I’ve often wondered why certain performers become superstars, while others, who appear to be just as talented (or nearly so) become supporting players, or well-known might-have-beens.
When I interviewed Pat Carroll in 1962, she had already settled — rather comfortably, it seemed — into supporting roles, playing Bunny Halper, wife of Danny Thomas’s manager, Charley Halper (Sid Melton) on “Make Room for Daddy.” She also had launched a successful career in what I consider invisible roles — providing voices in commercials and cartoons.
Since then she has been the voice of dozens of animated characters, most notably, perhaps, Ursula in “The Little Mermaid” and several Disney projects since then.
But had the right project come along in the late 1950s, Pat Carroll might well have been a Lucille Ball-kind of television star instead of a Vivian Vance-kind of second banana.
She was born Patricia Ann Angela Bridget Carroll on May 5, 1927 in Shreveport, Louisiana. Her family moved to Los Angeles when she was five. She went to Immaculate College and Catholic University, then immediately into acting. While she has played a wide variety of roles in her career, it was obvious from the start that Pat Carroll had a flair for comedy, which made her an in-demand guest on such programs as “The Red Skelton Hour,” “The Danny Kaye Show,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “Love, American Style,” and just about every game show there was. She won an Emmy for her work with Sid Caesar on his series, "Caesar's Hour" in 1957.
She also made 20 appearances on “The Jack Paar Tonight Show,” and when I met her she was spending a week in Cleveland as co-host of “The Mike Douglas Show.” I think it was the third interview I conducted after I completed my brief stint in the Army — six months of active duty followed by five-and-half years in the Reserves — and despite my inexperience, Ms. Carroll made it look easy. That’s because the woman loves to talk.
Akron Beacon Journal, February 25, 1962
Pat Carroll could be described as an instant performer. All she needs is an audience. One person will do.
Her stories pour out like practiced routines as she gestures wildly with both hands. Her head bobs up and down constantly as she grins and grimaces to emphasize her statements, both comic and serious.
The ease with which she breaks into a performance ha been beneficial to co-workers and her booking agency as well. Her agents don’t hesitate to book her for almost any job.
“They just call me and tell me to be at such-and-such place and such-and-such time,” she said, “and I just go. A lot of time I don’t know what I’ll be doing, but it usually works out fine.” (Up went her right hand in a nonchalant gesture.)
Her flexibility keeps her busy. She appears regularly as Mrs. Charley Halper on “The Danny Thomas Show”; is a frequent Jack Paar guest, and recently was co-host of “The Mike Douglas Show.”
She also supplies the voices used on many commercials and recently worked on an animated cartoon show being prepared for the fall season.
“The money I got from the cartoon show was almost like stealing,” she said, chuckling. “It was so easy and so much fun. And I don’t even recall the name of the show,” she added with a mug and casual shrug of her shoulders.
“I just do what I’m asked to do in this business, because every experience could be valuable later on. You never know when the tube will call or when there’ll be an opening on a good show.” Up went both hands.
The “tube,” of course, was her reference to television, the medium she credits for the biggest boost in her career. Her first national recognition came as a result of her regular clowning on “The Red Buttons Show” during the 1952-53 season.
“But you don’t learn anything from television,” she snapped. “You have to learn FOR television.” She made the point by pounding her right fist against an imaginary podium in front of her.
“As a stage and nightclub performer, I learned things from the audience, and I could adjust my act from night to night. But in television — whoosh!” Up flew her hands again. “One shot and you’ve had it. There is no second chance. No good, no show.”
Her willingness to improve and expand her career sometimes backfires.
“My agents wanted me to put together a nightclub act,” she recalled. “They told me I’d be a smash in Las Vegas, and make all kinds of money.” She flashed a wide smile that abruptly disappeared with her next sentence.
“I believed them and I worked on some material which I tried out in Philadelphia. But I bombed. I mean, no one has ever bombed like I did in Philadelphia. I was so terrible, I don’t ever want to go back to nightclub work. That takes guts, and that kind of guts I don’t have.”
She'd had some success in nightclubs previously, but now prefers to do things that will allow her time for family. She is married to Lee Karsian and they have two children, son Sean, born in 1956, and daughter Kerry, born in 1957.
“I like family life,” she said, suddenly taking on the appearance of a mother about to introduce herself to an elementary school principal. “I have a boy who is five and a girl who is four, and I’m not going to go all-out for a career until the children are old enough to take care of themselves.
“I’m going to have another baby, too,” she added, “but that’s strictly on ‘The Danny Thomas Show.’ I’m surprised how many people identify me with that show and think I’m really expecting another child. Women look at me kind of funny and ask when I’m going to have the baby, then they inspect me like this.”
She thrust her head forward and took a close-up look at the stomach section of someone sitting next to her.
“Women are always suspicious,” she said.
She moved from New York to Hollywood before she knew she’d be part of the Thomas show. Moving was her husband’s idea.
“He was born in Massachusetts, but he’s a nut about California,” she said. “He came home one day last winer after we were snowed in for four days, and said, ‘Honey, we’re not going through another winter like this. So we moved to California.” She paused a few seconds made a face, and continued. “And since we’ve been there they’ve had one cataclysmic fire and a major flood.”
When she left Cleveland, she went to New York City to record a few commercial jingles and to work out plans for a short summer stock tour.”
“I don’t know what shows I’ll be doing or where I’ll be doing them” she said, “but I enjoy working in a good musical.”
She’d eventually like to do a musical comedy on Broadway, but admits she’s happy performing anywhere, just so long as there’s an audience.
She said she’s been like that since her childhood when she played the accordion in amateur shows. Miss Carroll was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, 34 years ago, but grew up in the Los Angeles area. She joined various theater groups during her tens, and later, at age 20, became a civilian actress technician for the U. S. Army.
“I joined to see the world,” she said, “but you guessed it! I worked in the states.”
She directed soldiers’ shows at bases throughout the seven states in the Second Army area.
“I had lots of authority,” she laughed, “because I was boss over everyone, even the officers, when it came to one of my shows.”
She left the Army in 1949 and moved to New York “to conquer the big city.”
Two years later, she retreated to a small nightclub in eastern Pennsylvania, which turned out to be a very smart move. Scouts for “The Red Buttons Show” caught her act, and buy the fall of 1952, at age 25, Pat Carroll was trading quips with the comedian who was the star of one of television’s hottest shows.
She later joined Sid Caesar on “Caesar’s Hour” and went on Broadway in “Catch a Star” and “On the Town.”
Other television shots included being on the panels of “Masquerade Party” and “Keep Talking.”
Now she has an eye out for possible movie roles.
“I thought I had chances for two films, but was told I was too young for one part, too old for the other. I hope they make up their minds before it’s too late for anything.”
Apparently that cartoon show she worked on never made it to the home screen; at least, I find not record of it being shown. So when I interviewed her two years and ten months later — this time over the telephone — she mentioned another cartoon show, which, if it were picked up by a network, would mark her debut in the lucrative market of providing voices for animated films.
Akron Beacon Journal, December 20, 1964
Occasionally I’m asked how I find things to ask performers who call the newspaper for interviews set up by various publicity people. Does it take a special talent to talk to celebrities?
I’ll answer that question by recounting my most recent telephone interview . . . with comedienne Pat Carroll. I think you’ll see that, indeed, a special talent is required.
Miss Carroll, of course, has a long television background, having co-starred on programs with Red Buttons, Sid Caesar and Danny Thomas. Last week’s telephone call was set up by Isobel Silden of the Rogers and Cowan public relations company in hope of calling attention to her recent appearance on “The Danny Kaye Show.”
Our conversation began in familiar fashion.
“Hello. Jack Major? This is Pat Carroll.”
“Hi, Pat Carroll. This is Jack Major.”
“How’s the weather in Akron, Jack?”
“Just dandy, Pat. It’s snowing, but the weatherman says the temperature might skyrocket to 33 degrees before the day is through.”
“Heh, heh, heh. It’s 72 degrees here, and I’m in the process of changing the water in my swimming pool. Heh, heh, heh.” (It was 11 a.m. California time.)
That is the worst thing about calls from California. Everyone out there is a member of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. They have absolutely no sympathy for residents of the Snow Belt.
Just then Ms. Carroll — aka Mrs. Lee Karsian — was interrupted by one of her children who had the day off from parochial school because it was a Catholic Holy Day.
As many Catholics are doing these days, she and I briefly discuss the new Mass. She was strongly in favor of it; I was skeptical. It took about eight minutes of chit-chat before we got around to the subject of the call, “The Danny Kaye Show,” and we finished that subject in about 67 seconds, which was long enough for her to say she was thrilled to work on what is widely regarded as TV’s finest program, and to add she got a big kick out of being reunited with Howard Morris, who also was a Kaye guest that night.
“Howard and I worked on Sid Caesar’s show, you know. Now Howard is one of our most promising television directors. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy.”
There was a brief pause, but she punctured it with a booming, “OH! I MUST TELL YOU ABOUT ANOTHER SHOW! I just finished taping ‘Cinderella’ with Walter Pidgeon, Ginger Rogers, Jo Van Fleet and Celeste Holm and two young people who are sure to become big stars — Lesley Warren and Stuart Damon. The program is a special to be shown February 22.
“CBS got its color cameras out of mothballs to do the show, and I think they did a beautiful job. They should have. I think they spent about $500,000 on it. It took us five days to tape the show,, and we worked nine days altogether, counting rehearsals. Once the crew worked 38 hours straight.
“That’s a very long time to do a television show,, and when we were through, the program became known as the children’s ‘Cleopatra.’
“Hey! I’m really excited about those kids. Lesley Warren is just 18 years old, and she’s a cross between Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn, and that’s pretty good cross-breeding. And Stuart Damon is a young Lawrence Olivier and he’s good-looking and can really sing and . . . ”
“Enough!” I broke in. “Tell me about your own role . . . your own plans.”
“Oh, I play one of the wicked stepsisters,” she said, dismissing her role in one sentence. “Lessee . . . my plans. Haven’t you heard? I’ve become the publicity agent for Lesley Warren and Stuart Damon.”
From there, Miss Carroll delivered a brief lecture for the benefit of any young performers who somehow might have tapped into our conversation.
“You’ve got to be prepared for stardom,” she said. “Lesley and Stuart are. They’ve been performing almost all their lives. Too many people believe they’ll be discovered sitting on a stool at a soda fountain. They’ve got to realize wishing doesn’t make it so. They’ve got to work for success. And it might take years.”
Lecture ended, she began outlining her plans.
“I’m going to make another tour of the panel show circuit. Say what you will about panel show, but it’s fun working on them. And it’s easy. You know, I’m everyone’s second-stringer. Whenever a guests has to cancel out of a panel show, I’m called to fill in. And I’m scheduled to do another Kaye show in February, but before that I’ll probably go to Europe with my husband. It will be my first trip to Europe.”
It won’t exactly be a pleasure trip. Her husband will accompany one of his clients, rock ‘n’ roll singer Bobby Jameson, on a European tour.
“Like most young singers these days, Bobby has that long, long hair. It's a very light brown, almost blond. Who knows? He may be another Sandra Dee. Tell me, is there really a Sandra Dee.
“These names get me. Sandra Dee. Troy Donahue. Tuesday Weld. Rock Hudson. There’s a talent agency out here called Ashley-Famous; the first time I heard of it, no foolin’, I thought it was the name of a new movie star. And why not? Ashley-Famous is a catchy name.”
Without missing a beat, she changed subjects again.
“I’m talking with four companies about doing pilot films for TV shows. I’m interested in two of them, but the other two are pretty bad. I probably should do one of the bad ones. It will almost surely be sold. I mean, hav you watched television this season? Isn’t it awful? Have you ever seen anything worse than ‘The Munsters’?
“I can’t figure it out. The best new shows are ‘Slattery’s People’, ‘The Man from UNCLE’ and ‘The Rogues’ — and they’re all in rating trouble. I dunno. Maybe it’s just my taste. I just don’t like any of the new shows that is a hit.
“And talk about bad taste!” she charged on. “If you really want to ruin your taste, get a color television set. You find you’ll watch anything — so long as it’s in color. Last week I watched one of the all-time horrible movies. George Sanders’ brother (Tom Conway) was in it, so you know how bad it was, but I sat through the whole thing just because it was color.”
She took a deep breath — then plunged in again.
“By the way, I’m hoping to break into the cartoon business next season. I’m one of the voices on a cartoon show that we hope will be on the air next year. We haven’t heard anything definite, though. I’m also continuing to do voices for animated commercials. That’s a nice racket. I got to New York for one week every year to do commercials — and then get paid for them the other 51 weeks.
“I enjoy making commercials, and not just for the money. Honestly, I think commercials are the most creative and entertaining things on the air these days. How can you beat that coffee commercial with Lauren Bacall and Jason Robards Jr. I think it’s the funniest thing on TV. It’s like instant person-to-person. ‘Why, hello out there. We’re so glad you could drop in tonight. Want to see our home? Well, over here we have our pot of instant coffee. Do you want to know how I make my instant coffee? Well, it’s like this . . . ”
It was obvious Pat Carroll could have kept talking all day, but it was now past noon and she had to get lunch for her children. The call had gone some 63 minutes, making the telephone company richer by approximately $35.
And how was I able to get a television star to talk to me that long?
Simply by saying, “Hello.”
Once again, she mentioned a cartoon series that apparently was not picked up by a network, though she eventually provided a voice for Ms. Biddy McBrain in the animated series, “Galaxy High School” (1986); Hazel in “Foofur” (1986-87); Katrina Stoneheart on “Pound Puppies” (1986-87): Ursula in a “Little Mermaids” series (1993-94), and Old Lady Crowley in “Tangled: The Series” (2017-18).
She also continued to work in several prime time shows, and was a semi-regular in “Getting Together,” with Bobby Sherman (1971-72); “Busting Loose,” with Adam Arkin (1977); “Too Close for Comfort,” with Ted Knight (1986-87), and “She’s the Sheriff,” with Suzanne Somers (1987-89). She made three guest appearances on “ER” in 2005.
She had a third child, Tara, in 1965, but in 1976 she and Lee Karsian were divorced. Her daughter, Kerry Karsian, became a casting director, while Tara became an actress, who has made appearances on several television shows, and was a semi-regular in “Review” (2014-17) and “Doubt” (2017). Son Sean died in 2009, at the age of 53.
At the time of this writing, Pat Carroll was 92 years old.