As a kid, I was thrilled when Laugh-In came back to TV. I’d read about it — I was already a devotee of pop culture — and was excited to see this stream of consciousness show for myself. Yes, it was a time before the internet, when we couldn’t just dial up everything instantly that we wanted to see.
While date — any of the moment show will be twenty years later — it was still incredible to watch. At the center of this mad show was two men: Dan Rowan and Dick Martin. They were the everymen who couldn’t keep the wild energy of the show from bursting through the screen. But they were also really fascinating people in their own right, who knew that the show itself was the star.
Dan Rowan spent his childhood years following his parents from town to town as they performed their carnival dancing act. He was orphaned at 11, spent four years in an orphanage and by the time he was 18, he hitchhiked to Los Angeles, where he got a job in the Paramount mailroom. Soon, he was the youngest writer on the lot.
During World War II, Rowan served as a fighter pilot, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart. He returned from action and formed his comedy duo with Martin. He was married three times — to Miss America 1945 runner-up Phyllis J. Mathis, Australian model Adriana Van Ballegooyen and TV spokeswoman Joanna Young — and retired in the early 80’s, only returning to help celebrate NBC’s 60th anniversary in 1988 by appearing with his comedy partner.
Dick Martin didn’t serve in the war — tuberculosis kept him from combat — but was a young writer as well, working on the radio show Duffy’s Tavern. He started teaming with Martin in 1952, playing nightclubs, hosting NBC’s Colgate Comedy Hour and appearing in the movie Once Upon a Horse Together. He also played Lucille Ball’s neighbor on The Lucy Show before Laugh-In became a big hit. After his partner retired, Martin was a frequent game show guest and TV show director. He was married to singer Peggy Connelly and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls star Dolly Read twice.
Anyways…The Maltese Bippy.
Sam Smith and Ernest Grey (Rowan and Martin) are the producers of nudie cuties — their latest film is Lunar Lust — and they’re forced out of their office for not paying the rent. Somehow, a G-rated movie in 1969 could concern pornography and no one cared.
They move into Ernest’s house by the cemetery in Long Island, a place where a mutilated corpse has already been found and a woman was frightened by a howling man. Oh yeah — Ernest also is given to barking like a dog.
Somehow, despite not being all that much of a success, Ernest can have a housekeeper (Mildred Natwick, Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate). He also has two roommates, the bubbly Robin Sherwood (Carol Lynley, The Poseidon Adventure) and Axel (Leon Askin, Hogans Heroes), a Swedish violinist.
Meanwhile, the Ravenswood’s next door — Mischa(Fritz Weaver, Creepshow), Carlotta (Julie Newmar!) and Helga (Eddra Gale, Fellini’s 8 1/2) — are vampires who want Ernest to join their pack. Sam thinks they should be a variety act, but the truth is that nearly everyone just wants in the house to search for a giant diamond that is inside the house. (and more to the point, inside the corpse of the home’s original owner).
Hijinks ensue and everyone but our heroes perishes. But that’s not good enough, so they both present their own happy endings to the audience and walk into the sunset together.
Look for a pre-Brady Bunch Robert Reed, David Hurst (the head waiter in Hello, Dolly), character actor Dana Eclar, voiceover actor Alan Oppenheimer, Arthur Batanides (he was Mr. Kirkland in Police Academy 2, 3, 4 and 6), Jennifer Bishop (who is in the William Grefe movies Mako: The Jaws of Death and Impulse, as well as Al Adamson’s Horror of the Blood Monsters, Jessi’s Girls and The Female Bunch) and Garry Walberg, who played Jack Klugman’s poker buddy Homer “Speed” Deegan on The Odd Couple and his boss Lt. Frank Monahan on Quincy, M.E.
Director Norman Panama wrote White Christmas and 1959’s Li’l Abner. He also directed the Hope and Crosby — with Joan Collins! — film The Road to Hong Kong.
This isn’t a great — or even alright — movie, but the TV lover in me appreciated it and found joy in discovering this buried moment in time.