Second to None: Howard Morris (1919-2005)

[3 June 2005]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

PopMatters Film and TV Columns Editor

He was a seminal second banana. He perfected a milquetoast persona long before Don Knotts gave it the jitters. And he held his own among emerging giants during the formative years of television sketch comedy. Yet, more people have probably heard Howard Morris than actually know him by name or face.

When the diminutive dynamo passed away on 21 May at 85, he left behind a legacy made up of brilliant creations, both live action and animated. Morris collaborated with Disney and Hanna-Barbera to create characters the insect-sized superhero Atom Ant and the Archie’s pal Jughead Jones. The talented actor’s off-kilter cackle was also a mainstay in The Flintstones, The Adventures of Mr. Magoo, and The Jetsons (he played Jet Screamer, futuristic teen idol responsible for the hit song, “Eep Opp Ork Ah-Ah”). But for those old enough to remember it, Morris will always be a member of one of the most talented creative teams in the medium’s history, the cast of Sid Caesar’s timeless Your Show of Shows.

When the diminutive dynamo passed away on 21 May at 85, he left behind a legacy made up of brilliant creations, both live action and animated.

Success always seemed a certainty for Morris. Born in 1919 in New York City as the only child of Hugo and Elsie Morris, little Howie was a natural ham. Throughout his time at Dewitt Clinton High School, Morris performed: he acted in school plays and played drums for a band specializing in weddings and bar mitzvahs. When he attended the National Youth Administrations Radio Workshop, he met a fellow student, the young Carl Reiner. This chance encounter led to a lifelong friendship that helped define both their futures.

Eventually winning a scholarship to New York University (where he was a member of the Washington Square Players), Morris dropped out and was summarily drafted. He was reunited with Reiner when they served in the entertainment corps for actor Maurice Evans’ unit. Paired in many of Evans’ productions, they cut their teeth on everything from Shakespeare to joke-filled GI revues.

After the war, they went on to appear together in the musical Call Me Mister. When their paths parted, Morris went to meet with Sid Caesar, who took an immediate shine to the tiny talent. He instantly offered him a chance to become part of his repertoire company, a group that also included Reiner. The result was Your Show of Shows, TV’s greatest triumph at the time. Home to such future heavyweights as Caesar, Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Imogene Coca, Larry Gelbart, and, later, Woody Allen, it pushed the limits of simple vaudeville. Within the comic cavalcade, Morris typically played mousy compadre to his far more flamboyant costars.

According to Morris, it was Caesar who allowed him to tweak his characters, to take them to resplendent extremes. “From [Sid] I learned the basis for making a character real,” Morris once said, “and once it’s real, you can fly it to the moon.” His high-strung timidity got passed around a lot on the small screen, hinted at in the work of Wally Cox (famous for Mr. Peepers and as the voice of Underdog) to, most importantly, the delightful dementia of Don Knotts.

It’s some form of serendipity, then, that Morris would end up costarring with Barney Fife in what many consider to be his single greatest live action creation, the imbecilic hillbilly named Ernest T. Bass. “Having been born in the Bronx,” noted Morris. “Even I’m surprised that somehow this Southern shit-kicker nut was in my soul.” Long considered one of The Andy Griffith Show‘s most unforgettable characters, Ernest T. only made five appearances total. But so treasured was Morris’s turn that many fans wouldn’t dream of Mayberry without the loveable loon. (Married at least five times, he is survived by a son, David, who directs commercials and runs the official Ernest T. Bass website.)

But playing an overalls-wearing manchild was not the most surreal aspect of this New Yorker’s career. It was during his time with Caesar that the actor first stepped behind the microphone, working on Gerald McBoing-Boing (about a little boy who used sound effects to communicate). He became the frazzled voice of famed comic strip soldier Beetle Bailey, and was soon in demand for every major animation series, a calling that continued well into the 1980s.

He also sought other sorts of work. A skilled actor, he tackled Hamlet (he was in Maurice Evans’ 1945 Broadway production) and appeared as Jerry Lewis’ henpecked daddy in The Nutty Professor (1963). He costarred with James Garner, Tony Randall, and Kim Novak in the 1962 sex farce, Boy’s Night Out, and with Tony Curtis in 40 Pounds of Trouble. When fellow Caesar alumnus Mel Brooks was making his own movies, Morris played Professor Lilloman in 1977’s High Anxiety and the Neros’ effete servant in 1981’s History of the World, Part 1.

Yet it was television that offered him the most satisfaction, and not all of it in front of the camera. Morris was a prolific director, helming episodes of many memorable shows. His credits included sitcoms like The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, Hogan’s Heroes, and One Day at a Time. And he directed goofball movie gems, Who’s Minding the Mint (1967), With Six You Get Eggroll (1968), and the 1969 adaptation of Woody Allen’s stage sensation Don’t Drink the Water, featuring Jackie Gleason.

That he was the voice of so many beloved animated characters is emblematic of Morris’s enigmatic career. Though he was considered a bit player, he certainly stole scenes whole shows regularly. A topnotch second banana, he was rarely less than first in the eyes of those who adored him.

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