Thursday, June 10, 2010

Bob Cummings' 100th Birthday

It was 100 years ago today that actor Robert Cummings, also known as Bob Cummings, was born in Joplin, Missouri. In the Forties Mr. Cummings appeared in such films as King's Row, Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur, and in comedies such as The Devil and Miss Jones and Moon Over Miami. In the Fifties he appeared in such films as How to be Very, Very Popular and Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder. In the Sixties he appeared in such films as My GeishaBeach Party and  What a Way to Go. While Bob Cummings made many movies, he may have been best known for two sitcoms: The Bob Cummings Show and the short lived cult series My Living Doll.

Robert Cummings was born to Dr Charles Cummings, who was a surgeon at St. John's Hospital in Joplin and founded the Jasper County Tuberculosis Hospital in Webb City, Missouri. His mother, Ruth Cummings, was an ordained minister in the Science of the Mind. His godfather was Orville Wright, who taught  Mr. Cummings how to fly when he was attending Joplin High School. For a time he attended Drury College in Springfield, Missouri, but due to his interest in aeronautics he transferred to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, he ran out of funds before he could graduate, due to the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Mr. Cummings discovered  the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City paid actors $14 a week and as a result he enrolled there.

In studying acting Robert Cummings would even master an upper class English accent, as English actors were in large demand in the United States at the time. He made his debut on Broadway in 1931 in the play The Roof, using the stage name Blade Stanhope Conway. Fittingly, he played an Englishman. Bob Cummings would later assume a Texan persona, using the stage name Brice Hutchins. It was under that name that he made his second appearance on Broadway, appearing in The Ziegfield Follies of 1934.

While Bob Cummings had success using pseudonyms and personas other than his own, it would be under his given name that he would find lasting success in Hollywood. He made his film debut in an uncredited role in the movie Seasoned Greetings in 1933. His first credited role would be in the 1936 Western Desert Gold. For the next several years he appeared in roles in B movies and in smaller roles in such major motion pictures as Wells Fargo (1937) and  The Texans (1938). His breakthrough role would be in the film Three Smart Girls Grow Up in 1939, which included him on the piano.

Robert Cummings would establish himself as an actor in such light comedies as The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) and It Started with Eve (1941). In many of his films Mr. Cummings played a gallant, but often bumbling young man. At the same time that he made his name in comedies, however, Bob Cummings also proved he could give great performances in dramas as well. Indeed, aside from the two movies he made with Alfred Hitchcock, his most famous film may well be King's Row (1942). In the film, Mr. Cummings played young physician Parris Mitchell. Not only was Mr.Cummings was one of the featured players in the film, but he was also the only native from the state in which the real King's Row was located. King's Row, the fictional town in Henry Bellamann's novel of the same name, was very thinly based on the town of Fulton, Missouri, where the Missouri State Mental Hospital is still located (it was the first mental hospital built west of the Mississippi). Bob Cummings also played the innocent aircraft worker Barry Kane, duped by spies in Alfred Hitcock's Saboteur (1942). Mr. Cummings appeared in comedies and drama alike throughout the Forties, including Flesh and Fantasy (1943) and The Accused (1949).

It would be in the late Forties that Mr. Cummings first appeared in the medium that would give him lasting fame. Bob Cummings made his debut on television in an episode of Sure as Fate in 1950. He also made two guest appearances on Your Show of Shows, one in 1950 and another in 1951. He also returned to Broadway, for the first time using his given name, in the play Faithfully Yours in 1951. In 1954 Mr. Cummings appeared as crime fiction writer Mark Halliday, who seeks to thwart the murderer in Dial M for Murder. He also appeared in the film How to Be Very, Very Popular (1955). Increasingly, however, Bob Cummings appeared on television. Throughout the Fifties he guest starred in such shows as Lux Video Theatre, Robert Montgomery Presents, Studio One (as Juror #8 in the original, television version of "Twelve Angry Men"), Playhouse 90, and The Twilight Zone. He received his first series in 1952 with the short lived series My Hero, in which he played a bumbling real estate agent. It would only last one season, but Mr. Cumming's second series would be much more successful.

The Bob Cummings Show debuted in January 1955 and ran until September 1959. The series is notable as being one of the first created by Paul Henning (a fellow Missouri native who would go onto create The Beverly Hillbillies) and as being the first series ever to debut as a midseason replacement. It was also the first series for Dwayne Hickman, who played Bob's nephew on the show. He would go onto more success in the series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. On the show Bob Cummings played Bob Collins, a playboy and professional photographer . The series also starred Rosemary DeCamp as Bob's sister and Ann B., Davis as his secretary. The series would not only do well in its first run, but would have a phenomenal syndication run. It would be repeated into the Eighties and can still be seen on some channels to this day.

In 1961 Robert Cummings would star in another sitcom, The New Bob Cummings Show. In this series Mr. Cummings played Bob Carson, a pilot and amateur detective. Unfortunately, the series would not prove to be successful, lasting only one season. Mr. Cummings would appear in major motion pictures in the Sixties. In 1962 he appeared in the film My Geisha. In 1964 he played the pivotal role of the poor psychiatrist to whom Shirley MacLaine's character relates the untimely demises of her husband in What a Way to Go! He also appeared in Beach Party (1963), The Carpetbaggers (1964), and a remake of Stagecoach (1966).

While Bob Cummings appeared in various movies throughout the Sixties, his most notable role may have been in a sitcom which lasted only one season. My Living Doll debuted in September 1964 and was one of the many sitcoms which followed the lead of the hit My Favourite Martian. In My Living Doll Bob Cummings played psychologist Dr. Bob McDonald. MacDonald is left in the care of an android, designated AF 709, developed by his friend Dr. Carl Miller (Henry Beckman), when Miller must go to Pakistan on government business. Unfortunately for MacDonald, AF 709 looks exactly like Julie Newmar (who played her, of course). Furthermore, AF 709 is top secret, so MacDonald must keep anyone from learning that AF 709 is actually a very advanced robot. MacDonald named AF 709 "Rhoda" and passed her off as Dr. Miller's niece, who was staying with him. He also "hired" her as his secretary at work (a job for which she is perfectly suited--she can type hundreds of words a minute and her memory banks hold thousands of bits of information). MacDonald also decided to teach Rhoda how to be the "perfect" woman--one who does what she is told to. In this final task MacDonald appears to have never quite succeeded, as Rhoda seems to have somewhat a mind of her own....

Sadly, My Living Doll would be scheduled Sundays opposite Bonanza, then the top rated show on television. CBS would move the show to Wednesday in January, where it would perform no better against another highly rated Western on NBC, The Virginian. Complicating matters were problems on the set of My Living Doll. Although both stars gave sterling performances, Bob Cummings and Julie Newmar did not get along particularly well. Eventually, Mr. Cummings would walk off the set with five episodes left to be shot. The role of Rhonda's caretaker would then be assumed by co-star Jack Mullaney, whose character Peter had learned she was a robot. Sadly, My Living Doll would be cancelled after only one season.

Bob Cummings would not be absent from television, however, as he guest starred on Green Acres, The Flying Nun, and appeared in the telefilm Gidget Grows Up. He would go onto guest star on such shows as Arnie, Bewitched, Here's Lucy, Love American Style, and The Love Boat. He appeared again on Broadway in 1966 in the play The Wayward Stork. His last appearance on the screen was as the host of "Walt Disney World's 15th Anniversary Celebration" on The Disney Sunday Movie. In 1988 he was an honoured guest at Fulton, Missouri's Kingdom Days festival and even hosted a special screening of King's Row. He died on December 2, 1990 at the age of 80.

Although best known for his gallant and often bumbling roles in movie comedies and his role as playboy Bob Collins on The Bob Cummings Show, Robert Cummings was actually a very talented actor. Indeed, he was a bit of a chameleon. He received his first role on Broadway by masquerading as an Englishmen. He would later play scientists, such as the psychologist on My Living Doll and the anthropologist on Beach Party. He was perfect in comedies, where his sense of timing was always impeccable, but could also play in dramas as well. It is because of his versatility and sheer talent that Bob Cummings is still remembered today.


Hal said...

Great writeup. Some sources give 1908 and some give 1910; I actually did my tribute to Mr. Cummings in June 2008! Either way, between the two of us, we got his 100th covered. :-)

Dwayne Hickman had some great stories from his 5 years working with Cummings in his book FOREVER DOBIE.

Hopefully the pending Season 1 DVD release of SGT. BILKO will be successful, and LOVE THAT BOB can get its long-deserved full season release instead of the lone 16 episode sampler we have on the market now.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I debated whether to do my tribute to Mr. Cummings back in 2008 After all, The New York Times gives his year of birth as 2008. I eventually settled on 2010 simply because it was the date IMDB gives (not always the most reliable source, but one often used). At any rate, any time is a good time for a tribute to him!

I am hoping that Sgt. Bilko will have a lot of DVD sales so that The Bob Cummings Show and other Fifties sitcoms will be released on DVD. So few of them are out on DVD as it is!

Toby O'B said...

Thanks to both of you for remembering him!

Unknown said...

I love Robert Cummings, I think he's so sadly underrated and not even really remembered much among classic film enthusiasts.

Is My Living Doll on dvd or hulu or anything? It sounds really good!

Great post! :)

Terence Towles Canote said...

There was some talk about an official DVD release of My Living Doll a few years ago, but so far nothing has come of it. That is a shame, as it is a classic Sixties sitcom, better than many that ran much longer than it did! Mr. Cummings and Miss Newmar did some incredible work on the show. Of course, I do have to point out that there are,um, some unofficial DVD sets of My Living Doll out there...

Hector said...

Thanks for this great tribute to Bob Cummings on his 100 birthday. He was an amazing man and a great actor. He even directed most of the episodes of "The Bob Cummings Show". I saw him once in the early 60s in a play and he was very kind to my family and me.
A great actor, a great comedian and a great man.

Cheyenne said...

He will be 101 this year in 2011! He also left a legacy of 7 children and 10 grandchildren, some of whom have inherited his looks and impeccable comedic timing. As one of his granddaughters, it's been wonderful to see his traits especially manifest in his children and in some of my talented siblings. Thanks so much for this write-up!

Terence Towles Canote said...

You're welcome, Cheyenne!