn and the comments which followed, I am inclined to think that the REAL issue is not whether Shawn achieved the status or fame which he "deserved" in his lifetime, but rather that he appeared in a LOT of films that were very good to excellent (which most people have never seen or even heard of) REGARDLESS of Shawn's participation in them, like: WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY?; WAKE ME WHEN IT'S OVER; A VERY SPECIAL FAVOR; WAY WAY OUT; PENELOPE; HAPPY ENDING. I believe all these films were financial flops, but "deserved" to be seen by much larger audiences upon their releases.


Keith Woronov

Kevin Barry said...

Shawn starred in a Broadway musical called I'm Solomon that lasted about a week in 1968. The score was by film composer Ernest Gold. I clearly remember seeing the marquee at the Mark Hellinger Theatre (which is now a church!).

joe baltake said...

Tim- I agree with your astute assessment of Shawn as both a comic and an actor. He was edgier and more cerebral (as you put it) than Lemmon and not as manic as Williams (or Jonathan Winters for that matter). He was completely unto himself. Unique. Too bad the entertainment industry didn't try to accommodate that. -J

k.o. said...

my first husband (m.1963 - 1968) bore a striking resemblance to Dick Shawn and remembered Shawn performing when husband was a summer waiter in one of the borscht belt hotels ("where you get snow blind from the sour cream"). This was a very thoughtful column and while I never really thought about Dick Shawn, I remember liking him in the movies you mentioned. I probably would have gone to see Peterpat if there wasn't so much great theatre going on at the same time. Thanks for this one. k.

Mike Schlesinger said...

My own memory of Shawn dates back to Dayton in the '60s, during the era of Kenley Players, which each summer did a season of Broadway shows with pretty good names as stars. They normally sold out the fairly large Memorial Hall, especially when favorite son Paul Lynde appeared. But one year they'd scheduled THE SHOW-OFF, starring Shawn, and ticket sales were inexplicably dismal. The night I went, the place was more than half-empty, the only time that ever happened in my memory.

Here's how Shawn reacted to this fiasco: Each night after the show, he remained onstage after the curtain call and did half an hour of stand-up. He didn't have to do it, but he wanted to; it was his way of thanking the audience for coming to what was clearly not a top-shelf play. Can't tell you how much that impressed me.

wwolfe said...

I've always thought that Shawn lived a generation or so too soon. He, I believe, would have had a chance to find better vehicles for his unusual abilities in an era when unconventional personalities as diverse as Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Will Ferrell, and various other alums of SNL, SCTV, the Groundlings, etc., have been able to sustain successful movie careers.

Paul said...

I saw Shawn, for the third and last time, in L.A. doing his act at a small theatre a year or two before he died. I have to disagree with you about the type of comic that he was. I agree that he was miscast, but to put him in the Lemmon roles in Some Like It Hot or Mister Roberts would have been even worse miscasting. His stand-up work was cerebral, to say the least, and very free form, but in no way manic like Robin Williams. He was a wonderful actor in general.

What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? was the film that opened the first multiplex (two screens) in Delaware County, PA. It was about a half-mile away from my dad's store and we were there for opening night. I was a kid, so the main thing I remember was that both screens had no curtains. Just blackout strips that would drop down to border the image. But hey, when you're 14, watching a fairly subtle comedy, that's what you remember.