Actor regrets never playing Bard's clowns
The Calgary Herald
Wednesday, June 7, 1989
Byline: Martin Morrow
On a desk in Gale Gordon's Calgary hotel room is a biography of the late Richard Burton.
That's not surprising. Once asked to name an actor he greatly admired, Burton immediately replied "Gale Gordon." And Gordon speaks
with genuine fondness of the one time they appeared together, on a memorable 1970 episode of Here's Lucy.
"I had a ball working with him," he says. "I couldn't keep a straight face, and neither could he, during our rehearsals. The show had a tight
schedule with only four days rehearsal from the time you got the script to the time shooting (began.) It was hard work and to ease the
tension, I would often say some stupid thing to Lucy on my re- entrances. But with Burton, every time I came in I'd recite a different line
from Shakespeare. It broke him up completely."
In fact, it's one of the 83-year-old actor's few regrets in his long career that he's never had a chance to play the great Shakespearean
clowns. The man who perfected the part of the lovable grouch on TV's Our Miss Brooks, Dennis the Menace and Lucille Ball's long-running
situation comedies, admits he'd love to have done the porter in Macbeth or the gravedigger in Hamlet.
But when he opens tonight in Stage West's Mass Appeal, he'll be performing a meatier role than he's usually associated with. The part of
Father Tim, the prosperous Catholic priest in Bill C. Davis's two-character comedy, has more dramatic depth than the three previous plays
Gordon has done at the local dinner theatre.
It also has more lines.
"This play is very hard work," he confides. "There's only two of us on the stage for a couple of hours and there's a lot of talk. It's
He and co-star Kevin Hare have already done the show for a couple of months at Edmonton's small Mayfair Dinner Theatre. After the
Calgary run, he's hoping to return to his California home "for a good long rest."
In the last decade, Gordon has spent a lot of time in Canada, appearing regularly at the Stage West venues. The return to the theatre has
brought his career full circle. It began in the 1920s when, as a 17-year-old understudy in a Broadway comedy starring Richard Bennett, he
was called on to sub for an ailing actor. Blessed with a deep voice, he eventually wound up in radio, playing heavies or leading men -
including a stint opposite erstwhile silent-screen star Mary Pickford.
He hit his comic stride in the late '40s on Eve Arden's popular radio series Our Miss Brooks, which transferred to television in 1952. He was
a TV veteran when he took on his most famous assignment as comic foil to the madcap Ball on The Lucy Show and its successor, Here's
Gordon has happy memories of his 11 seasons with the beloved comedienne, who died in April. They were reunited briefly, in 1986, on
her disastrous "comeback" sitcom, Life With Lucy. While he says the show "could have been much, much better," it did give them a
chance to share some laughs over how absurdly complicated and expensive television has become.
He recalls how they were sitting backstage once, waiting to make an entrance, when a remote-controlled cue light didn't come on. The
shooting, which Gordon says ran to about $300,000 per episode, ground to a halt as technicians tried to find out what was wrong. "This
was costing about $1,000 for every three minutes that nothing was happening," he explains. "They found out, after 20 minutes, that a
battery which cost 35 cents was dead."
By then, he and Lucy were in stitches. "She was laughing, because it wasn't her money, and I couldn't believe that this could actually
happen! When she started doing (TV), the entire cost of a show was $25,000 - and that included the film. The cost is absolutely ridiculous
now and the results aren't any better."
Also adorning the hotel room is a recent photo of Gordon wearing a ludicrous toupee. He explains it's a souvenir from his cameo role in
last year's Tom Hanks film, The 'Burbs. "I've never (framed) a still," he says, "but Virginia (his wife) said I've got to have this up!"
He adds that Hanks was "charming." But then, he has kind words for most of the stars he's worked with over the years. Among them was
Elvis Presley, with whom he appeared in the 1968 movie musical Speedway. ""He was then a modest, good-looking, talented boy. He
never argued with the director. You'd never know he was a big star.""
Gordon is less kind when he assesses the current TV comedy scene. He has praise for Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby, but not much else.
Declaring he seldom watches sitcoms these days, he dismisses the majority of them in his inimitably irritable style. "I don't like looking at
people who think they're funny."