Thursday, December 22, 2011

Bye Bye, Bob.

Bob and his books.

Little Dougie has something to say today, so I'll turn things over to him while I have a drink. Cheers darlings.

I am VERY saddened to learn that my friend and teacher Robert Easton has died.

In the Los Angeles Times obit that ruined my morning today, it mentions that he taught at USC, and that is where I met him, when I took a course in stand-up comedy from him there in 1978. George Wallace (The black stand-up comic, not the white racist governor) and Glen Super were also in the class. Everything he taught us was of value. His formula for a great stand-up act: "Have a strong opening, a great middle, and a terrific closing, and you'll do well." He was right.

"This is the Seaview submarine. We have Peter Lorre on board, and a very stupid script. Please send help, or at least a better script."

But more than class, I enjoyed our going out for a bite after, and listening to his tales of his amazing career. I'd relate his hilarious Peter Lorre story (They worked together in the movie of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, as seen above) except you have to hear it for it to work.

We had a four week break in the class schedule while Bob went to Spain to coach Lord Laurence Olivier on his accent for The Boys From Brazil. I was OK with that, as I realized how much more coaching Olivier needed than I did.

Here's Bob's usual stereotyped image. He told me his character catchphrase was "I been kicked in the head by a mule."

"Howdy folks. This here is Petunia, my girl friend. I been kicked in the head by a mule."

I last saw him about three years ago, and we had a great chat. He was a kind and very intelligent man, genial and warm, with a keen sense of humor, and of course, the sharpest ear imaginable. I still have video of my old stand-up act, on which you can hear Bob introduce me from off-screen.

Bob was addicted to books, an addiction I share. His home, where he lived with his wife, June, to whom he was married for 44 years, was STUFFED with books. There were books everywhere, in every spare cubic inch. When he bought new cars, he wouldn't trade in the old ones. He kept them on his property, stuffed full of more books he had no more room for inside. This may sound eccentric to you, but it makes perfect sense to me. Everything Bob touched became a library.

It's funny how Bob is remembered as "The Henry Higgins of Hollywood," the ultimate dialect coach, because his acting career was enormous. He was on everything on TV, usually playing hillbilly hicks and hayseeds, and in hundreds of movies. He had a recurring role on The Burns & Allen Show as a young man who had been a student at USC for 9 years without ever coming close to graduating. This hit me ironically for two reasons: 1. I first met him as my teacher at USC, and secondly, because Bob was brilliant. As a kid, he first found fame as one of the Quiz Kids, a group of high-IQ child geniuses. At 19, he was initiated into Phi Eta Sigma, a national honorary scholastic fraternity for men. He often played idiots (who had been kicked in the head by mules), but out-of-character, he was super-intelligent. (Not that you'd know it by the screenplay he co-wrote for the ultra-kitchey sci-fi movie The Giant Spider Invasion.)

Perhaps the best way to remember Bob is to watch him work, so I'm embedding some of his work. This first clip is from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, so you can see him acting with Christopher Plummer and Bill Shatner. Bob is the raspy Klingon judge who sentences Kirk. Given his dialectical brilliance it's no surprise that he does a PERFECT Klingon accent. I'm sure he coached Plummer and Michael Worf on how to do proper Klingin accents. ("No Michael, you're doing a southeastern Klingon dialect. Worf is from North Kling. that's more like this...")

Here's a short funny clip from an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, in which he plays a cosmetologist, and wants to make sure you get that that is what he is.

Bob had worked with just about everyone I admire except Laurel & Hardy: as mentioned above, he even coached Olivier. He worked, as said above, with the divine Gracie Allen, a true comedy goddess, my fave Peter Lorre, and my idol Jack Benny. He even worked with Ray Harryhausen, as he is in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Here's a wonderful clip with lousy picture quality, of him on The Jack Benny Show. He is "Lem," the tall hillbilly who suffers a violent fate about 4 minutes into the clip.

And finally, here's an entire episode from the very first season of The Adventures of Superman with George Reeves. Bob was just 21 when he shot this. His role, as the Texan ham radio guy with one scene, is entirely in the second clip, but I thought I'd download all three parts, so you can watch the entire episode if you like. The main baddie is Russell Johnson, about 13 years before he was marooned on Gilligan's Island.

The nutty professor is Lucian Littlefield. Lucian worked with all the great comics. He was WC Fields's officious supervisor in the Fields masterpiece The Man on the Flying Trapeze. He was a veterinarian masquerading as a doctor to help Stan & Ollie snooker their wives in Laurel & Hardy's greatest movie, Sons of the Desert, and he often appeared on The Abbott & Costello Show.

Here is how Bob looked the last time I saw and spoke with him, still as gentle, kind, and fascinating as ever, though as you can see, in his later years, he cultivated this not-at-all attractive look with the beard untrimmed since about 1980. Good way to get cast in character parts, but then Bob never had any problems getting cast. He kept right on working, even shooting two movies this year. He was a working actor in Hollywood for 62 years! And bear in mind that, at 6 feet 4 and a half inches, he was an enormous man. He leaves behind a daughter and a grand-daughter. Bob was pretty grand himself, but he was as unassuming and modest a man as you will ever meet in Hollywood.

Bob's elderly Buffalo Bill look.

RIP Bob. You were a class act.


Lord Hamilton said...

Thanks Douglas for posting such a wonderful and fitting tribute to a genius, Robert Easton....and thanks for posting that benny sketch, I saw it a year ago and fell over laughing, but didn't recognize Easton, his scene being so quick....My God what a funny crowd of people in one sketch, I'm on old fan of Phil harris and Remley, myself, KNX Radio used to run the OLD Jack benny radio telecast on Saturday nights in LA and follow it with the Phil harriss Show from the late '40's...i'd listen to it on the way home from the Store and sit in the garage for an hour till it was all over...I can't help buy think that easton learned a lot from the Benny crowd, Douglas, Thank you for the bellylaughs, here!

Tallulah Morehead said...

You're welcome, your Lordship.

We call people geniuses in show biz all the time, but Bob Easton was literally a a genius, as in a tested and registered genius IQ.

Lisa McLeroy said...

Thanks for the nice tribute, Doug. Easton was definitely one-of-a-kind!! I met him several years ago and still have his business card!

Natalie Sztern said...

So rarely in Life we meet people who stand alone and above everyone else and they are usually and mostly the most unassuming: to them everyone is equal no matter what stage of life you play on.

I am sorry for your loss

Tallulah Morehead said...

Bob couldn't help standing above everyone else; he was six feet four and a half inches.