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Better Than Great: Frank Gorshin (1934-2005)

Bill Gibron

It was as a straight stage act in smoke-filled clubs and Las Vegas showrooms that Frank Gorshin was at his best.

PopMatters Film and TV Columns Editor

It's a shame that Frank Gorshin is known primarily (and in some cases, only) as the actor who played the Riddler in the 1960s camp version of everyone's favorite dark knight, Batman. With a career that spanned five decades, dozens of movie and stage roles, and a nightclub persona combining comic, singer, and impressionist, Gorshin was an all-around showman. He died at age 71 on 17 May 2005, of complications from lung cancer, emphysema, and pneumonia.

Better than great, Gorshin made the Riddler a source of humor and horror, a decidedly insane creature who was manic on the outside, seething and murderous on the inside. The other actors who played the character -- John Astin, Jack Nicholson, Jim Carrey -- weren't able to combine monster and trickster like Gorshin did.

Still, it was as a straight stage act in smoke-filled clubs and Las Vegas showrooms that Gorshin was at his best. He was the impressionists' impressionist, taking the questionable talent to ultra-realistic extremes with flawless incarnations of Kirk Douglas, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Cagney. More than just a vocal mimic, Gorshin took on his models' physical mannerisms and demeanor. It was a skill he learned at a very early age, when acting first influenced his teenage life.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on 5 April 1934 to working class parents, Gorshin soon showed an aptitude for the stage. By 17, he was working a weeklong engagement at a local hotspot (the prize for taking first place in a talent contest). After attending Carnegie Mellon Drama School, he entered the Army for a two-year stint in Korea as part of the Special Services Entertainment Corps. It was there he met Maurice Bergman, a representative for Universal-International who introduced him to a New York agent. Almost instantly, Frank found himself in 1956's The Proud and the Profane, alongside William Holden and Deborah Kerr.

For the rest of the decade, Gorshin moved between increasingly popular club dates and minor movie roles. His work in B-movies like Runaway Daughters, Dragstrip Girl, and Invasion of the Saucer Men (all for low-budget legend Edward L. Cahn) pigeonholed him as a hotheaded youth with a chip the size of a city block on his shoulder. It was a role he played repeatedly, in movies as diverse as Disney's That Darn Cat! and Where the Boys Are.

That seminal Spring Break saga, released in 1960, was a breakthrough for Gorshin. He hung out with the Rat Pack and was rumored to be Sammy Davis, Jr.'s impressions coach. Before donning the green stretch-suit (and earning an Emmy nomination in 1966 for his Bat-efforts), the actor was also paired with Judy Holliday and Dean Martin for a big screen version of Broadway's Bells are Ringing. In the rousing musical, Gorshin played a Method actor archetype, fashioned after both James Dean and Marlon Brando. It was a role in which the natural imitator excelled.

But it was when he joined up with Adam West and Burt Ward that Gorshin finally crossed over, from respected performer to superstar. Prior to the Riddler, he was opening for Bobby Darin; after, he was a Las Vegas headliner in his own right. He made variety and talk show appearances (he was on the 1964 Ed Sullivan Show when the Beatles made their American TV debut), showcasing his latest impressions or singing talents. He also co-starred in the classic Star Trek allegory on racism, 1969's "Let This Be Your Final Battlefield," giving a poignant, pointed performance as the black/white-faced alien Bele.

During the '70s, Gorshin regained some of his pre-Riddler stature with a stint on Broadway in the 1970 musical Jimmy, about former New York mayor James Walker. He also appeared in touring companies for many famous shows and regional revivals, such as What Makes Sammy Run?, Promises, Promises, Peter Pan, Prisoner of Second Street, and Guys and Dolls.

But when his career should have been over, Gorshin clicked again, this time with a "postmodern" generation. After years without hearing the telephone ring, Gorshin suddenly found himself in demand again, when director Terry Gilliam cast him alongside Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis (both huge fans) in 12 Monkeys. Even that human pop-culture radar, Quentin Tarantino, insisted on Gorshin making a cameo, as himself, in the 19 May season finale for CSI; this will be Gorshin's final role.

After being "rediscovered," Gorshin settled comfortably into being a character actor, taking on numerous lesser vehicles in order to do what he loved best -- perform. In 2002, he returned to Broadway with a devastatingly accurate portrayal of the late George Burns in the Tony-nominated one-man show, Say Goodnight, Gracie; he used no makeup or prosthetics to achieve his eerie likeness of Burns. But that was Frank Gorshin. Like Lon Chaney before him, he was literally a man of hundreds of voices, characters, and talents.

Even at the end of his life, Gorshin remained elusive. Many media outlet obits have the performer survived by "wife" Christina Randazzo, whom he wed in 1961, and their son, Mitchell. But further research links the actor, at the time of this death, to Haji, the statuesque star of several Russ Meyer movies, including Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The two were supposedly wed on 4 July 2004. It's yet another puzzle in the life of a man made famous by riddling. Frank Gorshin embodied an intangible essence of cool, a brand of audacity that never really went out of style.

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