Obituary: George Fenneman

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The Independent Online
"There never was a comedian who was any good unless he had a good straight man," wrote Groucho Marx in 1976. "And George was straight on all four sides."

A square was just one of the many things Groucho called his straight man during their long association; tall, handsome and elegant, George Fenneman bore the Marxian wisecracks with gentlemanly dignity for 14 years on the high-rated comedy quiz You Bet Your Life. Starting on radio in 1947 and transferring to television in 1950, the show was less a quiz than a vehicle for Groucho's wit, with Fenneman reading the commercials, introducing the contestants and working out the scores.

Until the series ended in 1961, Marx subjected his foil to a relentless stream of politically incorrect Chinese laundry jokes, all because he happened to have been born in Peking. "My father was in Import-Export," Fenneman told the biographer Hector Arce. "He and my mother'd been married for 10 years. I guess they didn't expect any children, and I'm an only child."

He was nine months old when his parents moved to San Francisco, where he grew up. In 1942 he graduated from San Francisco State College with a degree in speech and drama, and took a job as an announcer with a local radio station. After the Second World War, during which he worked as a broadcast correspondent for the US Office of Information, Fenneman moved to Los Angeles.

In 1949 Jack Webb, who had worked with Fenneman on wartime broadcasts, reached radio stardom in Pat Novak, For Hire, a thriller series set in San Francisco. Fenneman announced the show, and was used again in that capacity when Webb created the classic radio series Dragnet (also 1949). Fenneman's other radio assignments of the early 1950s included announcing the western series Gunsmoke, and playing Buzz, a comical cargo pilot, in Fly Anything, an adventure series starring the singer Dick Haymes.

Fenneman made his film debut in the cult movie The Thing from Another World (1951), which concerned a group of air force men and scientists at the mercy of a bloodthirsty extra-terrestrial. "I played Dr Redding, one of the scientists," he recalled. "And it took me 26 takes to deliver my big speech. End of movie career." (Actually, he did make other films, including How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 1966, and Once You Kiss a Stranger, 1969.)

On television Fenneman hosted his own quiz show, Anybody Can Play (1958), and Your Funny, Funny Films (1963), one of the first series to feature amateur home movies. He also announced The Donny and Marie Show, The Jim Nabors Show, The Life of Riley and the television version of Dragnet. In 1993, for an edition of The Simpsons that spoofed Dragnet, Fenneman's nearly unchanged voice spoke the much- parodied words: "Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent."

But it is as Groucho Marx's straight man that he will be best remembered. "I can't impress on you too much what it meant to be working with a legend," Fenneman told Hector Arce. "I was 30 years old and working with this man who was 60 at the time, who'd been the biggest star of all the media." His association with Groucho didn't end with the closure of their quiz show; he visited him often. In the last year of Marx's life the 87-year- old comedian was so enfeebled that, before leaving, Fenneman had to walk him to his bed in a bear hug.

"Fenneman," said Groucho faintly, "you always were a lousy dancer."

George Fenneman, actor: born Peking 10 November 1919; married (one son, two daughters); died Los Angeles 29 May 1997.