Interview with Elliott Reid
BROADCAST: 1967 | DURATION: 00:56:43
Elliott Reid talks about his career as an American actor. He talks about various that he was part of, with a great focus on satire and political humor.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Shortly, pre-maturely it seems, "The Odd Couple" closes after what seems to be a record breaking run at the Blackstone Theater-- some 77 weeks-- and it's been a long time for me, that is, I've been wanting to meet one of the principals in it. Elliott Reid, who plays the more delicate figure of the two with-- costarring with Dan Dailey-- and I suppose Elliott Reid is known to many listeners, even some who may not have seen "The Odd Couple," for his work in the short-lived and yet very provocative weekly satirical program "This Was The Week That Was," "TW3" abbreviated, based upon the British-- on the British version. One of the first questions, Elliott, that I know is a bit wistful with the closing after so many weeks in Chicago-- one of the first questions is satire itself, that flopped, the American version of "TW3" flopped.
Elliott Reid Yes, it flopped as many programs flop in this country because it had no ratings. I'm not now discussing the quality or the worth of the program, but I don't think in this country one can ever discuss the disappearance of a show from television except on that one simple thing. I think the rating system is an appalling thing and inimical to any decent standards for television programming, which is why we're happy now that UHF programs are turning up and so on, but there was much that was wrong with that program. However, I think there was and should be a place for a program that has some comment that's slightly irreverent or perhaps very irreverent about the current scene, political, social, artistic, every way.
Studs Terkel And doesn't this raise a difficulty. Elliott Reid, who by the way is a remarkable mime and perhaps we can talk about that too later, being the mime and being the legitimate theatre actor--two challenges involved here. But this irreverence today is-- even though irreverence is accepted on the nightclub stage and now and then we see it on TV-- isn't satire more difficult today? Isn't the situation itself-- the reality becomes satirical.
Elliott Reid Yes and most satirists, I think most humorists, I'm not saying comics, that's a rather different area, but I think people, satirists, must have a point of view and I think any person with a point of view is essentially a rather serious person. He expresses his point of view through humor and he makes people laugh and, for instance, during the time-- if I may revert to myself.
Elliott Reid During the time of the McCarthy hearings I had quite a little impression of McCarthy and Mr. Welch and all of the people involved in those hearings. Now my impersonation of McCarthy obviously, and what I had him say, obviously reflected my comment and my point of view on McCarthy and I think when I did Mr. Welch, I did him with love in a way, I enjoyed him very much as a person. McCarthy-- I simply tried to get the truth of what McCarthy was like in my impression. Of course millions of people saw what he was like and that was what finished McCarthy. But that is-- the point is, you couldn't do an impression of the McCarthy hearing-- the mimicry might be very sharp, but unless the satirist is there, unless the person doing it has a point of view, it will be empty of content. That's what I mean. So that mimicry, which is very often denigrated as an art form, in fact it's not even accepted as an art form by many people, can be, I agree, very empty and very sterile and very boring. But my feeling about mimicry and how I tried to use mimicry when I do is to be a part of something else, a part of a comment. Not that I'm a professional social reformer, but I think it must come out of your own view of life.
Studs Terkel Elliott, this is a fascinating point you're making. I never heard this made before, that too often the mimic is accepted as just a facsimile figure and let it go at that unless he has-- this what you describe as a point of view. Therefore the mimic does comment. It's something he does that adds to to the figure whom he's mimicking, either ridiculing or perhaps just doing it with some gentility, with some love as you did with Mr. Welch.
Elliott Reid The only interesting thing in mimicry is to do that. A year ago there was a Jack Paar special on television of political humor and I did a sort of one man version of a political convention, which I must say, I've hauled out and rewritten just about every four years and made a few dollars from. But in that I try and create the pandemonium and the madness of all-- of both these conventions-- they're really interchangeable-- and some of the characters, the senators, the little delegates who get up and so on and so forth, and the commentators. I try and show how Brinkley would talk about it and so on and so forth. Now there is a mixture of not real people, prototypes, and real people and that is what interests me. I'm not interested in saying "my next impression is" or "and then who showed up at the Hollywood party" and you do Edward G. Robinson. Those-- that kind of mimicry is still being done, but it is regrettable I think.
Studs Terkel This is the mimicry without a point of view.
Elliott Reid Yes.
Studs Terkel You mean this is the actor or the mimic, rather, that does Edward G. Robinson, Berton Winston Churchill-- there was an old act of Berton Churchill years ago.
Elliott Reid Yes indeed. I remember Berton. I can see him right now.
Studs Terkel Arguing that mimicry on James Cagney on the raft, but you're talking now about comment. Could I could exploit you, Elliott Reid, with-- just at your own ease, you were doing-- you said something about McCarthy and Joseph Welch. You're also known perhaps later we'll ask about the marvelous one-man Kefauver quiz that you were with an audience.
Elliott Reid Oh yes. That was a long, long--.
Studs Terkel How-- what is it-- when you, you are now McCarthy and you are I suppose quizzing someone.
Elliott Reid Well I have never done this, of course, because so many of the principals have left our earth so I'm always troubled by questions of taste. However, if you think it's admissible to do a moment or two, just perhaps to demonstrate what interests me in attempting to recreate-- this is without judging any of these people-- I just offered this right now as the way-- if I can remember it Studs-- the way I used to do. And I never did this publicly this was only kind of around Hollywood living rooms and whatnot. But, the way the McCarthy hearings sounded to me, as I recall-- now I don't remember this too well-- now I'll just do a bit of it, but I began with Mr. Welch interrogating one of the army officers, one of the people, I don't know who it was about a picture, and then the senator would interrupt him on so and it would begin with Mr. Welch saying [speaking at Mr. Welch] now sir, as I understand your testimony, this picture, which you showed that this committee this morning, is a shamefully cut-- [speaking as senator] Mr. Chairman. [speaking as Mr. Welch] --a shamefully cut-- [speaking as senator] Mr. Chairman. [speaking as Mr. Welch] --cut down picture-- [speaking as senator] Mr. Chairman. [speaking as Mr. Welch] --in which Mr.-- [speaking as senator] Mr. Chairman. [speaking as chairman] The senator, a point of order. [speaking as senator] Yes, a very important point of order. First of all, let me say, I know this young man is a very clever little lawyer. I know he's got a job to do. However-- strike that-- nevertheless-- [speaking as Mr. Welch] Now sir, may I say to you-- [speaking as senator] Just a moment, just don't interrupt-- and it goes on like that. Well, and then I have Jenkins, you know that one who came up to mediate supposedly between it all and he'd say [speaking as Jenkins] Now let me say to you, at any time did you see Mr. Cohn or Mr. Schine together? Or-- And it went on like this. Then he'd begin again and he'd you know-- but this was ill done and I haven't done it in a long time and I'm a little bit--.
Studs Terkel Now on the contrary I think you ought to have done, Elliott Reid is our guest, and for those who still haven't seen "Odd Couple," he used to be seen there as one of the stars with Dan Dailey at the Blackstone-- soon closing-- but coming back to this theme of, as the audience can probably gather, but more than a mimic is involved here, but someone who was observing, an impression, and a point of view. Just as we heard, it seem to be a strange period in American history too-- not that we've left it-- but, you, the perceptive observer, are commenting on two certain kinds of Americans-- three in this instance-- and there wasn't the imitation there was something else.
Elliott Reid Well, I regret the mimicry wasn't better.
Studs Terkel Oh no, it was excellent.
Elliott Reid At once time it was, but of course you don't do things for a long time and it fades. But I was very concerned about that period in our history and I think that we're still recovering from it and I don't think we've recovered from it yet and I don't know how long it will take, but I think--.
Studs Terkel It comes back to a humorous-- let's say at the moment a humorous-- because you are a commentator and even though mimicry is maybe your avenue, you're also obviously a very funny straight actor too. But it is this aspect of the person himself, Elliott Reid is thinking, rather than a robot, rather than a mimeograph machine, or a Xerox machine doing it. This is the tech. This is the key aspect of it. Well, when you were with Bert Lahr-- the career of Mr. Elliott is a very colorful one indeed-- and you worked with Bert Lahr on "Two on the Aisle"-- now there at the time the Kefauver crime quiz was in the news--.
Elliott Reid Yes. And now that, you see, I'm a obviously a great addict of any-- this is where I think television comes into its own, is when you were able to watch live Senate hearings, such as the Kefauver ones-- that was really the first thing that came along of its sort and, being an actor and living in New York, I had a great deal of time on my hands, so I sat at home and watched, fascinated, this Kefauver show, which involved a wonderful group of characters of different types and temperaments. Senator Kefauver, very gentle and even when he asked people who were avoiding his questions in the most outrageous way, he knew he was always the southern gentleman, very muted, very quiet. And then we had Mr. Halley, who you know, had a much-- he was the little bulldog. [Speaking as Mr. Halley] And now [unintelligible] is, well you did say this, did you not? [unintelligible] Well this was your testimony, was it not? And so on. He had that quality. And now I hope that's all right my doing Mr. Halley--.
Elliott Reid The late Mr. Halley, because he was a lovely man and he enjoyed the impression of the committee very much, came backstage, and I very much treasure an autographed picture of Mr. Halley and me, which he signed. I signed one and sent to him, he signed one and sent to me. But he had a wonderful-- and he enjoyed it. He came-- they all came to see it, including the gentleman who was supposed to be the victim, the witness, who is a rather highly placed-- I believe the word is gangster, but I don't think he admits to it and I don't know where he is today-- but anyway, this gentleman who was the quarry in my little sketch, and in the actual committee hearings, appeared one matinee day. The entire center front row was occupied by this gentleman and about 10 other ladies and gentlemen.
Studs Terkel That's the way it was, you know, during the early days of Chicago.
Elliott Reid Yea.
Studs Terkel Al Capone, when-- [unintelligible].
Elliott Reid They traveled in a big group and I don't like to know who's out front generally. Some actors like it, some don't. I don't like to know. And particularly in this sketch-- it had a certain amount of notoriety at the time and almost all of the principals involved in it came to see it at one time or another-- so I asked the people in the show please not to let me know who was out front. I didn't know when Mr. Halley was there and I didn't know when any of the others were there and I didn't know when this gentleman was there, which was a matinee at the end. After I finished it they said, "look out in the front row." When I looked out and there he was right in the middle and the end of the show where I came down and took a single bow, I bowed right to him and he raised his hands and applauded right to me and he was very charming about it. Of course all the kids in the show said "Elliott, will you please not walk with me when you leave the theater this afternoon. It's been a very big afternoon."
Studs Terkel Elliott, can you recall, just briefly, your impression, the manner in which this gentleman, the star witness, spoke? Do you recall?
Elliott Reid Well, he-- well I, of course, gave the most awful impression of him. It could hardly be called flattering and it was, perhaps, even a bit of a caricature. But, you see, I would have Mr. Halley saying [speaking as Mr. Halley] well, about this jet broiler-- now you don't seem to know much about it. [speaking as witness] Well, I know about it. I-- [speaking as Mr. Halley] Well what did it do? [speaking as witness] I wouldn't know. A friend-- You know and I had it really hopeless. He couldn't recall anything, he didn't know anything, which, of course, had to be his stance legally during these hearings. But I must say he also took it in good part. And so that was--
Studs Terkel That was fortunate for you, of course.
Elliott Reid It was fortunate for me because here I am still walking this earth. But the impression of the Kefauver committee was not really any great social comment. I wasn't trying to prove anything. I think my approach to that was simply to try and recreate the fun. There were so many funny things that happened in those hearings and I think it was something that people just-- and Richard Watts wrote something I'll always be very proud of because he said, you know, at a time when we're so tired of people getting up and imitating James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, and you've been over this today yourself Studs, he said it is really quite refreshing to hear someone get up and give an impression of Senator Kefauver and some other people.
Studs Terkel As you were saying just now, Elliott-- Elliott Reid, our guest-- you're saying that there was a color [here?]. It was incredible. It wasn't like you you weren't making political or social commentary as such. The comment was innate in it.
Elliott Reid Yes.
Studs Terkel It was just but the characters were so-- they were 'Runyon-esque,' yet, but true.
Elliott Reid Yes. And then there was that wonderful-- I finished with Senator Tobey, that great, old-time, kind of Billy Sunday sort-of Senator from Massachusetts. He, who would [speaking as Senator Tobey] I'd like to say here, this is a man who doesn't know whether it's a jet broiler or whether it's [turkey steamer?], you know. And he ended up with a great, wild philippic and that was the end of the thing. But it was such a mixture of people when you think of them, each quite different. And so you have to have something attract your ear if you're going to mimic anybody. There are people who are-- for instance, I have used an impression of David Brinkley--how good it is I don't know-- but I've, I think I have a not too bad impression of David Brinkley. However, Huntley is-- I just can't get him. I can't get anything. He doesn't attract my ear.
Studs Terkel Let's talk about this just a bit and perhaps we might hear just a brief impression of Brinkley. You say Brinkley, who, perhaps his humor's a bit-- a touch more humor, perhaps-- more accurate here, does attract you. Huntley, it doesn't. You mentioned somewhere-- piece about you-- that Ronald Reagan doesn't either. You cannot do or take off on Reagan.
Elliott Reid Well Reagan is--.
Studs Terkel Or Reagan rather.
Elliott Reid Reagan is interesting of course as a as a figure, but you see, if you're going to, if you're going to mimic someone you have to have something to get hold of and Reagan is the scrubbed and packaged product. He's Mr. Normal, you know, of any time. He has no oddities of speech to grab hold of as the late president did, who was delightful--.
Studs Terkel By the way, you're world renowned too for your very gentle mimicry, indeed I should say more than mimicry, impression of President Kennedy--
Elliott Reid Well, and I'm very proud that I know he liked it because I think I was perhaps the first person he heard do an impression of him.
Studs Terkel Let's dwell on this just a minute here. Reagan is difficult because, as you say, there's a packaged product here rather than the flesh and blood. There must be a flesh and blood figure that is unique. Every one of the Kefauver quiz was a unique individual, each was different.
Elliott Reid Sharp and distinct.
Studs Terkel McCarthy was unique.
Elliott Reid Yes.
Studs Terkel You may not, you may not have found him a very--.
Studs Terkel Endearing figure, but unique, as indeed Welch was and Jenkins.
Elliott Reid Yes.
Studs Terkel But here you have a new figure on the Rialto who is packaged.
Elliott Reid That's right. It's, it's bland. It's clever, it's shrewd. You could write about Reagan. You could write, you know, an imaginary interview, perhaps in "The New Yorker" or something, that would be very entertaining. But I'm talking about a performer standing on his feet and giving an impression of Reagan. Now unless by some-- perhaps if he became much better known than he is-- I don't know him that well, I've just seen him on newsreel things, you would find something, but I don't find anything about him that strikes my ear, just as Huntley-- I can't, I can't get him and I know I'll never get him.
Studs Terkel But Brinkley you can.
Elliott Reid Well, Brinkley has-- he has a wry point of view. He has little oddities of speech, which if you listen to him enough and study him enough you can get. And I don't know if I can do it now, you see. I'll probably want to burn this tape after--
Elliott Reid We've finished this conversation. But, for instance, I think you're egging me on to try--
Elliott Reid A touch of it. This is not going to be good I think as a piece of mimicry, but to show you the attitude Brinkley has, and allow me my failures here on the mimicry line because sometimes you can get it right and sometimes you can't, but, for instance, in the convention sketch, the [obvious?]-- the convention is going on forever. It's late in the evening. They all want to adjourn. Nobody knows whether they're going to adjourn for dinner or not. And there's finally a little vote finally they get to a vote and a little delegate-- maybe I should put him in, I don't know.
Studs Terkel Ok.
Elliott Reid They go-- they're having a big wrangle as to whether or not they should break, you know, adjourn, whether they should change an amendment to adjourn for lunch to dinner. See it's gone on so long. And finally they are back on the floor, a poll is being taken, and the, the, what do you call it? The clerk reads the thing and he says [speaking as clerk] 9th Congressional District. Beaufort, Raleigh, Pepper. [speaking as announcer] "Beaufort, Raleigh, Pepper. Ninth Congressional District of [Craggy Springs?], the little town whose schools are now completely closed, says hello back home and is proud to cast 1/16 of a vote 'undecided.' [speaking as newscaster] Now over to David Brinkley for a comment on this vote. [speaking as Brinkley] The convention, which was supposed to adjourn at 9 o'clock, but did not, is still not over. I can't do him today. I just can't do him.
Studs Terkel No, that's quite alright.
Elliott Reid But it's the attitude, see? He says, [speaking as Brinkley] some of the delegates are restless and bored. Others like it and the rest do not care. Chet [speaking as newscaster] Chet isn't here David. Now this is a very bad piece of mimicry as a piece of mimicry, but I'm only doing it, and I don't know why I threw all that junk in ahead of it, but it's only to show that when-- Brinkley has a way of dissociating himself from it all, he really has a wonderful, wry detachment and when he says [speaking as Brinkley] some of them are restless and bored. Others like it and the rest do not care. Now that is Brinkley's basic attitude.
Studs Terkel This is the point. Even though you are much, much too self-conscious, by the way, in denigrating what you're doing, which I think is excellent, because you say it's not, it's not exact mimicry. And isn't that something far, far more perceptive. It's an impression of a certain kind of civilized, generally civilized, commentator who is detached.
Elliott Reid Yes. And, you see, when you perform-- now we're doing something that is audio-- when you perform this and people see you, if they have liked what you've done up to now in a sketch, they like your point of view, they like what you're doing now, the technical question of whether your voice is in fact exactly like Brinkley's, they are willing to forgive. They will forgive that if they-- if you are showing them something about Brinkley, which they perhaps hadn't consciously thought of, but which they are very aware of because they see him in their homes every night. Now if you please them and they say "that's the way he is," your voice may not be like his, as indeed mine is not and was not in this little--
Studs Terkel It doesn't matter.
Elliott Reid But, and of course, our listeners can't see me, but-- not that I look like Brinkley either-- but what I mean is in the fullness of a sketch as you perform it you go from one character to another and the little delegate comes out of a whole other thing of a boy and a senator, which is a format I like very much because I-- it's sort of based on "Youth Wants to Know" and an eager young high school boy asks a really cornball and ultra reactionary senator a lot of, you know, rather sticky questions.
Studs Terkel Do you have an impression of that, do you?
Elliott Reid Well, you know what I wish I'd done Studs, I wish I'd done a little homework and come down here and done a little thing for you--
Elliott Reid Because what I'm doing is just botched up.
Studs Terkel No, Elliott this is just--
Elliott Reid Pieces of material.
Studs Terkel A conversation we're having and I find it very delightful. I'm sure the audience does as well, as something more: how a certain kind of perceptive, and indeed, very talented performer works and this to me is terribly important. So the exact technique itself, the exact performance, is not too important in this moment. We know Elliott Reid is a marvelous performer, but rather the impressions, how you work-- for example, the senator of-- you're talking about this ultraconservative--
Elliott Reid Well I love this friendly thing they do on "Youth Wants to Know," which is a great show. I think all these shows are valuable and wonderful shows on television. They're the only things I really like to look at. Sunday is sort of the day you can stand television.
Studs Terkel They call that "the Sunday ghetto," they usually call that.
Elliott Reid Yes. And those are those shows that of course, anything I like goes off the air the next week. But a few of them have hung on like this and I've always been amused by the politeness and the eagerness of the questioners on these "Youth Wants To Know" programs. And then the senator, who is of course ready to parry anything, but I had-- you see the trouble is I haven't these and so long Studs-- one I did, just to show you the characters, I had the boy saying [speaking as boy] Well Senator, sir, you say that these different underdeveloped countries, that they should just, I mean, that they shouldn't just but, well sir, isn't that just what they're saying about us? [speaking as senator] Well that's a grand question Dick. And let me say to all of you youngsters that I'm learning a great deal here today. Young men like Dick here, who can express himself so beautifully, so clearly--Dick I think you could have a fine career in government. [speaking as boy] Well sir. And then it goes on like that you see. And then he starts to ask him some questions about a trip that he took to-- in which he flew-- well anyway, we won't go into it. These are jokes.
Studs Terkel Marvelous. I wish you would.
Elliott Reid But, you see, this is a format where you can get a lot of your own, my, personal feelings and attitudes into the material. I'm not trying to subvert anybody. I'm not trying really to reform anybody. I want simply to enjoy myself and I find that most of the audiences-- and I've done this particular format on Jack Paar's Show on Merv Griffin's Show-- I have found a great majority of the audiences laugh warmly and they enjoy it and that their point of view is really pretty much mine.
Studs Terkel There seems to be, this very point that Elliott Reid is making, and these are terribly important, which seems to be a [hunger?], not only for political satire and it's very difficult-- how can you satirize that, which is by its very nature, satirical? We can't go into the various public figures involved or issues, but that people are also seeking a certain truth, there's a truth, a strange kind of truth comes out--
Elliott Reid Yes.
Studs Terkel When you do these impressions because it is your point of view, we suddenly realized it's shared by a great many who are anti-pomposity and anti-hypocrisy.
Elliott Reid Yes. Yes I am against-- that's exactly what-- well that's hardly original for me to be against those qualities, but I think most people are against them. I think most people-- I'm against intellectual pretension. That's why I told you the first page of a book written by a friend of mine annoyed me. I dislike intellectual pretension and I dislike lack of compassion in people and that is why I am very disturbed about some things that are going on right now, as I'm sure you can guess what I'm referring to. But the people who are keenest about this unfortunate involvement we have are the people who are pitiless people. They wrap themselves in the flag and, you know, talk a great deal about securing liberty for some other people, but essentially they're not the people who are friendly to anybody's liberty, I don't think, and I don't want to get into a whole--
Elliott Reid I'm not a sociologist and I'm not a politician. I have my opinions, however. And, although I try not in these bits of comedy we've been talking about, I try not to impose any great message of my own, but I think it's implicit in what I do.
Studs Terkel I think Elliott, as you're talking, I think as a thought-- always a thought involved here rather than a robot at work-- a thought of a concerned man, who happens to be an excellent performer, so that's the results. Since you mentioned the senator, just a question, I suppose an ideal subject would be the senior senator from Illinois, would he not?
Elliott Reid [speaking as the senator] Well, yes he would. It is a very wonderful experience. Now there's a thing where I haven't got the voice. You see, you know who does a great Dirksen is Dan Dailey because Dan has the voice. You've got to have the equipment for it, you see. He is a great character and I could scarcely disagree with him more about just about everything and yet, it's going to be very regrettable when Senator Dirksen isn't on the scene anymore because he's given us all-- including Brinkley, who just loves him and you know that Brinkley probably doesn't agree with Senator Dirksen too much all the time-- but he, you know, in an ever more conforming era, it is such a delight to have a real character who's as well on "sturgeons did very well this year and we have done very well with our hollyhocks" and he talks about flowers and he talks about this. I can't possibly give an impression of him because he has a rich--
Studs Terkel Well, you're doing a beautiful one.
Elliott Reid beautiful--
Studs Terkel You're doing a beautiful one.
Elliott Reid voice.
Studs Terkel I would temper my overwhelming affection possibly in view of what you said earlier. You said that maybe this is just my own personal viewpoint, of course. I think I would in this instance nurture my affection for other quarters.
Elliott Reid Well I know what you mean.
Studs Terkel I think if the very thing you were talking about-- the man could be everything you're saying, indeed colorful, could be in fact [descended of?] cornpone for that matter, could be colorful and yet, that's another aspect that for me diminishes the humor.
Studs Terkel Of course, your impression, of course, is remark-- you still don't need the voice.
Elliott Reid No.
Studs Terkel But you have the attitude.
Elliott Reid But it's the attitude. If you have the attitude. But yes, I think and lately you know he's an odd person politically to me because at times he seems to move rather to the center and then he'll go right back again. Now I think he's you know pretty bad on the war and what not.
Studs Terkel Going back to Elliott Reid and his overall-- basically it's a human comedy that you're offering. It's a human comedy. And many of the, many of the figures have seen you as-- the late President Kennedy did too-- there, I suppose, you saw idiosyncrasies in his mannerisms and in his speech that were, I suppose, mother's milk to you.
Elliott Reid Yes, well now, and fortunately now just vocally, my vocal equipment happened to accommodate itself very easily to his, although his voice was deeper than mine, but it was rather easy for me vocally.
Studs Terkel Pardon me, was his voice deeper than yours?
Studs Terkel The impression I would have would be just the opposite.
Elliott Reid Well I have a tape, which he very kindly sent to me, which I'm very proud to have, of the performance I gave that night in Washington. This was long before all those albums started flooding the market. I never made an album. I never made a recording. The only recording there is this one, which the Signal Corps made, as they do of these functions of the White House Press Correspondents' Dinner in Washington, and I went out and Chub Sherman was the master of ceremonies, Hiram Sherman, our mutual friend--
Studs Terkel A mutual friend of ours, Hiram Sherman, who was quite remarkable as a wit. [Unintelligible] gifted.
Elliott Reid A very gifted man and a dear mutual friend of Studs' and mine. And, as it happens, Hiram Sherman was the master of ceremonies of this show. I had done just a line or two of an impression of President Kennedy on a pilot film of a review-type TV show that never went on the air, but some people saw it, including Merriman Smith, the United Press correspondent in Washington, and he thought it would be a good idea at this dinner, which the president would attend with Prime Minister Macmillan, if I gave an impression of the president. I was in Hollywood about to start a movie at Disney studios. I flew back. I had no material put together and in two days-- this is what one does under pressure when you have to-- I put together a press conference in which, as with the boy and the senator, I was then simply a correspondent saying "Mr. President, United States deal" and it was the very weekend that they had been indicted for something or, in fact, the day before. It was unbelievable. It was Godsent this timing. And I asked-- I had the reporter ask him a question and I had him answer very, very quietly. Now this, I think, was, perhaps, the first impression of President Kennedy, certainly that he had ever heard or any of these other correspondents heard, and the tape I have of this performance, Studs, is guarded, believe me, carefully, because the reaction was so [tremendous? dramatic?]. I have on the same tape-- I asked if he would do this and he was gracious enough to do it-- the portion that I did, which was a whole interview-- oh it went into all kinds of things-- but, obviously, my point of view in this interview was extremely sympathetic and friendly to the president even though I picked out little oddities of speech and so on, which we're all familiar with. And then on the second part of the tape we have what he said in which he got up and was really brilliant and topped everything by satirizing himself and some of it is on a record that Huntley put out of political humor and the president referred to all the performers who were on the bill, Gwen Verdon and Sally Ann Howes and so on, and then he said "and Mr. Reid, who has some talent." It was so gracious, so charming, and an acknowledgment that I had just imitated him, but and that he had enjoyed it. That was the deftness and the beauty of the president's wit and, of course, we needn't even discuss what we know we lost when we lost him.
Studs Terkel Returning to Elliott Reid, the the approach, impressions-- Peter Ustinov, as you know, is a remarkable impressionist.
Elliott Reid Yes.
Studs Terkel And he says this rather interesting thing, that he says he works on the music, particularly in matters of language-- I know that you too are experimenting with the languages as well, with foreign language, and dialect and he, as you know, is a master of dialect. And his point is he doesn't listen so much to the language verbally or as to the musicality of it.
Elliott Reid Yes. Well that's another way of saying inflection and it's essential. It's essential in mimicry. It's essential in a language. A perfect example is this: that some American actors, and I'm sure it's true of English actors attempting to do an American accent, but I'll deal with our attempting to do English accents. We-- very often, an American actor will pronounce every word exactly as an Englishman would pronounce it, but he doesn't have the inflection and therefore, it comes out with the American inflection, which is extremely flat. We speak almost in a monotone compared to the English. If you do not have the music of it, as Ustinov put it or, as I would say, the inflection, then you're dead. You've got the the one technical aspect of it, but you're leaving out almost the most important because not every Englishman actually speaks in the same way and there's a great variety of accents, as you know, but my parents are English so I'm very sensitive to it. And I've done a good many English parts without too much difficulty because I've listened to that inflection all my life.
Studs Terkel That's interesting. Your parents are English, but you are American-raised.
Elliott Reid Yes, I was born in New York.
Studs Terkel And born in New York, therefore, you have-- there's a double, you might say a double, culture involved here, not bilingual but 'bi-dialect.'
Elliott Reid Yes.
Elliott Reid And even a certain mixture. I hate-- there's a very-- I'm talking about intellectual pretension, that's a word I really don't like, that great word dichotomy, which everyone comes on--
Studs Terkel That's become a-- that's an accepted word.
Elliott Reid When they really want to sit around with it on a rainy Sunday and be intellectual, but actually it does express something rather correctly. There is a certain split feeling in your personality when you are the child of foreign-born parents and I don't care if they are English-speaking or not English-speaking. The culture is somewhat different and the approach is somewhat different. And I was born and brought up in this country and when I'm in Europe I begin to feel very, very American so I know I'm an American and yet, I was brought up by British parents and I think some of my attitudes and perhaps some of the way I've lived are affected by that and, at times, I don't know if we all do that, but sometimes I talk about "us," "we, Americans," sometimes I find myself saying "they"--
Studs Terkel That's interesting.
Elliott Reid Without meaning to. But I'll say "I don't understand them." I guess we all do that.
Studs Terkel Here it seems as though you're doing two things at the same time: you are on the inside looking out and outside looking in.
Elliott Reid Yes.
Studs Terkel It's interesting, you have sort of a double vision here, which of course also helps, I think, your impression. You're detached, yet involved.
Elliott Reid Yes.
Studs Terkel Both.
Elliott Reid And yet you don't feel you're fully anything.
Studs Terkel That's the-- these are the requisites of a great critic, you know.
Elliott Reid You see- is that right?
Studs Terkel Yea, the great, I guess-- oh again I hate to break in.
Elliott Reid No, that's interesting.
Studs Terkel Hazlitt, the great critic.
Elliott Reid Oh.
Studs Terkel Was described as being, as having these two requisites: involved, that is, passionate, but at the same time detached, so he was a liberal, very enlightened, and at the same admired Coriolanus, a sort of authoritarian figure--
Studs Terkel Because Coriolanus was, in a sense of your admiring Dirksen in a wholly different way, I wouldn't equate the two, Coriolanus was a man of great color and power and passion, though his philosophy was wholly abhorrent to Hazlitt.
Elliott Reid Yes.
Studs Terkel Hazlitt was able to do both. He was able to overcome his own feelings.
Elliott Reid Yes.
Studs Terkel So in a sense you, speaking of "they" and "us" juxtaposed become a good commentator as well.
Elliott Reid Yes, well you know, Studs, it's been interesting for me to spend a year in the Midwest. I never really have been away from New York, which, as we all know, is not America. It's trite to say it, but it is true. It is a unique city that exists there. And I have been interested to be in Chicago for a year because I haven't really ever felt I-- what with living in New York and being the son of parents who came from abroad-- my father was actually Canadian, he didn't come from England, but his attitudes and so on were quite British. My mother was born in England-- I have never felt quite as tuned in on the real American scene as since I've been in Chicago and talked to the people here and been with the people here and I think, truly, I think the American people-- I certainly think that-- I'm not saying this because I'm in the Midwest, but I think the Western, Midwestern people, the Western people, are marvelous people. The Americans are an interesting people and a wonderful people and a good people. I think they are very backward in some ways. I think-- perhaps we'll all change that with a good election if we can find a good man to vote for, or a man-- I shouldn't say a good man, but let's say a man with whom I agree more-- but there are odd things about the American people. What I mean is they are so kind personally. There is no kinder people on earth than the Americans, I think, personally, and yet there's such a mix up in our international dealings.
Studs Terkel As a mix of, I suppose, well I don't want to go into this now, but also a mix up as to what is valuable and what is not.
Elliott Reid Yes.
Studs Terkel I mean things become-- again, I know earlier we talked about how difficult it is to satirize-- talk about "This is the the Week that Was," we began with that. Yet how can you satirize a TV commercial? See, how can you satirize that which is part-- our very lives almost become--
Elliott Reid How can you satirize Senator Long?
Studs Terkel Yes.
Elliott Reid I mean he's pure. There it is. You don't have to alter a word. You could just read what Senator Long has said in almost any committee hearing and he's about [speaking as Senator Long] and I'm proud of the flag that flies. We're all proud of the flag that flies, but a man like Senator Long becomes almost a grotesque. How can you satirize that?
Studs Terkel So this, obviously, is one of the dilemmas we face as to finding out that the humanity that is quite obviously there in people. Back to Elliott Reid, though, specifically. You yourself are an excellent actor. This becomes a problem, doesn't it?
Elliott Reid Well.
Studs Terkel Just as I myself have been guilty of this in talking to you, I'm so taken with our impressions of either imagined people or actual personalities, haven't had-- Elliott Reid the straight actor-- this is a problem that Hal Holbrook has faced in his own way.
Elliott Reid Yes.
Studs Terkel He's been so connected, related to Mark Twain, that there's young Hal Holbrook, who is a pretty good actor--
Studs Terkel Having problems as I'm not quite sure when Mark Twain ends and when I begin. And so you have in a different form, I suppose, this problem, don't you?
Elliott Reid Yes. I've been in the theater 30 years. I began in the Mercury Theater with our mutual friend Hiram Sherman in 1937.
Studs Terkel So you worked with Orson Welles.
Elliott Reid With Orson Welles.
Studs Terkel Talking about color.
Elliott Reid Right. Now, I've made a pretty good living as an actor all my life, good deal of it in my early teens, which I was in-- at that time was spent in radio-- because I was very tall for my age and I could never get a part in a play as the son of the star because the star would be five feet ten and I was six feet two. So a lot of my time was spent unseen on programs like "The March of Time" and so on and that's where I met Orson Welles and that's why I was finally, finally given a job in the theater because Orson and I worked together and he was starting the Mercury and he asked me to be--
Studs Terkel Didn't you do the same role that Hiram Sherman did in "Shoemaker's Holiday?"
Elliott Reid No, I did-- I played Ralph, the young shoemaker. I was very, very young then and Orson wanted a really young boy who goes off to the wars and comes back and his wife is gone so I played Ralph and Hiram Sherman played Firk.
Elliott Reid And he was brilliant, brilliant in it. But what I'm getting to, via the scenic route I'm afraid, is that I have been fortunate in that I have always made a living, some years not so good a living, some years a very good living. But I've always made a living in my profession. I've never had to take a job in a post office. I've always met the financial obligations I have as far as family and whatnot goes and I'm grateful for that. This is the best part I've ever had-- in "The Odd Couple."
Studs Terkel By the way, I have one vital statistic. You will be here until and through--
Studs Terkel So there's still a month or so.
Elliott Reid There is one month.
Studs Terkel At the Blackstone theater.
Elliott Reid We are at the Blackstone theater and we hope that those who have not yet come to see us will come to see us, not because it will alter our destiny in any way. We must close October 14th, so I'm not being self-serving in saying this. I really think people who have not seen "The Odd Couple" will enjoy it if they come and see it. It's a remarkably amusing play with very well-written characters. The humor arises out of real people.
Studs Terkel It has its own slight comment to make, its own-- I shouldn't say slight. It's own comment.
Elliott Reid It does have its own slight comment. It's not a play of enormous importance, but it is a play that people go home happy that they've seen it. They've enjoyed and they've identified and they've nudged each other and said "that's you" or "that's you." Husbands see their wives. Wives see their husbands. It's a play with an enormous audience identification, which is why I think it's had this tremendous success, not only here, but everywhere it's played.
Studs Terkel Returning to Elliott Reid again with this-- by the way, one point is interesting I think. Hiram Sherman, who is very active in Actors' Equity and has often spoken on behalf of his colleagues and indeed stuck his neck out many times and that would be interested in this, here is a play that can run indefinitely, it would seem, here and in other places, and yet real estate is involved.
Elliott Reid Yes.
Studs Terkel We come to this, don't we? This theater, the shortage of theater, we come to a theater in which a new play is coming, entering, "Cactus Flower," another commercial success, and yet the actors, who indeed would prefer working than not working being at liberty, have, because of real estate--
Elliott Reid Real estate and other producers. But, as you say, I think the heart of it is real estate because if there were other theaters available, such as the Selwyn, which has now gone to the movies, and Harris which has gone to the movies, the Erlanger, which has disappeared altogether, it's possible that we might simply transfer to one of those houses.
Studs Terkel This had happened many times in the past.
Elliott Reid As has happened, and we could last certainly until the first of the year and perhaps beyond that because those were nice small theaters, the Harris and so on. But, as you say, real estate is a very decisive factor. If the theater doesn't exist, you can't go and play in it. And so those are not available to us so we have to close. We are not closing, we are being closed.
Studs Terkel Being evicted really.
Elliott Reid Really we are being evicted and in one way we're rather proud to realize that. We're not closing because everyone stopped coming. We're closing because we have to. On the other hand, naturally it's a somewhat saddening to realize that we might be working another two or three months doing something we very much enjoy doing and we are not permitted to do it.
Studs Terkel We return again to the lot of the actor and, obviously, Elliott Reid is a very celebrated, well-known actor--
Elliott Reid Well.
Studs Terkel And yet, here again the actor, the actor and an almost gypsy is still there, the aspect of the gypsy--
Elliott Reid Yes.
Studs Terkel Even at the most, who at the moment [outside?] is more nomadic than ever.
Elliott Reid Yes.
Studs Terkel But here the actor has always been this.
Elliott Reid I'm medium known, Studs.
Elliott Reid I'm not the toast of two continents, but I think I'm perhaps better known in my profession than I am to the public. But I've been surprised and very pleased since I've been here at the number of people who do seem to know me. I think "The Week That Was" helped me a great deal in getting me a bit better known. Television, there's no question, is enormously important to the actor. You just have to get some of that exposure. But we are nomadic. We are at the mercy of other people constantly.
Studs Terkel I suppose it's almost a cliched question, your thoughts about theater and subsidy. You know we always worry about censorship of government and yet, we know and certainly in Eastern Europe, certainly Western Europe, whether Germany, Sweden, England, civic as well as federal subsidy is just as important as bread and milk.
Elliott Reid Sure.
Studs Terkel And yet here we still have that old double subsidy fear.
Elliott Reid Well they think that the government is going to start writing little plays, that everyone is going to have to be given a digested message from the government and of course that hasn't been the case in any of the subsidized theaters in Europe that I know of with the possible exception of the Soviet theater. I imagine there was a certain amount--
Studs Terkel Certainly, what greater censorship, really, on this theme of it than the box office? What greater censorship than boffo or else flop?
Elliott Reid That's right. You can't make anybody go to the theater in any country. You can't make them go. So if the theater is deadly and all the people aren't going to go to it and the subsidized-- I'm not an economist and I'm, I really am not quite equipped to discuss the question of subsidized theaters. I think it has to come to a degree and I think it is coming in this country and I think there's an enormous interest in it now.
Studs Terkel So many questions to ask Elliott Reid. You mentioned two names of those with whom you were associated and both color. Of course, Orson Welles, who I guess might be described I think, perhaps, truly as a larger than life figure.
Elliott Reid He is. His-- the reason he was so perfect a Citizen Kane and, in my opinion, so poor in some other performances is that he is larger than life and every performer, every artist, must use what he has and Orson wisely chose Citizen Kane for himself and was brilliant in Citizen Kane. Now Orson, when he attempts to play a simple, trustworthy person, is totally unacceptable to me. I don't believe a word of it.
Studs Terkel This is a fascinating point. And so the word so often applied to Welles is ham. This is not true.
Elliott Reid No.
Studs Terkel I think the point that Elliott Reid has just made is very, to me, a very revealing one, that the man himself is so-- I mean we're not talking about physical, we're talking about the man spiritually or whatever it is-- in personality-- is so overwhelming--
Elliott Reid Yes.
Studs Terkel That he could do a Falstaff, I imagine.
Elliott Reid He is and he has done it, I think, in a film which--
Studs Terkel "Chimes at Midnight."
Elliott Reid Yes-- hasn't come here yet. Now I don't know what what the film is going to be like, but in this sort of thing I think he's brilliant. And I think as a director he is brilliant. He has-- he was, however, a very poor Brutus because Brutus has to come and speak to the people in a certain way. He must be himself-- the actor himself must have a quality which can touch you. Orson cannot touch you or I should say me. Each person is so individual in his reactions to an actor-- and I'm not saying this in criticism of Orson. I'm attempting to say why he impresses me in one kind of part and distresses me in another kind of part. But that's true of every actor. And there are certain people who have-- I think I am, as a performer, more of a character actor than I am a straight actor. I think I am less comfortable, less persuasive in certain parts than in others. This is true. This has to be true or no actor has any individuality of his own. If you're good in everything you really are just litmus paper. Every actor has certain things which he has a knack for.
Studs Terkel I suppose Olivier is in a special category, I suppose.
Elliott Reid I don't think Olivier can do everything. No actor can do everything. I haven't seen enough of Sir Laurence's work to know all of the body of it. He is a great performer, a great actor, and there are many great actors who cannot, however, do everything and in a very good case in point is the question of comedy. There are some very fine actors, excellent actors, who are not good in comedy. That doesn't mean they're not good actors, but the comic spirit is a peculiar thing. It's hard to pin down. It's hard to analyze it and perhaps it's not a good idea to attempt it.
Studs Terkel No. If we just talk about our, for just a moment, our friend Hiram Sherman. Chub Sherman.
Elliott Reid Yes.
Studs Terkel There is something about him that almost every time he talks to me on the phone I begin to laugh.
Studs Terkel Now why do I laugh every time? He's very-- we should point out that perhaps the audience heard Hiram Sherman on this program several years ago, and he was here and a successful chestnut called "Mary, Mary"-- didn't matter too much, but he mattered. And every-- there's a wit. There's a nimbleness of wit, but there's something else. And the comics use the word 'comic spirit' and I immediately thought of Hiram Sherman.
Elliott Reid Yes.
Studs Terkel Now why is it almost everything he says causes you to double up, you know?
Elliott Reid Well it's that is there in his nature. It's again a point of view, I suppose, but I'm firmly convinced that it is something that people are born with or not. You cannot put it into somebody and you can't put it into an actor if he doesn't have it. There are fine actors. I won't name any, but there are a couple of very, very important actors in movies, in Hollywood for instance, who cannot play comedy well. They're not comfortable in it. That doesn't mean they're not fine actors in what they do.
Studs Terkel It's natural. Just as we were talking and this is, as you're gathering, a very casual talk with Elliott Reid-- very easy to talk with. The comic spirit-- and so someone else you play, of course, is one of our great clowns, Bert Lahr.
Elliott Reid Yes.
Studs Terkel Now a Lahr is a very serious man.
Elliott Reid Oh. If you think I'm serious, and I think I've been close to a deadly today--
Elliott Reid Bert Lahr is, as I told you I think before we started this chat, I'm a worrier, but Bert Lahr's the president of both coasts and all hemispheres. He's famous for this, so I'm not telling tales out of school. He's famous in the profession and probably by now outside the profession for being an almost compulsive worrier. I'll avoid the word psychotic. But Bert, he has-- this is not a bad thing in any performer because I think any good artist wants to be-- is a perfectionist.
Studs Terkel He's certainly-- he is far from complacent.
Elliott Reid He is not complacent. One can say that without overstating it.
Studs Terkel Nancy Walker, who was a remarkable comedian, was a very funny woman, tells a story-- she was-- Bert-- I don't know whether she was in it with him. They were-- it may have been "Flying High". She was too young for that. But it was something. It was apparently smash reviews in Boston, or New Haven, pre-Broadway opening. Smash reviews and she rushed into his room, as she-- as I remember her telling the story-- she rushed into his room. She was here at that time with Phil Silvers and so what was that now?
Studs Terkel Now you know that was the time. But as she rushed in to his room to show him the reviews and he just sat there with a long face, sad. She said, "Why, what's the matter?" And he just sat there solemnly. He says, "This is good, but how's my next show going to be?"
Elliott Reid Yes, exactly. He's just opened. Well talk about worrier. I mean, when I think I'm worried then I think about Bert and I think "well bless his heart wherever he is. I'm sure he's more worried than I am."
Studs Terkel Elliott Reid is very gracious with his time too, with this conversation.
Studs Terkel And we can't leave this without one-- even though, again, I come back to his impressions. There are some, indeed, very colorful figures on the American scene today and some with whom we may disagree, you know, be diametrically opposed to his point of view. On TV today, seen on tape on TV in Chicago weekly, is the brilliant, certainly facile, as far as talk a conservative spokesman, William Buckley Jr., and I've always wondered why someone didn't do it-- maybe it's very difficult. But, Elliott Reid, I'm pleased to know, does do-- you have an impression of William Buckley Jr., don't you?
Elliott Reid Well I, again, I don't know how accurate it is and, of course, in Mr. Buckley's case it's enormously helpful if you can see what the impression is.
Studs Terkel We should point out, before this went on the air, the conversation, Elliott seated here-- this is a matter of visual humor is obviously involved in the eyes--
Elliott Reid Yea.
Studs Terkel And the mouth. But aside--let the audience envision this. I'm sure they have seen William Buckley Jr. on the screen and they've seen him. But how-- what is it he was doing now? He was finding something in comic strips that was rather--
Elliott Reid Well I imagined that there was a hearing in Washington. It's not really all that impossible when you think of it that one day someone or rather finally decided to investigate children's books for subversive material and that Mr. Buckley came down because he had decided that Edgar Rice Burroughs was extremely dangerous and I thought that he would talk about that in this way. Just a line or two. And he'd say [speaking as Buckley] the reason conservatives despise 'Tarzan of the Apes' is because he lives in a completely socialistic society. His call from the trees, which is supposed to mean nothing, in point of fact, is exactly the sort of thing that could incite schoolchildren to protest marches, and so on. Now it's hard to do it vocally but he-- now there again, I could scarcely disagree with Mr. Buckley more in every way, shape or form, but I am entertained at least that he is a character even if--
Studs Terkel He's a remarkable entertainer.
Elliott Reid He is an entertaining character.
Studs Terkel Again this theme of someone who is not of your persuasion, yet you find has color, has flesh and blood.
Elliott Reid Right.
Studs Terkel Where does this leave us now? Leaves us with a very, to me, very, very, very rewarding conversation with Elliott Reid and still through October 14th you said at the Blackstone.
Elliott Reid Yes. I recommend it as a play, and if only to enjoy Dan Dailey's performance, which I think is superb, as well as the other members of the cast. And incidentally there's never been a happier, more congenial group of actors together in one play, I believe, ever.
Studs Terkel We have Elliott Reid as our guest. Thank you very much indeed.
Elliott Reid Well I want to thank you for inviting me, Studs. I'm a great admirer of yours.