Tuesday, July 28, 2009
My Interview With Kip King-7/23/09
I'm on record as being a big fan of character actors. Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Kip King, a man who has been working in show business since the mid-fifties, often in small but memorable roles in television and film. As I've noted, my son and I have been watching episodes of the Adam West BATMAN series. Last week, we watched an atypical episode in which one of the Joker's henchmen was actually given a character, a personality and even scenes away from his "boss." And he made the most of the role, creating a well-acted, funny and memorable minion for the clown prince of crime. It got my attention. I looked him up. Kip King. Hey, I knew that name! He was Tailor Smurf on THE SMURFS! He also appeared on many TV series episodes, both classics and completely forgotten ones. Oh, and he's also the father of currently popular actor Chris Kattan. I took the chance of contacting him for a brief interview about BATMAN and THE SMURFS but before I knew it, I was in the middle of a long, rambling and wonderful conversation with this man who knew and worked with nearly everybody from Jack Benny and Stan Laurel to Tom Hanks and Keanu Reaves. Here's part one in which we discuss, amongst other things, old time radio, Stan Laurel, Red Skelton and Cesar Romero's mustache. Let me know what you think and if you'd be interested in seeing more character actor interviews here at the Library.
BOOKSTEVE-Okay, since we have to start somewhere, how did you get involved in show business in the first place?
KIP KING-Oh my God. This is gonna be a seven hour interview! (laughter) Well, I came out here from Chicago. I was an amateur magician and ventriloquist and came out here in 1952 when I was...my parents got divorced and I was fifteen. We moved to Hollywood. I'd always dreamt of being in the movies and within one year of moving in, I had a television series at CBS called THE ALDRICH FAMILY. At the age of sixteen. Co-STARRING and under contract to CBS.
B-Who did you play on it?
K-Homer. Homer Brown.
B-You're not gonna believe this! I played Homer Brown on stage with Ezra Stone who played the original Henry Aldrich!
K-Where was this?
B-Radio re-creation in Cincinnati about sixteen years ago, the year before his death.
K-Ezra directed me in MY LIVING DOLL.
B-He was marvelous!
K-My friend Ronnie Schell kept saying, "Visit Ezra Stone. Visit Ezra Stone." He wrote me a letter after I did LIVING DOLL complimenting me on the part. Very few directors do that.
B-I thought Ezra was one of the most nurturing people as far as acting goes. I've done a lot of the radio re-creations in the past twenty years and usually you get a script, you get up there and you read but Ezra sat down with me beforehand and told me to always play off the other actors even if you're reading from a script.
K-Jackie Kelk. Did you ever meet him?
B-Did not. I know he was doing the re-creations around that same time but he never came to the convention.
K-Well, he was very self-defeating. He lived in the Valley. You know SPERDVAC?
K-I've been a member of SPERDVAC for ages 'cause I'm a big fan. Jackie Kelk was going to one of the conventions and he was in AA and...he's dead now but he kept referring to it. Very self-defeating. He was not proud of himself. I think he had a slip--not at the time but I mean, he slipped off. He had some bad years and he was very self-defeating. A lot of the people in old-time radio had their GOOD time and then they lost it. They didn't as human beings grow out of that.
K-You know what I'm saying? They didn't know what to do with their lives without the gig. I talked to John Milton Kennedy, LUX RADIO THEATRE host (announcer) and he just had nothing to say except anecdotes about LUX--about working. To me they're very sad because I think work is a means to an end and it's not the end in itself. This was quite sad for me.
B-Bob Hastings, whom I've worked with over the years at Cincinnati, isn't like that.
K-I worked with Bob on some re-creations of early television shows that somebody wanted to market. I would play, like, Dean Martin and he would be some sort of announcer and...yes, and ARCHIE ANDREWS...the other guy who did Jughead...
K-Yes, he also did re-creations but Bob Hastings always had a lot to do. He was in McHALE'S NAVY wasn't he?
B-Yeah. I always say I've learned more about acting from sitting next to Bob at these re-creations! This year's guest was Eddie Carroll.
K-Oh! Eddie is a DEAR friend!
B-He was marvelous! Very enjoyable.
K-We did "Dueling Benny's." Bob Lynnes had Hal Goldman on one time and I call on the phone and I say, (as Jack Benny), "Hello, Hal. This's Jack Benny and I...didn't like the script today...and I'll tell you why. It's not your fault and it's not mine...or these damn GLASSES!" And you know, I play these things back and it's a dead ringer. A dead Ring-er! So Eddie and I would be out doing interviews for a commercial and I'd say, (as Jack), "Well, I'm first!" and he'd say, "Well, I signed in!" and I'd say, "Well you signed in with another name!" "Don't let him get the part!" (laughter) Go ahead with your questions or this is gonna take six years!
B-Okay, then, what were some of your favorite experiences in early television?
K-Well, I tell ya, it was absolutely amazing to be thrust into this stuff. One of the weirdest things was I ad-libbed on PLAYHOUSE 90. And almost killed the show! The director, Buzz Kulik, said, "I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe what you did. Later on--years later--I happened to see this PLAYHOUSE 90 and it actually worked! It was called "A Trip to Paradise." (March 26, 1959) Burt Brinckerhoff and myself and supporting us were Robert Blake, Dyan Cannon...they were all teenagers! Anyway, In the beginning we had this thirteen minute scene--LIVE--he's talking about this girl he met, Ellie, and how beautiful she was and there's this whole thing...there's a murder and Ellie this and...after that I'm out of the whole show until the end of the show, right? So I see him again and he's been through...they've beaten him up. He's walking with a limp. He's got a hat on and I see him on the boardwalk and I say, "Ray! Ray!" and he turns around...They'd never rehearsed with bandages! I never even saw...So I say, "Oh, you got cut up there." (laughter) I ad-libbed that! I said "You got cut up..." when I saw the tape--but what I had thought I said was, "Oh, you got a little cut there." So, the guy had been really beaten up and I thought I'd said, "Oh, you got a little cut there." But when I saw it all those years later, it worked. Plus, I ad-libbed on THE JACK BENNY SHOW, too! Now this was never, ever, ever done! Benny Rubin came over to me after and said, "I don't know what you just did but no one's ever done this." and luckily Jack says, "All right, keep it in!" Now this was Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner as guests. (March 6, 1960) I was supposed to deliver them a telegram and Jack Benny was teaching them Method acting. So they were all very deeply involved in whatever their dialogue was in this rehearsal for a television show that Jack was directing as a Method director. They were dressed as beatniks, right?
K-So he said, "Action" and Wagner says, "I wish that you would get some notice of what's going to happen." She says, "I'm waiting, I'm waiting." and I'm supposed to ring the bell and say "Telegram."
K-So I ring the bell, they open the door and I go, "Tele-GRAM!" And it absolutely worked. You know, I thought, I would be Method acting, too! No one had ever ad-libbed on THE JACK BENNY SHOW.
B-That's what I had always thought. (laughter)Speaking of great comedians, I read somewhere that you worked with Stan Laurel. Where was that?
K-Oh, Stan Laurel was my mentor!
K-I met him through Jerry Lewis. I was in the Jerry Lewis comedy workshop before I went in the Army and he said "You know, I just talked to Stan Laurel today." I said, "Really?" He said, "Yeah. He's in the phone book. Why don't you call him?" And he was! He was in the phone book in Santa Monica.
B-I heard Dick Van Dyke did that, too.
K-Yeah. Every star visited Stan but a lot of them, all they did was they brought their shit. Stuff to show him. But Chuck McCann and I became good friends of his. He left me his bow tie and cigarette case and we were very close. When I went to England, he opened the doors for me and went to the Command Performance. He was really the first movie star that I ever knew that was emotionally fit. Everybody else was fucked up to be honest with you. I was with Red Skelton for thirteen shows. He had me fired on the last show.
B-I've never heard much good about Red.
K-Really? I'm glad. He was a real son of a bitch. One day I was in the hall during rehearsal and I was humming a song. And Red says, "What's that?" I said, "I'm making up this song." He had me hum it and he said, "That was really nice." That night, David Rose premiered a new composition by Red Skelton...MY song!
B-Sadly, I believe it.
K- He stole it. Absolutely true. Dave O'Brien was one of his writers...from the Pete Smith shorts. And Seymour Burns directed him and he directed THE ALDRICH FAMILY. The first pilot. We made two pilots. The first was live on kinescope and I'd love to get it. No one has it. The second I'd also love to get was made for Desilu, Lucy and Desi bought the rights. We made the pilot and we did three camera--with an audience and it was ready to go on slate with CBS in the fall and instead they put on GUNSMOKE...which I understand did pretty well.
B-Wow. Well, let's move up to 1966. What about BATMAN?
B-Were you familiar with the show at all? Had it already become the phenomenon that it became?
K-It was JUST hitting its peak. A friend of mine, Stanley Ralph Ross, had written some of the scripts. I don't know if you know who he is?
B-Oh, of course!
K-He was a good friend and he just called Larry Stewart who I knew from before and he was casting it and Larry called me in for this BATMAN show and I had seen it. I liked it and I read for this and...you know it just fit like a glove. It just was one of those things! I've done several shows that just fit! MY FAVORITE MARTIAN and a lot of work on the Desilu lot after I did a lot of live TV. I did all the live shows for seven years. Then I started doing filmed stuff like BEN CASEY...well, anyway, let's stick with Desilu. Well this wasn't Desilu, this was...
K-Yeah. Where I did TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH. So....I got the part and it just turned out to be enormously supportive. The rest of the cast except for Cesar Romero who was pretty much of an asshole.
K-Well, okay, I won't call him an asshole. He wasn't a bad guy. He just was removed. Didn't want to participate with anyone else. "AH, yah! This make-up hurts. I'll do it and get outa here!" He didn't visit. So strike "asshole." Sorry, folks. Cesar Romero was not an asshole! I had written a show for Betty Hutton with him! I wrote THE BETTY HUTTON SHOW...I'm sorry to keep digressing but I was hired as an actor, became her lover and wrote the show so that's an interesting story in itself.
B-I was going to ask how you got involved in writing and why you never did more of it.
K-(laughter) Well, because I wrote during the writers' strike! Wasn't a member of the union!
B-Thaaaat would explain that.
K-Well, I wrote this show for her and Cesar Romero and (on BATMAN) I said, "I wrote that show for you, remember?" and he said, (in Cesar Romero's voice), "I do so many." The Joker worked very well for him, though, didn't it?
B-That's very true but according to some sources, that role was originally meant for Jose Ferrer!
K-Was it?? (laughter)
B-That's what I've read.
K-Quite possibly true. He didn't do any of those though, did he?
B-No, which is too bad because his son, Miguel, went on to be a big comics fan. Imagine if his dad had been the Joker! Up close could you see Cesar's mustache?
K-Oh, of course.
B-Maybe it's because I was a kid but I never did and now that's all I see when I look at him in that makeup! My son and I have been watching a lot of old episodes lately.
K-How old's your son?
K-Oh my God, cool!
B-The whole thing is that some of them were just ridiculous and silly but the early ones especially were really entertaining and good! Most of the humor in them came from everybody being serious. You, on the other hand, actually managed to be funny in it on purpose.
K-This was an ideal situation, to play a character who was...well, to play a character! Literally, a character. I WAS serious but I was able to do it in and out of the box at the same time.
B-Well, it stands out because so many of the other episodes those henchmen are just there. Sometimes two, sometimes four.You never know anything about them but their names and that's often only because they wear them on their shirts! But you actually got in a characterization.
K-Yeah, it really worked. I mean, I had a crush on Donna Loren....my character did. Everything was working. Also, we all got along very well. Would you know who that other guy was...the big guy who played the oaf with me? I can't remember his name.
K-Very nice. Quite removed and I know very much into psychedelics I think.
B-Well, it was that time, wasn't it?
K-Adam I knew from THE DETECTIVES and he was one of the nicest people I know. He had a sense of humor about his lack of ability all the time. Ever since he started. I mean, he has made a living NOT doing it well! BATMAN worked out so well for him it just was a miracle. It's wonderful. He's the sweetest guy in the world. He'll do anything Cesar Romero didn't do!
B-I remember at the time we all believed in Batman. All of us kids took him seriously when he said, "Make sure you buckle your seat belts, citizens," and all that. Wasn't like he was being silly at all or being ironic about it.
K- It was good stuff. Worked on so many levels.
B-During the fight scenes, how much of that was you and how much stuntmen?
K-I would say, almost 50-50. Obviously the close-ups were me. The heavy stuff was the stuntmen. I took the last few punches and fell but the medium and long-shots were them.
B-When they did the two episodes that were on Wednesday and Thursday, did they shoot them as one and just cut them into two?
K-No, each part was shot...part one first, then part two. It was directed by Oscar Rudolph who directed me in MY FAVORITE MARTIAN.
The illustrations of Kip in this piece come from episodes of the television series LONGSTREET (with Bruce Lee), MAN WITH A CAMERA (with Charles Bronson), BOSOM BUDDIES (with Tom Hanks) and BATMAN. The lovely late in life triptych of Stanley was borrowed from a wonderful site called http://lettersfromstan.com/stan_history.html . The photo of Eddie Carroll and Bob Hastings (with booksteve himself in the background!) was snapped by my lovely wife, Rene earlier this year.
Coming tomorrow, the second and final part of my interview with Kip King in which we discuss SMURFS, the Groundlings, looping and more on Stan Laurel! While you wait, check out Kip's website at http://www.kipking.actorsite.com/ .