HOME | FAMILY TREES | RECOLLECTIONS | SPOTLIGHT ON SOLVAY | ETC. | READ ABOUT IT | NAME DROPPING
 

Though he had appeared in several movies, starting in 1956, Frank Gorshin didn't attract much attention until he turned to television — as a comedian who specialized in impressions.

He bore more than a slight resemblance to a young Richard Widmark, who was one of the actors mimicked by Gorshin in his act. When Widmark broke into films, he did it as hoodlum Tommy Udo in "Kiss of Death" (1947). It was no surprise that Gorshin's early film roles — some of them uncredited — had him playing evil characters in such films as "Hot Rod Girls," "Night of the Quarter Moon," and "Ring of Fire." He also was featured in such honeys as "Dragstrip Girl," "Invasion of the Saucer Men," and "Portland Expose."

People had a tendency to recognie Gorshin's face, but his name was obscured by the famous actors he worked into his act. Besides Widmark, Gorshin was particularly good doing Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. These were three stars that were pretty much untouched by impressionists in the late 1950s and early '60s when James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were the two most-imitated actors. Oh, yes, and almost every impressionist worked in a "Judy. Judy. Judy." to represent Cary Grant.

Gorshin never did graduate into movie stardom, but there never was any shortage of work for him. When I met him in the fall of 1962, he had no way of knowing that his most famous role would be a comic strip character. He made his debut as The Riddler in January, 1966, in the first episode of ABC's prime time version of "Batman." Neither Widmark nor Douglas nor Lancaster played it any better.

Until then, his best-known role was as the near-sighted musician who was paired with Connie Francis in "Where the Boys Are," a popular film from 1960. That film was much on my mind when I interviewed him two years later:

Akron Beacon Journal, November 11, 1962
A friend who saw the movie, “Where the Boys Are,” two years ago gave me a glowing review of the film.

“Do you know who’s in it?” It was not a question, but an exclamation leading to the most important reason he enjoyed the movie.

“No,” I replied. Which was a lie; I knew full well who starred in the film. But he had someone else on his mind, so I asked, “So tell me, who’s in the movie?”

“The guy who does all the imitations. You know . . . what’s his name . . . the guy who looks like Richard Widmark .. . . and Kirk Douglas . .. . and Burt Lancaster. You know . . . him.”

I knew who it had to be, but I strung my friend along for another minute or two before I identified the guy as Frank Gorshin, a man with 40 faces and 40 voices.

But that’s a problem for Gorshin. Everybody loves his act, but not enough people remember his name. Not yet, anyway.
He’s been on at least a dozen network television show, starting with “The Steve Allen Show” three years ago. Since then he’s done “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “Tonight,” “Perry Como,” and “The Lively Ones.”

He’s also gone dramatic several times in movies and one television; last year he combined his mimicry with acting in a role on “The Defenders,” playing a comic who was being “swallowed” by the celebrities he imitated.

Recently he was in Cleveland to co-host “The Mike Douglas Show” over KYW-TV. Then he was a poolroom hoodlum on ABC’s “The Untouchables.” Tuesday he will be a guest star on NBC’s “Empire.”

“I’ve always wanted to be a movie star,” he told me in Cleveland, “but there are so few movies being made these days in California. Living in Los Angeles, I have to do all the television work I can. It’s the only way I can become popular enough to get any place in this business.”

Most people would probably be surprised to know Gorshin has acted in 15 films since 1956, but none made a lasting impression on moviegoers.
“I thought ‘Where the Boys Are’ would do it,” he said, “but it didn’t.”
Gorshin played a near-sighted musician in that one and — in the opinion of several critics — stole the picture. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to steal, and after the film completed its circuit around the country, Gorshin found himself still a long way from stardom.

“People didn’t begin to recognize me until I did the television shows,” he said.

Like many actors, Gorshin has a TV series in the early planning stages.

“I’d play the manager of Jerry Lewis’s nightclub, and the show would be comedy and drama. We’re just talking about it now,” he said, “so there’s nothing definite.”

Gorshin grew up in Pittsburgh and attended Carnegie Tech for two years.

“I wasn’t an engineering student. Carnegie has a fine dramatic school as well.

When he left school, he was promptly drafted by Uncle Sam. He spent most of his Army life as a performer for Special Services, and his success with the troops prompted him to get an agent as soon as he became a civilian again in 1954.

He went to the West Coast — “My agent moved to California, so I followed him” — and worked as a singer-comedian until he made his first movie two years later.

“I’ve used the comedy act as a wedge to open other doors,” he explained. “I really want to be an actor, and I’d like to sing, too.”
Gorshin claims the impression started by accident.

“I’ve always clowned around and tried to be the center of attention,” he admitted, “and sometimes a friend would say, ‘Hey, that sounds just like so-and-so.

“Then I’d practice until I sounded more like so-and-so and pretty soon I had an assortment of voices. I do 43 different people and I’m trying to for more.”

For this purpose — that is, imitating celebrities — Gorshin considers his face a blessing because he can mold it in an instant to resemble many people in his act.

Thus, when Gorshin talks like Burt Lancaster, he looks remarkably like the star. Ditto for Kirk Douglas and Richard Widmark.

Like an artist doing a caricature, Gorshin picks out the outstanding characteristics of his subjects. With Lancaster, for instance, Gorshin emphasizes those flashing teeth.

Of the people in his act, Gorshin says the most difficult to imitate are Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Greenstreet and President John F. Kennedy.

“There are others I’ve tried to do, but I’ve had no success with them . . . yet. I’ve tried to do Spencer Tracy, but haven’t done him well enough to use in my act. I’ve also tried to do John Wayne, but can’t capture that voice of his. I can walk like him, but that’s all. I guess there’s only one person in the whole world who sounds like John Wayne.”

Later in his career, Gorshin told interviewers that The Riddler boosted his career by making him a headliner in Las Vegas. Before his death in 2005, Gorshin did everything from Broadway to daytime soap operas ("The Edge of Night," "The Bold and the Beautiful"), and even played George Burns in a dreadful movie comedy, "Angels with Angles," one of his last projects.

He and his wife, Chris, were married 48 years. They had one son, Mitchell.

 
HOME CONTACT