Frank Gorshin

Riddler with a cackle in 'Batman'
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The Independent Online

A menacing cackle and lime leotard adorned with question-marks created the greatest impression of all in the career of Frank Gorshin, an actor previously best known on American television for his impersonations of show-business legends such as James Cagney, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Marlon Brandon, Al Jolson, Dean Martin and Bobby Darin.

Frank Gorshin, actor and impressionist: born Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 5 April 1933; married 1957 Christina Randazzo (one son); died Burbank, California 17 May 2005.

A menacing cackle and lime leotard adorned with question-marks created the greatest impression of all in the career of Frank Gorshin, an actor previously best known on American television for his impersonations of show-business legends such as James Cagney, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Marlon Brandon, Al Jolson, Dean Martin and Bobby Darin.

The Riddler was one of the arch-villains taking on the caped crusader in the television series Batman (1966-68), based on the comic-strip hero created by Bob Kane in 1939. Along with other such fiends as the Joker, Penguin and Catwoman, he tried to outwit Batman and Robin in a programme renowned for its bright colours, tilted camera angles, comic-book "Pow!", "Zap!" and "Bam!" caption bubbles - and over-the-top camp. For children it was exciting adventure, for adults tongue-in-cheek satire.

One typical episode had the Riddler plotting to steal a millionaire's silent-film collection and ransom it back, then kidnapping Robin with the aid of knockout gas - a regular tool used by Batman's enemies - and tying him to a conveyor belt heading towards a circular saw. By the time Batman arrives to rescue the boy wonder, he has been moved to a narrow window-ledge high above the street outside, hands tied behind his back, and is then pushed over. After the caped crusader performs a dramatic rescue, throwing the batarang down the side of the building and telling Robin to grab it in his teeth, Batman's sidekick shouts: "Holy molars! Am I glad I take good care of my teeth!"

Gorshin explained that the Riddler's trademark giggle was his own:

I fooled around with all kinds of different laughs and the I found out that when I do laugh I get this high-pitched laugh and I thought, "This is what I'm going to use."

He was the only star of the series to be nominated for an Emmy award, although he appeared in just 10 of the 120 episodes, as well as the 1966 spin-off feature film. Committed to a night-club contract, he was replaced by John Astin for the second series but returned for two episodes of the final run.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1933, Gorshin developed a childhood talent for performing impressions. After seeing the film The Jolson Story while working as a cinema usher, he started taking off Al Jolson at parties. At the age of 17, he won first prize in a talent contest - a one-week engagement in a Pittsburgh night-club - then performed throughout Pennsylvania while studying at Carnegie Tech School of Drama. He joined the US Army in 1953, won a forces talent contest and entertained American troops across Europe. A film-company executive spotted him and put him in touch with an agent. As a result, he made his big-screen début alongside William Holden and Deborah Kerr in the wartime romance The Proud and Profane (1956).

Roles followed, often as delinquents or villains, in a mish-mash of pictures, from Hot Rod Girl (1956) and Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957) to Bells are Ringing (starring Judy Holliday and Dean Martin, 1960), The Great Impostor (with Tony Curtis, 1961) and That Darn Cat! (1965). He also continued to perform as a comedy impressionist, in Hollywood and Las Vegas clubs. After finding wider fame in Batman, he appeared on television as Commissioner Bele, a half-black, half-white alien in an episode of Star Trek (1969), gaining him another Emmy nomination.

Gorshin's later film appearances were less illustrious. He was most successful on stage, moving up from being an opening act in Las Vegas to headlining his own show, then making his Broadway début in the title role of Jimmy (1969-70), a musical about Prohibition-era New York. But his greatest triumph was as the great comedian George Burns in the one-man show Say Goodnight, Gracie (2002-03). However, during its 364-performance run, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

The actor's final television appearance, in the police series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, directed by Quentin Tarantino, was broadcast in the United States yesterday. He is still to be seen in the feature film Angels with Angles, in which he plays George Burns as an angel.

Anthony Hayward

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