Louis Nye

Comic actor and voice artist
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The Independent Online

Whether he liked it or not, Louis Nye could make people laugh. While many performers would kill for such a gift, this character actor played down his comic ability, claiming he only ever set out to amuse people at parties. No mean achievement, then, that Nye consistently entertained television viewers from Steve Allen's 1950s heyday to the 21st-century cult hit Curb Your Enthusiasm. That's quite a party.

The Connecticut-born Louis Neistat could have got off to an early start in theatre if his school work had shown more promise but, as he told it, he couldn't get into the drama club because his algebra marks were so bad. Instead, he auditioned successfully at WTIC Radio and made inroads into broadcasting that flourished in New York with a range of soap-opera parts. The Second World War saw Louis Nye (as he became) stationed near Missouri and given the task of running the recreation hall, where the entertainment had to be good enough to stop recruits from going into town. This led to the discovery of his talents as a mimic, without which he might not have enjoyed a string of post-war night-club engagements from Las Vegas to London.

Live television followed, notably with Jack Benny and Jimmy Durante, but his small-screen fame was assured after meeting Steve Allen in a lift. Allen was a songwriter, author and multi- instrumentalist whose massively popular comedy show cast Nye in the regular role of Gordon Hathaway, a relentless braggart with social pretensions whose character subsequently prompted comparisons with that of Frasier Crane. Country-clubber Hathaway's signature greeting, "Heigh-ho, Steverino", struck gold for Louis Nye, as it soon became a national catchphrase, enabling him to trade on it in the recording studio.

The release of an LP, Heigh-Ho, Madison Avenue!, saw Nye lampooning the world of market research way before the emergence of the focus group. Backed by the Status Seekers, he offered such musical evergreens as "The Ten Commandments of Madison Avenue (Plus Big Bonus Commandments)" and "The Conspicuous Consumption Cantata". The album is still available - and pertinent - today.

When the Steve Allen series moved base to Los Angeles in the late Fifties, Nye went with it, seizing the opportunity for character roles in Hollywood, many of them cameos in movies not warmly received by the critics. The cinema historian Leonard Maltin described one 1960 effort as "shockingly unfunny", but that's only to be expected with a film called Sex Kittens Go to College.

He fared better in television. Post-Allen, there was work on The Ann Sothern Show as a dentist, in dramas like Burke's Law, Starsky and Hutch and St Elsewhere, and in sitcomland with The Cosby Show, The Munsters and, significantly, The Beverly Hillbillies. There his cosseted rich-kid persona, Sonny Drysdale, would undoubtedly have lived longer had it not been considered "too sissified" by someone upstairs in a suit. A small victory was Nye's when he reprised Sonny in a 1993 Hillbillies TV movie.

Unseen, he provided voices for the Inspector Gadget cartoons in the Eighties and Nineties, and it's the pin-sharp accuracy of Louis Nye's impersonations that stir happy memories for his son. Peter Nye recalls once mistaking his own father for Khrushchev. If more people had done that, the Cold War could have gone very differently.

Bob Sinfield