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Second to None: Harvey Korman (1927 - 2008)

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Sunday, Jun 1, 2008

It was what we did every Saturday night. Before we discovered dating, drugs, and delinquency, the pre-adolescents of the ‘60s and ‘70s sat down in front of the boob tube with complete parental guidance and gave Carol Burnett and her merry band of parody pranksters 50 minutes of our undivided attention. We would wade through the endless shots of Lyle Wagner’s chin, tolerate Vicki Lawrence’s Mini-Younger-Me version of the star attraction, and the lunatic fringiness of latter addition Tim Conway, just to see…him. And the minute Harvey Korman walked out onto the soundstage, we were prepared. You see, the classic straight man with an unusual executive presence, was the most unpredictable aspect of Burnett’s sketch satire.


The other formidable individual in Korman’s career also got his start in television. But thanks to an Oscar for his hilarious The Producers, Mel Brooks rapidly became a film farce icon. Looking for someone to fill the frequently difficult role of comic villain, he tagged Korman to essay the partr of evil railroad tycoon Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles. For those used to seeing the comedian every week, his turn in the controversial classic was a revelation. Gone were the unintentional snickers and moments of sketch stretch ad libbing. In there place was a fiery farcical turn as the only man who could sentence innocent people to death while simultaneously humping a knickknack. Brooks was so impressed he brought Korman back for High Anxiety, History of the World Part 1, and Dracula: Dead and Loving It.


By the time he entered the hospital with a ruptured abdominal aorta four months ago, Korman was resigned to a life out of the ultra bright limelight. While he and Conway would still tour with a stage show that relied heavily on their Burnett days, the 81 year old was no longer in his prime. His health had been shaky for years (he even joked about it in interviews) and the emergency surgery resulted in a protracted stay, and by the time he passed away on 30 May, he had been through the medical mill. Several operations and the usual “complications” meant that humor had lost one of its heavy lifters. In the world of second bananas, Korman wasn’t just the tops, he was the surefire sweetest of the bunch.


He was born in 1927 to Chicagoans Cyril and Ellen Korman. In kindergarten, he started acting. By the time he was 12, he had turned professional, landing a gig on a local radio show. All throughout high school and up and during his service in World War II (he was a Navy man), Korman was desperate to perform. Upon his discharge, he moved to New York, took the occasional odd job, and began the painful process of auditioning. When nothing turned up after several years beating down Broadway, he moved to Hollywood. There, among the burgeoning broadcasts of early television, he found his variety show niche.


The venerable Danny Kaye gave Korman his big break. In 1964, he became a regular on the versatile star’s TV series. It was the kind of recognition the 37 year old was dying for…and it worked. Three years later, Carol Burnett came calling. Over the next 11 years, Korman would win four Emmys (he was nominated for a total of seven), bring home a Golden Globe, and share the small screen with individuals soon to become undeniable TV myths. Burnett’s show was part burlesque, part social satire, part movie/pop culture parody, and the rest of the genre’s sensational shtick all rolled into one. Korman was a genius as short form free-for-all, and yet he hoped he could make the leap to motion pictures. Turns in mediocrity like Lord Love a Duck, Last of the Secret Agents, and The April Fools didn’t help his quest.


No, it took Brooks shrewd eye to give Korman the roles he required to break out. Hedley Lamarr remains Saddles most surreal creation, a fourth wall breaking bad guy who sees greed and goofiness as shared positive attributes. He has no trouble trouncing his own reputation both as a character and as a performer (Korman has a classic line about destroying his chances for a Best Supporting Actor nomination for how arch and over the top he is) and he does it all with a snicker and a smirk. While it wasn’t that big of a stretch from what he was doing with Burnett and company every week, Brooks typically gave his casts a more profane playground within which to romp. It was perfect for someone as sly as Korman.


High Anxiety offered another type of weirdo, this time the dominated asylum administrator Dr. Charles Montague. He delivered a delightful turn, even if Brooks’ obsession with aping Hitchcock frequently undermined the film’s overall funny business. Perhaps Korman’s most memorable moment for the writer/director was as the catty Count De Monet in History of the World Part 1. Few will forget his most memorable retort to a traveling companion, “Don’t get saucy with me, Béarnaise.”  While it was a minor cameo in a wildly uneven movie, Korman made the sequence solely his. Yet after showing up in the deadly dumb Dracula spoof, he never got a chance to work with Brooks again. As he aged, Korman became a frequent guest star in episodic TV, as well as an accomplished voice over artist. The latter wasn’t that big of a leap - kids in the ‘60s had adored his take on the Flintstone’s friendly alien advisor, the Great Gazoo.


Korman, for his part, was always unsure of his stardom. In conversations later on in life, he would joke about leaving the Burnett show, about the hubris of thinking he could go it alone, and the failure he felt when proposed solo sitcoms or showcases went nowhere. There were times when he seemed angry about all the attention to his work in sketch comedy, as if somehow he was being reduced to a certain satiric stereotype. He never badmouthed those who he worked with, and was respectful (if slightly resentful) for the backwards glancing. Yet when CBS aired a reunion of sorts in a celebrated flashback show from 1993, rating were through the roof. It both validated and confused the comic. Even up until his death, Korman seemed convinced that major mega-celebrity was just another casting call away.


By the time the millennium rolled around, Korman was in his mid-70s. He made a couple of appearances in cartoon-related product, and spent some time reminiscing for those inevitable “whatever happened to” nostalgia shows that VH-1 and TV Land specialize in. He maintained close ties with Conway, and stayed in touch with Burnett and the rest throughout the years. In a recent piece, Brooks complimented his former fiend, saying that no one could sell a straight line like Korman. While he made life on the set complicated (Mel couldn’t keep his directorial demeanor whenever Harvey was vamping), he was a necessary element in Saddles/Anxiety‘s success. Yet for many, Korman will always be Mother Marcus, the gigantic Jewish mother, or the hapless bumpkin Ed, married to the shrill, insufferable Eunice. Yes, every Saturday night, we sat waiting to see what Harvey Korman would do next. It was always worth it.

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