Akron Beacon Journal, September 6, 1964
HOLLYWOOD – The last time I counted, there were 6,567,174 people residing in Los Angeles County, with several hundred eager settlers pouring in every week.
Surprisingly, I found there are still places within this bustling area where a person can hide from civilization – or whatever it is that surrounds him in this balmy climate.
One such place is a steep, slightly winding street in Beverly Hills where Richard Deacon lives – alone, except for his pet schnauzer. (It’s a female, but Deacon calls her “Fred.”)
The street deadends into a hill that rises almost straight up about 75 feet on three sides of the road. It looks like it might have been a location for a Western about a cowboy heading over a mountain to escape a posse.
There are only a handful of houses on the street and the setting is in peaceful contrast to the crowded, traffic-jammed conditions you find through most of the Los Angeles area.
The only reason you’re aware of being in Southern California is that nowhere else in the country would there be houses on a steep, slightly winding street that looks like a location for a film about a cowboy heading over a mountain to escape a posse.
Put that out of your mind and you can view this as a perfect place to get away from it all – and that’s why Deacon loves it.
Deacon was born in Philadelphia, but grew up in Binghamton, New York, and while he enjoys his California success, he hasn’t completely surrendered to California customs.
I met him recently at a cocktail party and Deacon knew instantly that I, too, was an Easterner. My tie gave me away.
“No Californian wears a tie,” said Deacon. “His idea of formal dress is Bermuda shorts and a sports shirt. For an informal affair he’ll wear a bathing suit.”
But California casual is competitive casual. Like everyone is concerned about who is wearing the most fashionable Bermuda shorts and sports shirt. Or bathing suit. A person never actually relaxes, no matter how sloppy his clothes may be.
That’s why, when I asked Deacon for an interview, he suggested we do it at his home where I might see what he’s really like and not be influenced by the crazy California atmosphere that often seems phony to us Eastern foreigners.
Deacon’s plan worked. I mean, I’ll never know if he is really as sincere as he seemed, but he really seemed sincere as we sat and talked in the comfort of his Beverly Hills hideaway.
Deacon’s career these days is very much wrapped up in the role he plays on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” where he is featured as Mel Cooley, a television producer who i overbearing, but underwhelming.
Said Deacon: “Morey Amsterdam (another “Van Dyke” regular) describes my character as a fellow who knows a lot – he just can’t think of it when the time comes.”
So it goes with Deacon, often cast as men of some importance – a doctor, lawyer or state department official – who suffer foot-in-mouth disease.
Deacon’s appearance pretty much dictates the characters he plays. He is a tall, bulky man ... sort of a flabby Mr. Clean. He looks a though he would walk, not run, the 50-yard dash, and still get winded along the way. I knew from our handshake that he was not an athletic man. For a similar sensation, try squeezing a bag of marshmallows.
“I’ve been playing 55-year-old Rotarians since I was 25,” he said. (His now 42.)
Off-screen Deacon is as unpompous as a well-paid actor can be. He is often sarcastic and rarely hesitates to comment on any subject.
At the same tie he is unusually friendly ad considerate of everyone, particularly his fellow workers and bosses. This is a broad generalization, to be use, but one formed the night he rushed in from a California desert (where he was filming “John Goldfarb, Please Come Home”) in order to attend a party to publicize the upcoming Emmy Awards.
“Everyone else from the ‘Van Dyke Show’ was out of town or tied up that night,” he said, “and I felt someone should represent our program at the party.”
Deacon spends much of his spare time working with SYNANON, a California agency that helps teenage drug addicts. “I’m not beating my chest about this,” he said, “but I think it is important for the public to know actors are human and that we care about other humans.
“Very often we are regarded as a group apart. For instance, in England it’s impossible for actors to rent cars because the risk is so high. We pay double or triple insurance rates in this country.
“A few years ago a woman ran into my car, but just because I was an actor, and supposedly wealthy, she sued me – and collected $3,000.”
Originally Deacon wanted to be a doctor. He was working as an orderly in a Binghamton hospital when World War II broke out.
“I tried to join the Navy, but they turned me down. The recruiter sent me across the street to the Army because he said the Army would take anyone. They did.
“The Army put me in the medical corps and at one time I was in charge of laboratory facilities for a 5,000-bed hospital. It was ridiculous.”
After the war Deacon studied medicine at Ithaca College, but soon got tired of studying and went into acting. He kicked around the New York-Philadelphia area five years, then headed west and got into films after a short career as a bartender.
He has had two offers to do his own television shows, but turned them down.
“I don’t want the responsibility of being a star. Besides, what’s so important about being a star? Anyone can do it. Look at Charles Farrell. He was a star, but he had no talent.
“I think it’s much more important to be good at what you do. That’s all I try to do.”
Deacon had high praise for everyone connected with “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
“Some people think we get too far-out with our situations,” he said, “but every one of our stories has some basis in real life. We got knocked for a show in which Van Dyke temporarily lost his memory. It actually happened to his father.”
But realism can hurt. He mentioned the time the Los Angeles Catholic diocese sent a priest to the set to supervise an episode in which Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore) discovered one of her former boyfriends had become a priest.
“There was a scene which showed the priest drinking beer,” said Deacon. “Well, the supervising priest killed that one. We had to re-shoot it with the priest drinking coffee.
“Our visiting priest had absolutely no sense of humor. I though he would kill the show, but luckily we worked out compromises and the program turned out to be darn funny. Not as funny as it might have been – but funny.”
Deacon then passed along an incident from “John Goldfarb, Please Come Home.”
“Peter Ustinov, who plays an Arabian prince, double-talked his way through all of his scenes, but one of them had to be done over again when the director learned that Ustinov had accidentally screamed some real Arabic obscenities.”
The anecdote sounded very much like one of the many phony stories that originate each week in Hollywood.
But Deacon told it in that house on a steep, slightly winding street in the Beverly Hills wilderness, away from it all. There, for whatever it was worth, the story sounded real.