Wednesday, March 27, 2013

In the Mood for a Little Dick?

Those who plumb the depths of The Underworld have seen me reference today's featured actor in posts about open shirts and, in particular, games shows before. As one of my childhood crushes, he alternately enticed me and almost scared me with his overtly expressive face and manner. He seemed to me like a recipe of 1 cup George Maharis, 1 cup Burt Reynolds, a pinch of Dick Shawn and 3 tablespoons of Paul Lynde! Though my tastes have changed as I've grown up (I lean towards hairy chests versus smooth, for example), I still have a soft spot for the exuberant, grinning comic actor Dick Gautier.

Mr. Gautier was born, appropriate for his later life spent mostly in costume, on Halloween of 1931 in Culver City, California. His last name came courtesy of a French-Canadian father who had left behind a career as a lumberjack and railroad worker to work in the movies as a grip at MGM. His mother worked as a seamstress. An early interest in sports came to nil, with injury keeping him on the sidelines, so he began to use his fertile, offbeat sense of humor in school plays.

As he transitioned from his teens into young adulthood, he began to hone his comedic writing and performing skills and also sang locally, backed by a band. He entered the U.S. Navy (looking dazzlingly handsome if you ask me!) and served his peace-time stint by producing and performing in shows for the Special Services department. After his honorable discharge, he continued to perform his brand of zany comedy at San Francisco clubs, eventually heading to New York City where he continued this path.

While giving it his all in in 1960 at a Big Apple club called The Blue Angel, he was spotted by the accomplished dancer-choreographer-director Gower Champion, who was preparing a new musical. The musical, all about the hubbub that occurs when a rock 'n roll teen idol is drafted into the Army and stops to give one last kiss to a young, small town female fan, was called Bye Bye Birdie.

Gautier auditioned for and won the part of the singer, Conrad Birdie, over 750 other hopefuls. Clad in a shiny gold jumpsuit, he swiveled and swaggered his way into the hearts of audiences. His work also drew the attention of the Tony Award nominators who put him in the running for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Unfortunately, Dick Van Dyke, the LEAD of the show, had also been idiotically placed in that same category in order to avoid competition with Richard Burton of Camelot and he won (as did Burton.)

The role of Conrad Birdie was modeled after Elvis Presley (and, to a lesser degree, Conway Twitty) and Gautier adopted the unkempt hair and open-collared mode of dress that Presley had made famous in the 1950s. Gautier, though, was already pushing thirty by this time and had earlier married a woman who would give him three children before their unfortunate divorce.
He played the part on Broadway until 1961, whereupon he continued briefly to enact the role on tour, then did a show in Las Vegas for several months. Eventually returning to California, he began working on TV pilots and landed a small role in the 1964 movie Ensign Pulver. This sequel to Mister Roberts (1955) had him putting his Navy background (and ship-shape physique!) to good use, only this time in a comedic way in support of stars Robert Walker Jr, Burl Ives, Walter Matthau and Tommy Sands. (Also on board were Larry Hagman, future game show icon Peter Marshall and future multiple Oscar-winning actor Jack Nicholson.)

Sadly, when the feature film adaptation of Bye Bye Birdie was made in 1963, the Tony-nominated title role he'd originated went instead to the similar, but decidedly less alluring, fit and charismatic, Jesse Pearson. Pearson had done the part on a national tour. Tellingly, his acting career was all but over after just six or seven years afterwards.

Now, in between club engagements, Gautier began to appear on a variety of popular TV series of the time including Gidget, The Patty Duke Show (as shown here), Bewitched and the Pete Duel/Judy Carne sitcom Love on a Rooftop, among others.

In 1966, he began a recurring role on the spoofy hit spy series Get Smart, which starred Don Adams and Barbara Feldon. He portrayed a handsome robot named Hymie who was on hand to help the lead spies on several occasions.

In the episode shown below, Hymie had a love interest in fellow robot Octavia (played by Gayle Hunnicut), though she was built by the other side.
Gautier only made six appearances as Hymie during the course of Get Smart's run, but it's a testament to him that he is fondly remembered by fans of the show now and has been for many years.

He also worked on another feature film, Divorce, American Style (1967), which starred his old Birdie castmate Dick Van Dyke along with Debbie Reynolds and a host of others such as Jason Robards, Jean Simmons, Van Johnson and Lee Grant.

Additionally in 1967, Gautier costarred in his own TV series. The show, called Mr. Terrific, concerned a gas station attendant played by Stephen Strimpell who occasionally works for a top-secret government bureau by taking a pill that gives him one hour (and just one!) of courage, strength and the ability to fly. Gautier was his womanizing, in-the-dark co-attendant.

The series (similar to that same year's Captain Nice and in a way a forefather to The Greatest American Hero) only made it seventeen episodes before being cancelled. Notably, actress Barbara Stuart guest-starred in one episode and before the year was out, she and Gautier married. (They're seen at left a bit later in their marriage.) During the course of their union, she served as stepmother to his three children Chrissie, Randy and Denise.

As the '60s drew to a close, Gautier helped (along with Peter Marshall!) to write the screenplay for the hooty marijuana-themed flick Maryjane (1968), which starred Fabian, Diane McBain and Patty McCormack (of The Bad Seed fame.) He also popped up as a guest on series such as The Flying Nun (seen here with Ruta Lee), The Debbie Reynolds Show, The Doris Day Show and several installments of Love, American Style.
He also, starting with Hollywood Squares in 1967, began to do TV games shows, something that would become a prominent aspect of his career, especially during the '70s. As a lover of crossword puzzles and other mentally-challenging hobbies, Gautier found it gratifying, personally and financially, to take part in many quiz shows.

In 1973, Gautier was reunited with his Ensign Pulver costar Larry Hagman for another go at a series. This one was a sitcom called Here We Go Again and had Hagman marrying Diane Baker, but living only a stone's throw away from his ex-wife Nita Talbot and her ex-husband Gautier. Thus, “comic hilarity” ensued with regularity as the scrambled up former couples with common children (including Kim Richards!) between them kept getting involved in various exploits. The show was canned after thirteen episodes. (It's a shame because he was looking fantastic at that stage, too!)
Plenty of TV work followed, though, from The Mary Tyler Moore Show as one of Mary's dates (seen here at left) to Banacek to The Rockford Files. Then in 1975, he tried once again to get a TV series of his own to stick. This time it was a send up of Robin Hood called When Things Were Rotten, co-created by Mel Brooks.
Gautier played Robin Hood opposite Maid Marian as embodied by Hee Haw's Misty Rowe! Dick Van Patten and Bernie Kopell, among others, were on hand as part of the Merry Men. Chock full of Brooks' patented type of zany comedy, I can recall absolutely loving this show (and it's fun opening credits) as a kid, but it was up against Little House on the Prairie and Tony Orlando and Dawn, so it was trounced in the ratings.

Of course, I already, even at the tender age of eight, had a crush on Dick Gautier. I just thought he was the most handsome, suave, amusing guy with an ever-present twinkle in his eye. I haven't seen this show since it aired (and was yanked off the airwaves after thirteen episodes!), so it may be positively wretched, but I can tell you that Brooks thought enough of the idea to give it a go again many years later with Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), not that that turned out particularly well either.

It's hilarious to me now to think that in 1975, my eight year-old brain just hated Misty Rowe out of sheer jealousy! She got to romance my man. I also thought she was trashy and cheap from having seen her in her busty, leg-baring duties on Hee Haw. I'm going to have to see if I can find clips of this long-forgotten show and find out what my reaction is now.

He was seemingly everywhere in the '70s: doing stage work in which he was Luther Billis to Ruta Lee's Nellie Forbush in South Pacific (later play Emile in another production, an entirely different sort of role acting-wise and musically), guest-starring on multiple TV series and hobnobbing with gossip maven Rona Barrett (with whom he's pictured below.)
An occasional feature film came along such as the original Fun with Dick and Jane (1977), which starred George Segal and Jane Fonda or the less-than-stellar Billy Jack Goes to Washington (also 1977.) TV movies like Sex and the Married Woman (1977, as seen here with Joanna Pettet) and plenty of guest spots kept him busy. He did The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, The New Adventures of Wonder Woman, Man from Atlantis and, of course, The Love Boat.
Most often on these shows, he was a smarmy, macho, overconfident type who seemed to forget to close the majority of the buttons on his shirts! He embodied and epitomized that open-necked, gold-chain-wearing, tan, polyester persona that people often associate with the 1970s. Sure, it's corny now – might even have been then, but to my young mind he was smokin'! Ha!
Get a load of the running get-up he is wearing in this 1980 TV-movie Marathon, with Herb Edelman (best known as Dorothy's ex-husband Stan on The Golden Girls) and Bob Newhart.

This was also his fertile period on games shows, be it appearing on Liar's Club, Break the Bank, Celebrity Sweepstakes, Match Game, Password Plus, Super Password, Body Language, Tattletales (with then-wife Barbara Stuart) or, later, celebrity editions of Family Feud.

Gautier was always very artistic as well. An accomplished painter, he also perfected the art of the caricature and created countless renditions of famous people as well as original cartoon creations.
He also enjoyed making miniature furniture for use in dollhouses, which he constructed. (Okay, how jealous was I that this kid got to make dollhouse furniture with papa Dick Gautier while my own father sat on the sofa drinking Miller Lite, speaking to me only when I stepped in front of the football game on TV with a loudly-barked, “Ya make a better door than a window!”)

Though he continued to work on TV (in shows like Charlie's Angels, Happy Days, Too Close for Comfort – I can only imagine him and JM J Bullock in the same episode!, Trapper John, M.D. and Quincy M.E.), he soon began to turn his attentions toward his skill with illustration. In 1985, he published a book on drawing and it was followed over the years by close to a dozen more like it.
Plenty more TV appearances continued, such as on Zorro and Son (as seen here), Fantasy Island, Knight Rider and Alice, but by the time of the mid-'80s, Gautier started to find steady work that didn't use his famous, smirking, rubber face. He started to become heavily involved in voice-acting for animated programs.

Some of the programs he worked on included the 1980s version of Jonny Quest, G.I. Joe (as Serpentor, shown here), The Transformers, The Pirates of Dark Water, Captain Planet and the Planeteers and Cow and Chicken. He still popped up from time to time on various live-action shows such as Charles in Charge, The Munsters Today (with John Schuck and Lee Meriwether, as shown below), The Golden Palace and even Nip/Tuck.
Blessed with an impossibly voluminous head of hair, Gautier kept it thick and dark (and unintentionally amusing) through the '80s and '90s.
Some welcome flecks of silver began to appear after the millenium.
But how's he holding up today, you might ask? Well, first of all Dick Gautier is EIGHTY-ONE at present, which is quite hard to believe. Even harder to believe is that he looks THIS GOOD. It's just not fair... Married since 2003 for the third time to a psychiatrist named Tess (see below), he is a grandfather and even a great-grandfather (of three) and enjoys a quiet life in Studio City, California, about a half hour away from where he was born!
In The Underworld, we love goofy, grinning, offbeat, charming, animated Dick Gautier and often let out a (gentle) scream of glee when he shows up on our television screen. We thank him for all those years of fun times, whether hamming it up on game shows or giving television programs a bit of zest and zing (with not a little bit of beefcake in the process!)


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