Three old comics.

               

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Jack Benny (1894 – 1974)

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In his will Jack Benny left instructions for a single red rose to be delivered to Mary Livingstone, his widow and co-star from his radio days, every morning for the remainder of her life. She lived on for another nine years after his death. Mary, incidentally, was one of the guests aboard Randolph Hearst’s yacht in 1924, the night director Thomas Ince was presumably shot to death (see Hollywood Warts ‘n’ All Vol 1). She and Benny married in 1927 and remained together for 47 years until Jack passed away in 1974.

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Mary & Jack

His entire career was really built on three seemingly minor gimmicks. First and foremost was his supposedly abysmal violin-playing. In reality he began learning the instrument at the age of six and was quite accomplished without being a virtuoso. The story goes that Benny, a good friend of US President Harry S. Truman, was asked to be Master of Ceremonies at the president’s Inaugural Ball in 1949. When he arrived at the White House, carrying his violin case, a guard asked him what was inside. ‘It’s a Thompson sub-machine gun’, whispered Jack. ‘Oh, that’s a relief’, the guard replied. ‘I was afraid it was your violin.’

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Young Jack and his violin

Second, he promoted the impression that he was extremely mean and miserly. Again, this was far from the truth. He was, in fact, a generous man. His most famous joke (and it was first presented on radio), involved him being confronted by a robber who demanded, ‘Your money or your life!’ Nearly three minutes of radio silence ensued, interrupted only by the laughing of the studio audience. Finally, the robber prodded Jack, ‘Well?’ said the man. ‘I’m thinking it over’, replied Benny.

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with his ‘rival’ Fred Allen

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To Be or Not to Be – with

the wonderful Carole Lombard

Third, he supposedly had a life-long running feud with fellow radio comedian Fred Allen. In reality they were close friends. When Fred pre-deceased him Benny was greatly saddened, even taking the time to eulogise his ‘so-called’ enemy on his radio show. Jack also became the master of what was termed ‘the slow burn’. Someone would make an uncomplimentary comment about him and he would simply stand there, say nothing, and slowly ‘simmer’. From such simple premises he hosted many radio and TV series and amassed a $4 million fortune by the time he died. His screen career was far less significant, more or less a series of cameos, although he did star opposite Carole Lombard in To Be or Not to Be in 1942 and in Charley’s Aunt a year earlier.

 

W.C. Fields  (1880 – 1946)

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W.C. Fields is considered to be one of the all-time great comedians yet he only made 34 movies (and seven ‘shorts’) in his entire career. His father was a Cockney immigrant (and an alcoholic who often beat him); his mother a Philadelphian. After just four years of school the young Fields ran away from home and his horrendous father. But only as far as his grandmother’s place. Stories of him living on the streets (even in a hole in the ground according to one over-imaginative writer) were dispelled in a book on his life written by his grandson Ronald J. Fields.

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with Freddie Bartholomew in David Copperfield

Nevertheless, by the age of thirteen (in 1893) WC had become a skilled pool player and juggler. For years he scraped out a meagre living at Fortescue’s Pier, New Jersey, gradually building and refining his comedic talents along the way. The year 1915 was a good one for the 35 year-old Fields. He made his first movie, a silent one called Pool Sharks, and landed appearances in each of the Ziegfeld Follies between then and 1921. He married just once (in 1900 to a lady named Harriet Hughes, the union lasting until his death in 1946. A stomach hemorrhage brought on by his alcoholism took his life on Christmas Day of that year. His love of alcohol may or may not be a false legend. Rarely was he seen without a drink in his hand, but contrarily, none of his acquaintances can recall ever seeing him drunk or out of control either.

 

Dick Van Dyke (1925 – )

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Dick & Julie in Mary Poppins                                      

Dick Van Dyke, the performer who played opposite Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins (1964), did not take his first drink until he was 29 (1954), but he certainly made up for his late start from that day onwards. ‘It was a marvelous relaxer’, he recalled. ‘Jack Daniel’s became my good friend. Then sometime in my early forties he turned on me.’ By then he had become an established star of both TV and movies, although how his career managed to survive his abominable attempt at a Cockney accent in Mary Poppins is a wonder in itself. It almost certainly cost him an Oscar nomination that year. By the 70s he had overcome his alcoholism, but it was another 20 years before he rid himself of his two-packs-a day smoking habit. He always said that quitting smoking was a lot harder than quitting drinking.

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Dick with his idol Stan Laurel (1964)

He was always a great fan of comedian Stan Laurel. Sometime in the early sixties Dick learned that Stan was living in Santa Monica, California, so he found the legendary comedian’s name and address in the phone book and asked to meet him. The two men became firm friends and when Stan passed away in 1965 it was Dick who read the eulogy at his funeral service. At one time (1961) he considered playing Stan in a biopic, but Laurel himself was dead against the idea. Facially they were similar, he said, but Dick was too tall and his mannerisms were nothing like his. The project never eventuated.

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Walt Disney & P L Travers

In 1976 Dick was offered the lead in The Omen, but he turned it down because of the graphic violence, he said. Gregory Peck accepted the role and the picture was a huge success. Van Dyke later described his decision to refuse the picture as ‘stupid’. He also recalled meeting the writer of Mary Poppins, the irascible P.L. Travers. ‘She hated me, she hated Julie Andrews, she didn’t think either one of us were right. After the premiere she met Walt [Disney] in the lobby and said, ‘All the animation has to go.’ Walt said, ‘Pamela, the boat has sailed.’ In 2013 Emma Thompson would play Pamela Travers in the movie Saving Mr. Banks, a film about the interaction and confrontations between the lady and Disney over the making of Mary Poppins.

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Dick and first wife Marjorie

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with Michelle Triola

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with his second wife Arlene

Dick and his first wife Marjorie separated in the mid-seventies after nearly 30 years together. In 1976 he moved in with Michelle Triola, the former partner of Lee Marvin. When Michelle lost her landmark ‘palimony’ case against Marvin it was Van Dyke who gave her a six-figure amount out of his own account, a decision he admitted later that led to Marjory finally divorcing him in 1984. He and Michelle remained together, although they never married, until her death in 2009. In 2012 he married again. He was 87 and his new bride, Arlene Silver – 41.

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