Howard Jerome Morris, actor and director: born New York 4 September 1919; five times married (one son, three daughters); died Los Angeles 21 May 2005.
If ever a television series was rightly named, it was Your Show of Shows (1950-54). Described by Kenneth Tynan as "a golden landmark in the wasteland of television comedy", this ground-breaking, revue-style show offered 90 minutes of live, original humour every week, bringing national celebrity to its stars, Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris. The programme opened many doors for the diminutive Morris, who would go on to further triumphs as comedian, actor and director.
Morris was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1919. His father, a rubber-company executive, died of heart failure when his business went to the wall during the Depression. Howard's mother worked as a cinema organist, and her son was soon imitating the stars he saw on the screen. He won a scholarship to New York University, but his studies were interrupted when he was called up during the Second World War.
In 1942, the British-born actor Maurice Evans was commissioned as a captain in the US Army, and put in charge of the Forces Entertainment Section in the Central Pacific. His first decision was to bring Shakespeare to the troops by starring in a streamlined production of Hamlet. He cast Howard Morris as Rosencrantz, a role he repeated when the showman Billy Rose brought "The GI Hamlet" to New York soon after the war's end.
Morris continued on Broadway in the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949), and the same year auditioned for Max Liebman's Admiral Broadway Revue, the first television series to team Sid Caesar with Imogene Coca. The tall, husky Caesar reacted excitedly when he caught sight of the tiny auditionee. "He grabbed me by the lapels," recalled Morris, "then lifted me up in the air and said to Liebman, 'Max! Him! Get!' And that was my audition!"
He made several appearances in the Admiral Revue, and, inevitably, was paged for its successor, Your Show of Shows, which won two Emmy awards. Its writers included Mel Brooks, Neil and Danny Simon and Mel Tolkin, who later explained how the performers and writers could turn out such a show for five years. "We were too young to know it was impossible."
To ease the strain on Sid Caesar's memory, he was given sketches in which he could ad-lib in gibberish German, French, Italian and Japanese, and his co-stars gamely gibberished along with him. Morris's boyhood love of movies paid off in the show's weekly film satires, and he, Caesar and Reiner appeared regularly as the mock-rock trio the Haircuts.
The three men worked together again (Coca was given her own series) in the equally brilliant Caesar's Hour (1954-57), which won three Emmys. Next, Morris was reunited with Maurice Evans, who played Malvolio to his Feste in a television production of Twelfth Night (1957). The improvisational skills honed while working with Caesar proved useful when Morris was next cast as the amorous rustic T. Bass in the sitcom The Andy Griffith Show (1960-68). To woo local women, Bass not only threw rocks through their windows, he recited ardent doggerel. "This occurred by pure accident," he told an internet fan site. "Each silly line came to me on set as the cameras rolled."
Off-camera, Morris had an even more bizarre love life; he was married and divorced five times, twice to the same woman. Between weddings and divorces, he somehow found time to lend his voice to the animated series The Jetsons (1962-63) as well as to hundreds of TV commercials, and act in such films as the Kim Novak/James Garner sex farce Boys' Night Out (1965), Doris Day's With Six You Get Egg Roll (1968) and Mel Brooks's Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety (1977). He also directed the feature films Who's Minding the Mint? (1967), Don't Drink the Water (1968) and the Donny and Marie Osmond romp Goin' Coconuts (1978).
For a time, Morris even ran his own advertising agency; after handling the lucrative McDonald's account, he joked to a magazine: "I have a beach house in Malibu with yellow arches on top of it."
Dick VosburghReuse content