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Howard Morris, 85; Director and Actor Was Ernest T. Bass on 'The Andy Griffith Show'

May 24, 2005|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Howard Morris, the comedic actor who provided memorable support for Sid Caesar on the landmark "Your Show of Shows" in the 1950s and later played rock-throwing hillbilly Ernest T. Bass on "The Andy Griffith Show," has died. He was 85.

Morris, who had heart problems in recent years, died Saturday at his home in Hollywood, said his son David, who was with him when he died.

During his 60-year career in show business, Morris worked as an actor, director and voice-over artist.

Morris directed such feature films as the comedies "With Six You Get Eggroll," starring Doris Day; "Who's Minding the Mint?," starring Jim Hutton; and "Don't Drink the Water," starring Jackie Gleason.

He also directed episodes of numerous television series, including the pilot for "Get Smart," and he was a Clio Award-winning director of commercials.

As a voice-over artist, Morris was the longtime voice of the Qantas Airlines koala. He also provided the voice of Gerald McBoing-Boing in Columbia cartoons in the 1950s, and he was the voice of television's Atom Ant in "The Atom Ant Show," Beetle Bailey and General Halftrack in "Beetle Bailey and His Friends," and Jughead Jones and Big Moose Mason in "The Archie Show."

As a character actor, he appeared in films such as "Boys' Night Out," starring Kim Novak; Jerry Lewis' "The Nutty Professor"; and Mel Brooks' "High Anxiety," "Life Stinks" and "History of the World: Part I."

Morris first came to national attention when he joined Caesar, Imogene Coca and Carl Reiner on "Your Show of Shows," the live, 90-minute comedy-variety program that ran on NBC from 1950 to 1954.

"The thing about Howie that's most interesting is the extent of his talent," Reiner told The Times on Monday, saying that Morris could do everything from slapstick to Shakespeare.

Added Reiner, who first met Morris at a New York City radio workshop in 1940 and who later gave Morris his first directing job, on "The Dick Van Dyke Show": "For such a short guy, he was carrying more hyphens than anyone I know."

Morris' stature landed him his first job with Caesar in 1949 on "The Admiral Broadway Revue," the Caesar and Coca TV program that preceded "Your Show of Shows."

An actor who was small enough for Caesar to pick up by the lapels in a sketch was needed.

And, as Morris later recalled, when producer Max Liebman introduced him to Caesar, "He grabbed me by the lapels and lifted me up in the air and said, 'Max! Him! Get!' And that was my audition for 'The Admiral Broadway Revue.' "

Morris was working on Broadway in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," starring Carol Channing, when he joined "Your Show of Shows" in the fall of 1951. Caesar told The Times on Monday that Morris "was a great addition" to the cast.

"He was very good at physical stuff, and he was a very nice man -- no arguments," Caesar said. "He was so fast and loose that you could put him into any position. And he worked with you; he really did."

That probably was never more evident than in Morris' favorite sketch -- a spoof of Ralph Edwards' "This Is Your Life," in which Caesar played the world's most reluctant surprise honoree and Reiner was the bow-tie-wearing host.

Morris played Caesar's long-lost Uncle Goopy.

"The script says Uncle Goopy is desperately in love [with his nephew] and they kiss and hug," Reiner said. "Well, kissing and hugging practically became a whole sketch."

Indeed, Morris became so caught up playing the emotionally overwrought Uncle Goopy that he latched onto Caesar's leg and wouldn't let go -- even as Caesar walked across the stage.

And when Reiner finally broke them apart, weeping Uncle Goopy leaped from the couch to get back on Caesar's leg.

"The decibel of laughter was the most I ever heard from a sketch," said Reiner, adding that no one knew that the audience "would go nuts" over the bit.

And like all good improvisational actors, Reiner said, Morris "took the moment and ran with it."

Morris also was a regular on "Caesar's Hour," from 1954 to 1957, and later co-starred in the "The Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris Special," which won two Emmys in 1967.

Born in the Bronx, N.Y., in 1919, Morris was the son of a rubber company executive who died of a heart attack soon after losing his job during the Depression.

An only child, Morris helped support his mother, who had played organ in silent movie theaters, where young Morris developed a flair for mimicking the actors on screen.

He earned a scholarship to New York University but left to serve in the Army during World War II. While working in an entertainment unit in the Pacific, he later recalled, "We did everything from small shows called 'Five Jerks in Jeep' to 'Hamlet' " -- a condensed version of the Shakespearean tragedy in which Morris played Laertes.

After the war, he made his Broadway debut in what was known as the "GI Hamlet."

Although Morris appeared as the rock-throwing, poetry-spouting Bass ("It's me! It's me! It's Ernest T.!") in only five episodes of "The Andy Griffith Show," the role left a lasting impression on the show's fans.

There even is an official Ernest T. Bass website, which this week has become a memorial site as fans post their memories and their condolences to the family.

In addition to his son, the five-times-divorced Morris is survived by his daughters, Gabrielle, Kim and Devra; and three grandchildren.

A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary, 6001 Centinela Ave., Los Angeles.

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