Ernie Kovacs

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Ernie Kovacs
Ernie kovacs 1956.JPG
Ernie Kovacs on the set of his television show, 1956
Birth name Ernest Edward Kovacs
Born (1919-01-23)January 23, 1919
Trenton, New Jersey, US
Died January 13, 1962(1962-01-13) (aged 42)
Los Angeles. U.S.
Medium Newspaper, radio, television, magazine, film
Nationality American
Years active 1949–1962
Genres Character comedy, surreal comedy, improvisational comedy, prop comedy, spoof, sketch
Spouse Bette Lee Wilcox (1945–52; divorced); Edie Adams (1954–62; his death)
Notable works and roles Silent Show–Eugene; The Nairobi Trio; Percy Dovetonsils
Emmy Awards
Emmy
1962 outstanding electronic camera work
(posthumously)
Academy of Television Arts & Sciences
1987 Television Hall of Fame

Ernie Kovacs (January 23, 1919 – January 13, 1962) was an American comedian, actor, and writer.

Kovacs' uninhibited, often ad-libbed, and visually experimental comedic style came to influence numerous television comedy programs for years after his death in an automobile accident. Many iconic and diverse shows are credited with having been influenced by Kovacs, such as Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, Saturday Night Live, The Uncle Floyd Show, Captain Kangaroo, Sesame Street, The Electric Company.[1][2][3][4][5][6] Chevy Chase acknowledged Kovacs' influence and thanked him during his acceptance speech for his Emmy award for Saturday Night Live.[7] Chase appeared in the 1982 documentary. Ernie Kovacs: Television's Original Genius, discussing the impact Kovacs had on his work.[8]

On or off screen, Kovacs could be counted on for the unexpected, from having marmosets as pets to wrestling a jaguar on his live Philadelphia television show.[9][10][11][12]

When working at WABC (AM) as a morning-drive radio personality and doing a mid-morning television show for NBC, Kovacs disliked eating breakfast alone while his wife, Edie Adams, was sleeping in after her Broadway performances. His solution was to hire a taxi driver to come into their apartment with his own key and make breakfast for them both, then take Ernie to the WABC studios.[13][14]

While Kovacs and Adams received Emmy nominations for best performances in a comedy series in 1957, his talent was not formally recognized until after his death.[15] The 1962 Emmy for outstanding electronic camera work and the Directors' Guild award came a short time after his fatal accident.[16][17] A quarter century later, he was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame.[18] Kovacs also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in television.[19] In 1986, the Museum of Television & Radio (now the Paley Center for Media) presented an exhibit of Kovacs' work, called The Vision of Ernie Kovacs. The Pulitzer Prize–winning television critic, William Henry III, wrote for the museum's booklet:[20]

Kovacs was more than another wide-eyed, self-ingratiating clown. He was television's first significant video artist. He was its first surrealist... its most daring and imaginative writer. He was... television's first and possibly only auteur. And he was a genius. In commercial terms, a genius is any entertainer... who finds a new way to make money. Kovacs never fit that description. Kovacs' genius lay in the realm of art. There, a genius is someone who causes an audience to look at the world in a new way.

Early life and career[edit]

Kovacs' father Andrew emigrated from Hungary at age 13. He worked as a policeman, restaurateur, and bootlegger; the last so successfully that he moved his wife Mary, and sons Tom and Ernie, into a 20-room mansion in the better part of Trenton.[21][22]

Though a poor student, Kovacs was influenced deeply by his Trenton Central High School drama teacher, Harold Van Kirk, and received an acting scholarship at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1937 with Mr. Van Kirk's help. The end of Prohibition and the Depression brought hard financial times to the family. When Kovacs began drama school, all he could afford was a fifth floor walk-up apartment on West 74th Street in New York City.[23][24] During this time, Ernie managed to see a lot of "Grade B" movies (admission was only a dime); many of them were the spark of his routines later on.[21]

A 1938 local news story shows him as a member of the Prospect Players, not yet sporting his trademark mustache.[25] Like any aspiring actor, Kovacs used his class vacation time to pursue roles in summer stock companies. While working in Vermont in 1939, he became so seriously ill with pneumonia and pleurisy that his doctors didn't expect him to survive. Over the next year and a half, his comedic talents emerged as he entertained both doctors and patients with his antics during stays at several hospitals.[26] While hospitalized, he also developed a lifelong love and understanding of classical music through the gift of a radio, which he kept tuned to WQXR. By the time he was released, his parents had separated, and he went back to Trenton, living with his mother in a two-room apartment over a store. He took work as a cigar salesman, which was the beginning of a lifelong habit.[21][27]

His first paid entertainment work came in 1941, as a disc jockey on Trenton's WTTM radio. Ernie spent the next nine years with WTTM, becoming the station's director of Special Events along the way; in this position he did things like trying to see what it was like to be run over by a train (leaving the tracks at the last minute) and broadcasting from the cockpit of a plane for which he took flying lessons. Kovacs was also involved in local theater; a news clipping from a local paper ran a photo and the news that he was doing some directing for the Trenton Players Guild in early 1941.[28] The Trentonian, a local weekly newspaper, offered him a column in June 1945; Ernie called it "Kovacs Unlimited".[21][29]

Start in television[edit]

Kovacs and Gertrude on 3 To Get Ready, 1951. Gertrude was one of the donations of Kovacs' viewers when he asked them to bring anything they no longer wanted to the WPTZ-TV lobby.
Both Gertrude and Kovacs' close associate Andy McKay made the move to New York with Kovacs in 1952. The mask McKay is wearing was fashioned out of masking tape.

Showing up at NBC's Philadelphia affiliate, WPTZ (now KYW-TV), for an audition wearing a barrel and shorts got Kovacs his first television job in January 1950. His first show was Pick Your Ideal, a fashion and promotional program for the Ideal Manufacturing Company. Before long he was also the host of Deadline For Dinner and Now You're Cooking, shows featuring tips from local chefs.[30] When Kovacs' guest chef did not show up in time to go on the air, Ernie offered a recipe for "Eggs Scavok" (Kovacs spelled backward).[31][32] They soon led to a show called Three to Get Ready, named for WPTZ's dial spot on channel 3.[20][31]

Premiering in November 1950, Three to Get Ready was groundbreaking, as the first regularly scheduled early morning (7–9am) show in a major TV market, predating NBC's Today by over a year. Prior to this, it had been assumed that no one would watch TV at such an early hour.[33] While the show was billed as early morning news and weather, Kovacs provided this and more in an original manner. When rain was in the weather forecast, Kovacs would get on a ladder and pour water down on the staff member reading the report.[31] Goats were auditioned for a local theater performance and tiny women appeared to walk up his arm.[34][35][36] Kovacs also went outside of the studio for some of his sketches, running through a downtown Philadelphia restaurant in a gorilla suit in one, and looking into a construction pit saying it was deep enough to see to China, when a man in Chinese clothing popped up, said a few words in the language, and ran off.[31] Since the weekly prop budget for the show was a scant $15, Kovacs once asked his viewers to send unwanted items to Channel 3; they filled the station's lobby.[31]

The only character no one ever saw inspired more gifts; he was Howard, the World's Strongest Ant. From the time of his WPTZ debut, Howard received over 30,000 gifts from Kovacs' viewers, including a mink lined swimming pool.[35] Ernie began his Early Eyeball Fraternal & Marching Society (EEFMS) while doing Three to Get Ready. There were membership cards with by-laws and ties; the password was a favorite phrase of Kovacs' – "It's Been Real".[30][31][37][38] Ernie brought the EEFMS to New York in 1952 when he moved to WCBS.[39][40] The success of Three to Get Ready proved the theory wrong and was one of the factors that led NBC to create The Today Show. WPTZ did not begin broadcasting Today when it premiered on January 14, 1952; network pressure caused the station to drop Three to Get Ready for it at the end of March of that year.[31][41][42]

In early 1952, Kovacs was doing a late morning show for WPTZ called Kovacs on the Corner. Kovacs would walk through an imaginary neighborhood, talking with various characters such as Pete the Cop (played by Pete Boyle, father of actor Peter Boyle) and Luigi the Barber. As with Three to Get Ready, Kovacs did some special segments. "Swap Time" was one of them; viewers could bring their unwanted items to the WPTZ studios to trade them live on the air with Kovacs. Creative control was wrested from Kovacs soon after the show's debut; beginning on January 4, 1952, it ended on March 28, 1952—the same day as Three to Get Ready.[31][32] Kovacs then moved on to WCBS-TV with a local morning show and a later network one. While both were cancelled, the morning program suffered the same fate as his WPTZ show-the air time being taken by the station's network in 1954.[43]

Visual humor and characters[edit]

At WPTZ, Kovacs began using the ad-libbed and experimental style that would become his reputation, including video effects, superimpositions, reverse polarities and scanning, and quick blackouts. He was also noted for abstraction and carefully timed non-sequitur gags and for carefully allowing the so-called fourth wall to be breached.[35] Kovacs' cameras commonly showed his viewers activity beyond the boundaries of the show set—including crew members and outside the studio itself. Kovacs also liked talking to the off-camera crew and even introduced segments from the studio control room.[44] Ernie frequently made use of accidents and happenstance, incorporating the unexpected into his shows. One of Kovacs' Philadelphia broadcasts was "enlivened" by a homeless man who sought shelter inside the TV studio; Kovacs invited him onto the set, where he slept for the duration of the telecast, but nonetheless was introduced on camera to the audience as "Sleeping Schwartz." He was once knocked out when a pie in the face still had the plate under it.[45]

Kovacs' love of spontaneity extended to his crew, who would occasionally play on-air pranks on him to see how he would react.[46] During one of his NBC shows, Kovacs was appearing as the inept magician Matzoh Heppelwhite. The sketch called for the magician to frequently hit a gong, which was the signal for a sexy female assistant to bring out a bottle and shot glass for a quick snort of alcohol. Stagehands substituted real liquor for the iced tea normally used for the gag. The look on Ernie's face upon taking the first shot was priceless when he realized that he would be called upon to drink a shot of liquor for each successive gong. Kovacs pressed on with the sketch and was quite inebriated by the end of the show.[47] On another occasion, as "Percy Dovetonsils", he found that his drink contained a live fish.

Kovacs helped develop camera tricks still common almost 50 years after his death, one of which became one of his signature gags. His character Eugene sat at a table to eat his lunch, but as he removed items one at a time from a lunch box, he watched them inexplicably roll down the table into the lap of a man reading a newspaper at the other end. When Kovacs poured milk from a thermos bottle, the stream flowed in a seemingly unusual direction. Never seen on television before, the secret was using a tilted set in front of a camera tilted at the same angle.[48]

Barbara Loden and Kovacs positioned in front of two television cameras for illusion

He constantly sought new techniques and used both primitive and improvised ways of creating visual effects that would later be done electronically. One innovative construction involved attaching a kaleidoscope made from a toilet paper roll to a camera lens with cardboard and tape and setting the resulting abstract images to music.[49] Another was a soup can with both ends removed fitted with angled mirrors. Used on a camera and turning it could put Kovacs seemingly on the ceiling.[31] An underwater stunt involved inveterate cigar smoker Kovacs sitting in an easy chair, reading his newspaper and somehow smoking his cigar. Removing it from his mouth, Kovacs was able to exhale a puff of white smoke, all while floating underwater. The trick: the "smoke" was a small amount of milk which he filled his mouth with before submerging. Kovacs repeated the effect for a Dutch Masters commercial on his ABC game show, Take a Good Look.[21]

As seen on television; Kovacs appears to be looking through Loden's head

One of the special effects he employed made it appear as if he was able to look through his assistant, Barbara Loden's, head. The illusion was performed by placing a black patch on Loden's head and standing her against a black background while one studio camera was trained on her. A second one photographed Kovacs, who used the studio monitor to position himself exactly so that his eye would appear to be looking through a hole in her head.[48]

He also developed such routines as an all-gorilla version of Swan Lake, a poker game set to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, the Silent Show, in which Eugene interacts with the world accompanied solely by music and sound effects, parodies of typical television commercials and movie genres, and various musical segments with everyday items (such as kitchen appliances or office equipment) moving in sync to music.[50][51] A popular recurring sketch was The Nairobi Trio, three derby-hatted apes miming mechanically and rhythmically to the tune of Robert Maxwell's "Solfeggio".

Kovacs could use extended sketches and mood pieces or quick blackout gags lasting only seconds. Some could be expensive, such as his famous used car salesman routine with a jalopy and a breakaway floor: it cost $12,000 to produce the six-second gag.[52] He was one of the first television comedians to use odd fake credits and comments between the legitimate credits and, at times, during his routines.[53][54]

Kovacs reportedly disliked working in front of a live audience, as was the case with the shows he did for NBC in the 1950s. He found the presence of an audience distracting, and those in the seats frequently did not understand some of the more elaborate visual gags and special effects, which could only be appreciated by watching studio monitors instead of the stage.[55]

Like many comedians of the era, Kovacs created a rotation of recurring roles. In addition to the silent "Eugene," his most familiar characters were the fey, lisping poet Percy Dovetonsils, and the heavily accented German disc jockey, Wolfgang von Sauerbraten. Mr. Question Man, who answered viewer queries, was a satire on the long-run (1937–56) radio series, The Answer Man. Others included horror show host Auntie Gruesome, bumbling magician Matzoh Heppelwhite, Frenchman Pierre Ragout, and Miklos Molnar, the sardonic Hungarian host of a cooking show.[56] The Miklos character wasn't always confined to a kitchen; Kovacs performed a parody of The Howdy Doody Show with "Buffalo Miklos" as the host.[51][55][57] Poet Percy Dovetonsils can be found playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on a disappearing piano and as a "Master Detective" on the "Private Eye-Private Eye" presentation of the US Steel Hour on CBS March 8, 1961.[58][59] On the same show, the Nairobi Trio abandons their instruments for a safe cracking job; still with a background of "Solfeggio" but speaking, two of the three appear in an "Outer Space" sketch.[51][60]

Kovacs being made up for the U.S. Steel Hour "Private Eye-Private Eye" program in 1961. In addition to playing many of his usual cast of characters on the show, Kovacs played a butler (upper right), a skin diver (lower left), and Santa Claus.


Kovacs never hesitated to lampoon those considered institutions of radio and television. In April 1954, he started late-night talk show The Ernie Kovacs Show on DuMont Television Network's New York flagship station, WABD. Stage, screen, and radio notables often dropped by as guests. Archie Bleyer, head of Cadence Records, came to chat one evening. Bleyer had been the long-time orchestra leader for Arthur Godfrey's radio and television shows. He had been fired by Godfrey the year before along with fellow cast member, Julius La Rosa, when it was discovered Bleyer's record company had a contract with LaRosa without Godfrey's knowledge. Bleyer and Kovacs were shown in split-screen, with Kovacs wearing a red wig, headphones, and playing a ukelele in a Godfrey imitation, while talking with his guest.[44]

Kovacs' television programs included Three to Get Ready (an early morning program seen on Philadelphia's WPTZ from 1950 through 1952), It's Time for Ernie (1951, his first network series),[31][61] Ernie in Kovacsland, (a summer replacement show for Kukla, Fran and Ollie, 1951),[62] The Ernie Kovacs Show (1952–56 on various networks),[44][54] a twice-a-week job filling in for Steve Allen as host of The Tonight Show on Mondays and Tuesdays (1956–57), and game shows Gamble on Love, One Minute Please,[9] Time Will Tell (all on DuMont),[44] and Take a Good Look (1959–61).[63] Kovacs later publicly accused Allen of stealing material and characters from him and then performing them in only slightly obfuscated form.[citation needed] (For example, Kovacs' "Mr. Question Man" bore a resemblance to Allen's "Answer Man," and later, Johnny Carson's long-running Carnac character.)[64]

Kovacs had a short stint as a celebrity panelist on What's My Line?, but took his responsibilities less than seriously, often eschewing a legitimate question for the sake of a laugh. An example: Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, the founder of the automobile company, was the program's "mystery guest." Previous questioning had established that the mystery guest's name was synonymous with an automobile brand, Kovacs asked, "Are you – and this is just a wild guess – but are you Abraham Lincoln?"—a reference to the Ford Motor Company's brand of luxury automobile.[65] When Kovacs gave an interview admitting that he was absent from the show when he wanted to go out for dinner on a Sunday, his stint on the panel show was over.[66]

Kovacs became a regular on NBC Radio's Monitor beginning in late 1958, often using Mr. Question Man in his radio monologues.[67][68][69]

TV specials[edit]

Kovacs slapped the hood of this Nash Metropolitan car, sending it down into a hole in the ground, circa 1960–1961. Reportedly, the cost to produce this one quick blackout used up the entire budget for his half-hour TV show.

He also did several television specials, including the famous Silent Show (1957), featuring his character, Eugene, the first all-pantomime prime-time network program. After the break-up of the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis partnership, NBC offered Lewis the opportunity to host his own 90-minute color TV special. Lewis opted to take only 60 minutes, leaving the network 30 minutes to fill; no one wanted this time slot, but Kovacs was willing to have it.[70] The program contained no spoken dialogue and contained only sound effects and music.[71] Starring Kovacs as the mute, Chaplinlike character "Eugene", the program contained surreal sight gags.[72] Kovacs developed the Eugene character during the fall of 1956 when hosting The Tonight Show. Expectations were high for the Lewis program, but it was Kovacs' special that received the most attention; Kovacs received his first movie offer, had a cover story in Life, and received the Sylvania Award that year.[20] In 1961, Kovacs and his co-director, Joe Behar, were recipients of the Directors Guild of America Award for a second version of this program over the ABC network.[32]

A series of monthly half-hour specials for ABC in 1961–62 is often considered his best television work. Shot on videotape using new editing and special effects techniques, it won a 1962 Emmy Award.[17] Kovacs and co-director Behar also won the Directors Guild of America award for an Ernie Kovacs Special based on the earlier silent "Eugene" program. Kovacs' last ABC special was aired posthumously, on January 23, 1962.[16] What made Kovacs unique may also have been what made him a hard sell to television viewers used to situation comedies and variety shows. Having a cult following at best, Kovacs rarely had a highly rated show. His friend Jack Lemmon was once quoted as saying that no one ever understood Kovacs' work because "he was always 15 years ahead of everyone else."[citation needed]

"The existence of these separate shows is testament to both the success and failure of Ernie Kovacs," says the Museum of Broadcast Communications. "A brilliant and innovative entertainer, he was a failure as a popular program host; praised by critics, he was avoided by viewers... The Ernie Kovacs shows were products of the time when television was in its infancy and experimentation was acceptable. It is doubtful that Ernie Kovacs would find a place on television today. He was too zany, too unrestrained, too undisciplined. Perhaps Jack Gould of The New York Times said it best for Ernie Kovacs: 'The fun was in trying'."[73]

Other shows had greater success while using elements of Kovacs' style. Laugh-In producer George Schlatter was married to actress Jolene Brand, who had appeared in Kovacs' comic troupes over the years and had been a frequent participant in his pioneering sketches. Laugh-In made frequent use of the quick blackout gags and surreal humor that marked many Kovacs projects. Another link was a young NBC staffer, Bill Wendell, Kovacs' usual announcer and sometimes a sketch participant. From 1980–95, Wendell was the announcer for David Letterman, whose show and style of humor were greatly influenced by Kovacs.[46]

The Music Man[edit]

Kovacs was also known for his eclectic musical taste. His main theme song was called "Oriental Blues" by Jack Newlon, which borrows heavily from "Rialto Ripples", a quirky piano number by George Gershwin.[citation needed] The rendition most often heard was a piano-driven trio version, but for his primetime show in 1956, music director Harry Sosnik presented a full-blown big band version. The German song "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" from The Threepenny Opera (later anglicized to the well-known "Mack the Knife"), frequently underscored his blackout routines. Robert Maxwell's "Solfeggio" became associated closely enough with the derby-hatted apes that it became better known among Kovacs admirers as "The Song of the Nairobi Trio".[citation needed]

Kovacs in 1961

An unusual treatment of "Sentimental Journey", by Mexican bandleader Juan García Esquivel, accompanied video of an empty office in which various items (pencil sharpeners, water coolers, wall clocks) come to life in rhythm with the music, a variation on several famous animations of a decade earlier.[53] The original three-minute presentation was outlined by Kovacs in a four-page, single-spaced memo to his staff. The perfectionist Kovacs can be seen by reading it, as he describes in minute detail what had to be done and how to do it. The memo ends with this: "I don't know how the hell you're going to get this done by Sunday – but 'rots of ruck." (signed) "Ernie (with love)".[74] Kovacs also made careful use of the shrill singer Leona Anderson—who had somewhat less than a classical (or even listenable) voice, by some estimations—in comic vignettes.[75]

Kovacs used classical music as background for silent sketches or abstract visual routines, including "Concerto for Orchestra", by Béla Bartók; music from the opera "The Love of Three Oranges", by Sergei Prokofiev; the finale of Igor Stravinsky's suite "The Firebird"; and Richard Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks". He may have been best known for using Haydn's "String Quartet, Opus 3, Number 5" (the "Serenade," actually composed by Roman Hoffstetter), which was used in a series of 1960–61 commercials he created and videotaped for his sponsor, Dutch Masters.

For the show of May 22, 1959, Kovacs on Music, Kovacs began by saying, "I have never really understood classical music, so I would like to take this opportunity to explain it to others." Presented in the form of the gorilla version of Swan Lake which differed from the usual performance only in the persona of the dancers, giant paper clips moving to music and other sketches, Ernie's offerings showed his instinct for the classics and made them more comprehensible to his viewers.[21][50][55][76]

He also served as host on a jazz Album to benefit the American Cancer Society in 1957, Listening to Jazz with Ernie Kovacs. It was a 15-minute recording featuring some of the giants of the art, including pianists Jimmy Yancey and Bunk Johnson, soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, guitarist Django Reinhardt, composer/pianist/bandleader Duke Ellington and longtime Ellington trumpeter Cootie Williams. Both the Library of Congress and the National Library of Canada have copies of this recording in their collections.[77]

In print[edit]

Kovacs wrote a novel, Zoomar: A Sophisticated Novel about Love and TV (Doubleday, 1957), based on television pioneer Pat Weaver; it took Kovacs only 13 days to write.[78][79] In a 1960 interview, Edie Adams related that the novel was written after Kovacs' experiences with network television while he was preparing to air the Silent Show.[80] The 1961 British edition was retitled T.V. Medium Rare by its London based publisher, Transworld.[81]

While he worked on several other book projects, Kovacs' only other published title was How to Talk at Gin, published posthumously in 1962. He intended part of the book's proceeds to benefit Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.[82] During 1955–58, he wrote for Mad (his favorite humor magazine), including the feature "Strangely Believe It!" (a parody of Ripley's Believe It or Not! that was a regular feature on his TV shows) and "Gringo," a board game with ridiculously complicated rules that was renamed "Droongo" for the TV show.[83] Kovacs also wrote the introduction to the 1958 collection Mad For Keeps: A Collection of the Best from Mad Magazine.[84]

Television guest star[edit]

Kovacs as Barney Colby, the super detective, 1959.

Kovacs and Edie Adams were the guest stars on the final installment of the one-hour I Love Lucy format, known in network airings as The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show and in syndication as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. Kovacs and Adams appeared in the episode, "Lucy Meets the Moustache," which filmed March 2 and aired April 1, 1960. It was the last time Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz appeared together before the breakup of their marriage. According to Adams, Lucy and Desi barely talked to each other in between scenes, and divorce proceedings began March 3, the day after the show's filming.[85]

Kovacs also appeared in roles on other television programs. For General Electric Theater's "I Was a Bloodhound" in 1959, Kovacs played the role of detective Barney Colby, whose extraordinary sense of smell helped him solve many seemingly impossible cases. Colby was hired by a foreign country to recover their symbol of royalty, a baby elephant, who was being held for ransom.[86]

Films[edit]

Kovacs found Hollywood success as a character actor, often typecast as a swarthy military officer (almost always a "Captain" of some sort) in such films as Operation Mad Ball, Wake Me When It's Over, and Our Man in Havana.[87] He garnered critical acclaim for roles such as the perennially inebriated writer in Bell, Book and Candle and as the cartoonishly evil head of a railroad company (who resembled Orson Welles' title character in Citizen Kane) in It Happened to Jane, where he had his head shaved and his remaining hair dyed grey for the role.[88][89] In 1960, he played the off-center base commander Charlie Stark in the comedy Wake Me When It's Over. His own personal favorite was said to have been the offbeat Five Golden Hours (1961), in which he portrayed a larcenous professional mourner who meets his match in a professional widow played by Cyd Charisse. Kovacs' last film, Sail a Crooked Ship, was released shortly before his death.[90]

Personal life[edit]

First marriage[edit]

Kovacs and his first wife, Bette Wilcox, were married on August 13, 1945. When the marriage ended, he fought for custody of their children, Elizabeth ("Bette") and Kip Raleigh ("Kippie"). The court awarded Kovacs full custody upon determining that his former wife was mentally unstable.[91] The decision was extremely unusual at the time, setting a legal precedent. Wilcox subsequently kidnapped the children, taking them to Florida.[92] After a long and expensive search, Kovacs regained custody. These events were portrayed in the 1984 film, Ernie Kovacs: Between the Laughter, which earned an Emmy Award nomination for its writer, April Smith. Kovacs was portrayed by Jeff Goldblum.[93][94][95][96]

Kovacs' first wife made a legal attempt to gain custody of her two daughters shortly after his death. She began August 2, 1962 by claiming $500,000 was her share of Kovacs' estate and charging her ex-husband had abducted the girls in 1955; Kovacs had been granted legal custody of his daughters in 1952.[91][97] On August 30, Wilcox filed an affidavit claiming that Kovacs' widow, Edie Adams, the stepmother to the girls, was "unfit" to care for them.[98] Both daughters, Bette and Kippie, testified that they wanted to stay with their stepmother, Edie.[99][100][101] Kippie's testimony was very emotional; in it she referred to Edie as "Mommy" and her birth mother as "the other lady."[102] Upon hearing the verdict that the girls would remain in their home, Adams broke down, saying, "This is what Ernie would have wanted. Now I can smile." Elizabeth Kovacs' reaction was "I'm so happy I can hardly express myself", after learning she and her sister would not be forced to leave Edie.[103]

Second marriage[edit]

Ernie and Edie in 1956.

Kovacs and Adams met in 1951 when she was hired to work on his WPTZ show, Three To Get Ready.[31] Her appearance on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts caught the eye of Kovacs' producer, and he asked her to audition for the program. A classically trained singer, she was able to perform only three popular songs. Edie said later, "I sang them all during the audition, and if they had asked to hear another, I never would have made it."[15][104] Quoting Kovacs, "I wish I could say I was the big shot that hired her, but it was my show in name only – the producer had all the say. Later on I did have something to say and I said it, 'Let's get married.'"[20][23]

After the couple's first date, Kovacs proceeded to buy a Jaguar, telling Adams he wanted to take her out in style. He was seriously taken with the beautiful and talented young woman, courting her with imagination and flair.[9][24] Kovacs' attempts to win Adams' heart included hiring a mariachi band to serenade her backstage at the Broadway musical she was performing in and the sudden gift of a diamond engagement ring, telling her to wear it until she made up her mind.[55] Kovacs continued this romantic quest after the show went out of town.[105]

Adams booked a six-week European cruise which she hoped would let her make up her mind whether or not to marry Kovacs. After only three days away and many long-distance calls, she cut short her trip and returned to say "yes".[21][24] They eloped and were married on September 12, 1954 in Mexico City.[15] The ceremony was presided over by former New York City mayor William O'Dwyer and was performed in Spanish, which neither Kovacs nor Adams understood; O'Dwyer had to prompt each of them to say "Sí" at the "I do" portion of the vows.[24][106] Adams, who had a very middle class upbringing, was smitten by Kovacs' quirky ways; the couple remained together until his death. (She later said about Kovacs, "He treated me like a little girl, and I loved it—Women's Lib be damned!")[24]

Adams also supported Kovacs' struggle to reclaim his two older children after the kidnapping by their mother. She also was a regular partner on his television shows. Kovacs usually introduced or addressed her in a businesslike way, as "Edith Adams". Adams was usually willing to do anything he envisioned, whether it was singing seriously, performing impersonations (including a well-regarded impression of Marilyn Monroe), or taking a pie in the face or a pratfall if and when needed. The couple had one daughter, Mia Susan Kovacs, born June 20, 1959.[107][108]

Kovacs and his family shared a 16-room apartment in Manhattan on Central Park West that seemed perfect until Ernie went to California for his first movie role in Operation Mad Ball.[48] The experience of the totally different, laid-back lifestyle of Hollywood made a big impression on him.[109] He realized he was working far too much in New York; in California he would be able to work fewer hours, do just as well or better, and have more time for Edie and his daughters. At the time he was working most of the time and sleeping about two or three hours a night.[14] When he was telling his girls a bedtime story and found himself thinking of writing it up instead, Ernie realized it was time for a change. Kovacs moved his family there in 1957, after Edie finished Li'l Abner on Broadway.[78][110]

Death[edit]

Kovacs was killed in an automobile accident in Los Angeles in the early morning hours of January 13, 1962. Kovacs, who had worked for much of the evening, met Adams at a baby shower given by Billy Wilder for Milton Berle and his wife, who had recently adopted a three-year old boy. The couple left the party in separate cars.[111] After a light Southern California rainstorm, Kovacs lost control of his Chevrolet Corvair station wagon while turning fast, and crashed into a power pole at the corner of Beverly Glen and Santa Monica Boulevards. He was thrown halfway out the passenger side, dying almost instantly from chest and head injuries.[112]

A photographer managed to arrive moments later, and graphic images of Kovacs in death appeared in newspapers across the United States.[113][114] An unlit cigar lay on the pavement, inches from his outstretched arm.[115] Years later, in a documentary about Kovacs, Edie Adams described telephoning the police impatiently when she learned of the crash. An official cupped his hand over the receiver, saying to a colleague, "It's Mrs. Kovacs, he's on his way to the coroner – what should I tell her?" With that, Adams's fears were confirmed, and she became inconsolable. Jack Lemmon, who also attended the Berle party, identified Kovacs' body at the morgue because Adams was too distraught to do so.[111]

After attending funerals for Hollywood friends, Kovacs had expressed his wishes to Adams that any funeral services for him be kept simple.[82] In keeping with his request, Adams made arrangements for Presbyterian services held at the Beverly Hills Community Presbyterian Church.[116] The active pallbearers were Jack Lemmon, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Billy Wilder, Mervyn Leroy, and Joe Mikolas. Kovacs' father and brother, Andrew and Tom, respectively, served as honorary pallbearers.[117] The attendees included George Burns, Groucho Marx, Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, Jack Benny, James Stewart, Charlton Heston, Buster Keaton and Milton Berle.[118] There was no typical Hollywood-type eulogy, but the church's pastor paid tribute to Kovacs, adding that he once summed up his life in two sentences: "I was born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1919 to a Hungarian couple. I've been smoking cigars ever since." [119]

Kovacs is buried in Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles. His epitaph reads, "Nothing in moderation—We all loved him."[120] Only one of Kovacs' three children survives: his eldest, Elizabeth, from his first marriage. Kippie, his second daughter, died on July 28, 2001 at the age of 52, after a long illness and a lifetime of poor health.[121] Kippie and her husband, Bill Lancaster (1947–1997), a screenwriter and the son of actor Burt Lancaster, are the parents of Kovacs' only grandchild, Keigh Lancaster.[122][123][124] His only child with Edie Adams, Mia (1959–1982), was killed on May 8, 1982, also in an automobile accident.[125] Mia and Kippie are buried close to their father; when Edie died in 2008, she was buried between Mia and Kippie.[126]

Tax evasion[edit]

A frequent critic of the U.S. tax system, Kovacs owed the IRS several hundred thousand dollars in back taxes, thanks to his simple refusal to pay the bulk of them. Up to 90% of his earnings were garnished as a result.[127] His long battles with the IRS inspired Kovacs to tie up his money in a convoluted series of paper corporations in the U.S. and Canada. He would give them bizarre names, such as "The Bazooka Dooka Hicka Hocka Hookah Company" to thumb his nose at the government.[107] In 1961, Kovacs was served with a $75,000 lien for back taxes; that same day he bought the California Racquet Club with the apparent hope of being able to use it as a tax write-off.[128] The property had mortgages at the time of purchase which were later paid by Edie Adams.[129][130]

His tax woes also affected Kovacs' career, forcing him to take any offered work to pay off his debt.[55][131] This included the ABC game show Take a Good Look, appearances on variety shows such as NBC's The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford, and some of his less memorable movie roles. He also filmed an unaired 1962 pilot episode for a proposed CBS series, Medicine Man (co-starring Buster Keaton, pilot episode titled "A Pony For Chris"). Kovacs' role was that of Dr. P. Crookshank, a traveling medicine salesman in the 1870s selling Mother McGreevy's Wizard Juice, also known as "man's best friend in a bottle".[82] This was quietly abandoned after his death, which occurred the day after filming some scenes for the pilot in Griffith Park. CBS initially intended to air the show as part of a summer replacement program, The Comedy Spot, but decided against it due to issues with Kovacs' estate.[132] The pilot is part of the public collection of the Paley Center for Media[133][134] and is available on DVD in "The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Volume 2" from Shout! Factory.[135]

Adams, who married and divorced twice after Kovacs' death, refused help from celebrity friends who planned a benefit for the purpose.[82][136][137][138] Saying "I can take care of my own children", and being determined to accept offers only from those who wanted to hire her for her talents, Adams managed to pay off all of Ernie's debts.[15][130]

Some of the issues regarding Kovacs' tax problems were still unresolved years after his death. Kovacs had purchased two insurance policies in 1951; his mother was named as the primary beneficiary of them. The IRS placed a lien against them both for their cash value in 1961. To stop the actions being taken against her, Mary Kovacs had to go to Federal court. In early 1966 their ruling resolved the issue, with the last sentence of the document reading: "Prima facie, it looks as if, within the limits of discretion permitted the government by the relevant statutes, an injustice is being done Mary Kovacs."[139]

Lost and surviving work[edit]

Most of Kovacs' early television work was done live and has survived only in the form of a very few short film clips or kinescopes. Some videotapes of his ABC specials were preserved; others, such as his quirky game show, Take a Good Look, exist only in short videotape segments.[21] After Kovacs' death, Adams discovered not only that her husband owed ABC a lot of money, but that some networks were systematically erasing and reusing tapes of Kovacs' shows or literally dumping the kinescopes and videotapes in New York Bay. She succeeded in buying the rights to the surviving footage and tapes with the proceeds from Kovacs' insurance policy and with her own earnings after Kovacs' IRS debts were paid.[136][137] Most of Kovacs' salvaged work is available to researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles Library's Department of Special Collections, and there is also some material available at both locations of the Paley Center for Media.[127][140][141]

The first time I was made aware of the willful destruction of videotapes was in 1962, after the sudden death of my husband, Ernie Kovacs. He had been working on two shows for ABC here in Hollywood.
Three months after his death, several members of his ABC crew came to see me at home and asked if I couldn't do something about the fact that ABC was using the wall of Kovacs's master tapes as used tape to tape over the news, the weather, public service blurbs, or anything, to recoup some of the moneys owed to them by Ernie.
So, I called up my lawyer and told him to use the modest insurance policy to pay them off and buy back the 12-foot wall of Kovacs' tapes they were "saving money" by using. In all, about 40 hours was there, and by the time it was transferred to my storage facility, only 15 hours of it showed up.
In the earlier '70's, the Dumont network was being bought by another company, and the lawyers were in heavy negotiation as to who would be responsible for the library of the Dumont shows currently being stored at the facility, who would bear the expense of storing them in a temperature controlled facility, take care of the copyright renewal, et cetera.
One of the lawyers doing the bargaining said that he could "take care of it" in a "fair manner," and he did take care of it. At 2 a.m., the next morning, he had three huge semis back up to the loading dock at ABC, filled them all with stored kinescopes and 2" videotapes, drove them to a waiting barge in New Jersey, took them out on the water, made a right at the Statue of Liberty and dumped them in the Upper New York Bay. Very neat. No problem.

—Edie Adams, National Film Preservation Board testimony, 1996

The 1984 television movie, Ernie Kovacs: Between the Laughter, helped return Kovacs to the public eye, though the focus was on his bid to retrieve his kidnapped children instead of his professional life. Edie Adams appeared in a cameo in this film, playing Mae West; it was one of the impressions she performed in shows with Kovacs.[93][142][143] Telecasts of edited compilations of some of his work by PBS (station WTTW, Chicago) under the title The Best of Ernie Kovacs in 1977, inspired the film.[144] These broadcasts are still available in a five volume VHS or two disc DVD set (released in 1992 and 2000 respectively); since these are out of print copies usually have to be acquired used. The DVD set features extras that are not in the VHS set. The series, which was narrated by Ernie's close friend Jack Lemmon, was distributed by Kultur Films (formerly White Star Video).[citation needed]

In the early 1990s, The Comedy Channel broadcast a series of Kovacs' shows under the generic title of The Ernie Kovacs Show. The package included both the ABC specials and some of his 1950s shows from NBC. By 2008, there were no broadcast, cable, or satellite channels airing any of Kovacs' television work, other than his panel appearances on What's My Line? on the Game Show Network.[citation needed]

On April 19, 2011 Shout! Factory released The Ernie Kovacs Collection, six DVDs with over 13 hours of material spanning Kovacs' television career. The company's website also offers an extra disc with material from Tonight! and The Ernie Kovacs Show, as well as a rare color kinescope of the complete 30-minute, 1957 NBC color broadcast featuring "Eugene".[145] On October 23, 2012, Shout! Factory released The Ernie Kovacs Collection: Volume 2 on DVD.[146]

In 1961, Kovacs recorded a record album of poetry in the character of Percy Dovetonsils called Percy Dovetonsils Thpeath, but was unable to release it due to contractual obligations with other record companies. After he was given the masters, Kovacs donated them to a Los Angeles area hospital. Edie Adams was able to re-acquire the tapes in 1967, and they remained part of her private collection until her death in 2008. The tapes were labeled as film material and were thought to be such until further examination proved they were Kovacs as Percy reading his poems with no music background. Percy's poetry was finally released in 2012.[147][148][149][150]

Ernie Kovacs was inducted posthumously into the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia's Hall of Fame in 1992.[151]

Filmography[edit]

References[edit]

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Further reading[edit]

  • Adams, Edie (1990). Sing a Pretty Song: The "Offbeat" Life of Edie Adams, Including the Ernie Kovacs Years. William Morrow; ISBN 0-688-07341-7
  • Barker, David Brian (1982). "Every Moment's a Gift": Ernie Kovacs in Hollywood, 1957–1962, a Master's Thesis. Available for viewing at the library at the University of Texas at Austin
  • Rico, Diana (1990). Kovacsland: A Biography of Ernie Kovacs. Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich; ISBN 0-15-147294-7
  • Walley, David (1975). Nothing in Moderation. Drake Publishers; ISBN 0-87749-738-9
    Reprinted as The Ernie Kovacs Phile by David Walley, Bolder Books, 1978 and Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1987; ISBN 0-918282-06-3

External links[edit]

Watch[edit]