Tuesday, May 24, 2005

In Memory of Howard Morris

Another television legend has passed on. Howard Morris was a man of many talents. He was a comedian, character actor, director, and the voice for many cartoons. He died Saturday at age 85. Although Morris played a variety of roles on television and directed many television shows, he is best known for a role which he only played six times on television. Howard Morris portrayed Ernest T. Bass, the hillbilly who recited bad poetry and threw rocks through windows any time he was angry, on The Andy Griffith Show.

Howard Morris's career has long been tied to that of another television legend, Carl Reiner. The two first met as teenagers at a radio workshop held by the National Youth Administration. The two were reunited during World War II, during which Morris was Reiner's sergeant in a unit devoted to entertaining the troops. Following the war Morris and Reiner performed on stage in the musical Call Me Mister. In 1951 both Carl Reiner and Howard Morris joined the cast of the hit series Your Show of Shows. Your Show of Shows was a live sketch comedy show starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coco, written by such future stars as Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, and Neil Simon. Among other things, it pioneered movie parodies (well before Mad Magaizne) and the use of continuing characters in sketches. Sid Caesar played such characters as Somerset Winterset and Cool Cees, while between them Imogene Coco and Casesar played the couple Doris and Charlie Hickenlooper. Morris's speciality on the show was playing ambitious everymen whose every plan and scheme would go wrong. In many respects, Your Show of Shows can be considered the direct predecessor of Saturday Night Live. Created by television legend Sylvester "Pat" Weaver (who also created Today and The Tonight Show), Your Show of Shows won two Emmys and was a smash hit with audiences of the time. Howard Morris would go on to appear in Sid Caesar's follow up to Show of Your Shows, Caesar's Hour in 1954.

Following the end of Caesar's Hour, Howard Morris became very much in demand as a guest star on TV series, ususally playing eccentric (to say the least) characters. He guest starred on such series as The Perry Como Show, Alfred Hitchcock Presesnts, The Twilight Zone, and Thriler among others. Morris was something of a fixture on sitcoms of the Sixties and Seventies, guest starring on Ensign O'Toole, The Dick Van Dyke Show (created by old pal Carl Reiner), Bewitched, Hogan's Herores (on which he was a guest star many, many times), and The Bob Newhart Show. Of course, his most notable guest appearances would also turn out to be his most famous role, the five guest shots in which he played Howard T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show. Ernest T. was a hillbilly who was in constant movement (he was always jumping around) and who had a penchant for reciting poetry or singing while banging on a gas can. Unfortunately, for Andy and Barney, he was also very tempermental and apt to hurl rocks through the windows of those who riled him. He only appeared on The Andy Griffith Show five times and once more in the reunion movie Return to Mayberry, yet he has become one of that series' most enduring characters.

In addition to his many guest apperances on television, Morris also appeared in various movies. In the Sixties he appeared in the movies Boys Night Out, 40 Pounds of Trouble, and the Jerry Lewis films The Nutty Professor and Way... Way Out. In the Seventies he appeared in the Mel Brooks movies High Anxiety and History of the World: Part I. In the Eighties he would appear in Splash. His last apperance in a film was in Lasting Silents in 1997.

In the Sixties, starting with The Andy Griffith Show, Howard Morris turned to directing as well as acting He directed many episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, Hogan's Heroes, and many other series. Most notably, he directed the pilot for Get Smart (co-created by fellow Your Show of Shows alumnus Mel Brooks). He also directed the motion pictures Who's Minding the Mint and With Six You Get Eggroll.

With a gift for strange voices and dialects, it should come as no surprise that Morris turned to voice work on cartoons in the Sixties as well. He provided additional voices on both The Flintstones and The Jetsons. In 1963 he provided the voice of Beetle Bailey in the short lived series of King Features cartoons based on the comic strip of the same name. Perhaps the most famous characters he voiced were Atom Ant, from the Hanna Barbera cartoons of the same name, and Jughead Jones in the various Archie cartoons of the late Sixties and the early to mid Seventies. Morris continued to do voice work until recent years, the latest such work being the voice for Flem for Cow and Chicken.

Like many people I first encountered Howard Morris as Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show. I also noticed him in his various guest apperances on Hogan's Heroes, Bewitched, and other classic sitcoms. Still later I would see his great work from Your Show of Shows on the movie compilation Ten From Your Show of Shows. As an adult I learned that he had directed many of the episodes of my favourite sitcoms of the Sixties, not to mention that he did voice work for many of the cartoons with which I grew up. I have to say that I think he was one of the best comedic character actors to appear on television. Indeed, there is no better tribute to his talent than the fact that Ernest T. Bass is still remembered to this day, even though the character only appeared five times on The Andy Griffith Show. As a director he was also extremely talented, with some of the best sitcom episodes in television's history emerging under his direction (the pilot for Get Smart is a perfect example). To tell the truth, I have trouble believing Howard Morris is gone, even though I realise he was hardly a young man. It seems like he should be somewhere out there, planing something grandiose (like the characters he played on Your Show of Shows or hurling rocks through windows and spouting bad poetry (like Ernest T.). I suppose that when it comes to the comedic character actors of television, Howard Morris is truly among the immortals.

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