Orson Bean and Chris Buskirk on Old Hollywood and Love for America

Orson Bean, long time character actor and Hollywood personality, joined American Greatness publisher, Chris Buskirk on the Seth and Chris Show to discuss old Hollywood and love for America.  You can listen to their conversation below or read the transcript that follows.

Chris Buskirk:   I am Chris Buskirk. He is Seth Leibsohn and this is ‘The Seth and Chris Show.’ Very, very happy to welcome to the show, Orson Bean. He is, boy, I say this all the time jokingly, but you actually are a star of stage and screen.

Orson Bean:   And radio.

Chris Buskirk:   And radio too. I love it. Orson, thanks so much for coming on the show. It really is a pleasure and an honor to have you on the show. I know a lot of our listeners know your work and have watched you for years. I mean, your history in Hollywood goes back to the time of being on “The Jack Paar Show,” then on Carson and “Twilight Zone” and still going strong today all these years later. You know, I’ll tell you something just so you can kind of get where we’re coming from on this show. Seth and I, my co-host, he’s out today but we grew up watching Johnny Carson.

Orson Bean:   Yeah.

Chris Buskirk:   And part of the magic of that show, I know, we always say, was that he let the whole country in on a big inside joke. It was very warm. You watch that show and they’re on YouTube. I love them. I try to capture a little bit of that magic here. What was? This isn’t political but I just have to know, what was “The Carson Show” like in its glory days?

Orson Bean:   Well, Johnny was very smart and very interested in lots of things. Not like Jay Leno, it seemed to me was always just looking for something to set up his next joke. Johnny knew at least something about an awful lot of things, animal husbandry, astronomy, history, geography, so he would ask questions that were genuinely interesting because they interested him. I remember the biggest laugh I ever got from him. They were, I was sitting on the panel and they were talking about, would you, when you die would you leave your eyes, your liver, your kidney and I was in my thirties and better looking than I am now and he said, “How about you Orson, would you leave anything?” I said, “I intend to leave myself intact to a needy necrophiliac.” Carson fell out of his seat. There were no laughs from the studio audience. Nobody knew what the word meant.

Chris Buskirk:   But he thought it was funny. Right?

Orson Bean:   He thought it was.

Chris Buskirk:   And he was a pretty good judge of what was funny.

Orson Bean:   Yeah. Oh, yeah.

Chris Buskirk:   I don’t know if you saw it at all. There was a, there’s a new series, I think, I guess it’s on Showtime called “I’m Dying Up Here.” It’s about the standup comedy scene in LA in the kind of early mid-seventies.

Orson Bean:  Yeah.

Chris Buskirk:   There’s, have you seen it?

Orson Bean:   No. I have not. I don’t-

Chris Buskirk:   I think it’s very well done. It’s written by some comedians and one of the things that is kind of an undercurrent in the show is that everybody wants to A) get on Carson and B) if you get the couch. You go out and do your bit, you do your five, ten minutes, and if he invites you on the couch you know you’ve done well.

Orson Bean:  Not everybody wanted the couch. Rodney Dangerfield who wrote the tightest and best comedy monologues anybody ever did, but he couldn’t ad lib as the old joke goes a belt after a Hungarian dinner. I was on one time sitting on the panel. Rodney came out. Did a boffo five minutes and Johnny said, “Come on.” “No, that’s all right Johnny.” “No, come on.” He made him come over. He said, “So Rodney, how’s it going?” There was a long pause and Rodney said, “I got nothing.” Carson fell down, said, “Get off. Get out.”

Chris Buskirk:  Was that Rodney though? That’s interesting. Was he not a good improviser?

Orson Bean:    No. He only liked to talk if he’d prepared stuff and the stuff he prepared was the best. Like, you know “I’m so old I went to Mexico. I got the walks.” Or, “My wife says to me, “How come you never tell me when you have an orgasm?” She says, “I’m never near a phone.”” Or “My mother refused to nurse me. She thought of me as a friend.” He had the best self-deprecating jokes, but no he didn’t want to ad lib. He felt nervous. He’d sweat more than usual if he had to ad lib.

Chris Buskirk:   The man could sweat. Right?

Orson Bean:   Oh yeah.

Chris Buskirk:   Who was fun to be on … who was it fun to be on Carson with? I always liked Buddy Hackett. He was one of my favorites on Carson.

Orson Bean:   I loved Hackett. Hackett would always, if I ran into him on the street he wouldn’t say, “Hey, how you doing?” He’d say, “Two Jews walk into a restaurant,” or “A Catholic priest meets with …” You know, he would just start with a joke.

Chris Buskirk:   He’d just start with his shtick, right? He was always on.

Orson Bean:   Yeah. A funny guy.

Chris Buskirk:  Yeah. That’s fantastic. Orson, let me ask you this. You’ve been in Hollywood a long time and you’ve had a great career. Apparently, you have enjoyed doing it. What, how’s it changed?

Orson Bean:   Well, now, I mean, when I began there were three networks. I was a regular for quite a while on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and the average viewership on a Sunday night was 70 million people.

Chris Buskirk:  Wow.

Orson Bean:   Now, shows are thrilled to get 12 or 13 million people.

Chris Buskirk:  Right.

Orson Bean:   But in those days, there weren’t all the choices there are now. Television brought families together. The whole family sat and watched “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Now, you know, dad is watching the game, the teenage girl’s in her room watching her stuff, the teenage boy’s in his room watching his stuff, mama’s watching her stuff and it separates families.

Chris Buskirk:   Yeah. It’s interesting. We were actually talking about that on the show a couple of weeks … We were talking about how that changes the culture. There really was a common culture because everybody watched the same things. If there was something on Ed Sullivan, everybody knew it.

Orson Bean:   Yeah.

Chris Buskirk:   If there was something on Carson, everybody talked about it at the water cooler the next day. I went back and dug up the ratings. In the last, they don’t go, I couldn’t find them going back too far, but the last couple of years of “The Carson Show,” his ratings were higher, meaning he had more viewers. This is thirty years ago, right? He had more viewers on a given night than all of the late night shows today combined.

Orson Bean:   Yeah. It’s true, but the point is that the fact that there are so many of them means it’s split up.

Chris Buskirk:   Right.

Orson Bean:   There was Ted Koppel and the news or—

Chris Buskirk:   Right. He did, what was it “Dateline?” Was it “Dateline” or—?

Orson Bean:    Yeah. I mean those were the days when you believed people. When Walter Cronkite said something, you believed him. When Ted Koppel said something, you believed him. Now, it’s all, you know, if you watch CNN you get one point of view. If you watch Fox, you get another point of view, but there’s no place really to say, this is just what happened. The New York Times all my life was considered to be the paper of record. Now it’s all point of view. It’s all attitude. It’s all editorial masked as news.

Chris Buskirk:  You think that’s happened on the creative side too, with movies, television, that sort of thing?

Orson Bean:   Well, I read recently that China has cut way back on American movies. Now—

Chris Buskirk:  Meaning financing them or importing them for domestic consumption?

Orson Bean:   Importing them.

Chris Buskirk:   Okay.

Orson Bean:   I just read that and it’s having a huge effect in Hollywood because they were making movies to appeal to China and the Near East and the world, so it’s all exploding planets. I mean, I was sick of super heroes by the time I was 16, but now 50 year old men are lined up to go and see super heroes.

Chris Buskirk:   Orson, I am so with you on this. I mean, the super hero movies, maybe one was sort of interesting you know, fine, you’ve got nothing else to do on a Saturday night, you take your wife to see “Ironman” or something.

Orson Bean:   Yeah.

Chris Buskirk:   Okay, but all this proliferation of the super hero movies. Enough. I mean, I just don’t even think they’re good or fun or interesting.

Orson Bean:   No. I mean, towards the end of the year, there’s a few character driven movies that hope for an Oscar, but by and large, it’s all just exploding buses or exploding planets and maybe, I think people are not going to the movies anywhere much as they used to. You know, whatever, if a writer wants to write character driven stuff, he goes to HBO these days or Showtime, where you can still … I myself don’t watch it. I don’t watch anything. The last thing I watched was “Downton Abbey.”

Chris Buskirk:    The first season was good. I think that went down too but the, you make a good point. The character driven stuff has moved to the small screen.

Orson Bean:    Yeah.

Chris Buskirk:    It’s not on the big screen so much anymore, which is a shame because I don’t know about you, I love the experience of going to the movies.

Orson Bean:    Yes.

Chris Buskirk:   It’s just hard to find something worth seeing.

Orson Bean:   Sharing a picture with a bunch of people is very different from watching it at home. It is more fun.

Chris Buskirk:    Yeah. No doubt. One of my complaints are, listeners to this show know because I give them my report almost every week and I keep dropping my standards every weekend when something comes out. Saying, “I just want to go. I just want something. It doesn’t even have to be good. I just want not bad.”

Orson Bean:   Yeah. I know. Well, lots of luck.

Chris Buskirk:   Thank you. Thanks. Do you think that this was, I guess as we look back on the history of Hollywood, I think of these sort of, what I think of as a golden era in Hollywood, maybe the forties and fifties. I think of the John Ford westerns. I think of a movie like “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” These were movies that were made by people who really, they really loved this country. They believed in what America was and they had a pretty common idea of what America was all about.

Orson Bean:   The Jews who left Russia or Germany or Europe—

Chris Buskirk:   Yes.

Orson Bean:   … and came over here loved America and when they really started the movie business, because it was all guys like Samuel Goldwyn and all of these-

Chris Buskirk:   Orson, can you hold that thought? We’ve got to go to a break, but I think—

Orson Bean:   Sure.

Chris Buskirk:   That is, it’s like you’re reading my mind. That is one of the points I wanted to make and I’m glad you’re making it. We’re going to go to a break.

Orson Bean:   Yeah.

Chris Buskirk:   We’ll be right back with Orson Bean.

I am Chris Buskirk. He is Seth Leibsohn. My guest is Orson Bean. He has had an almost 70 year career in Hollywood. Has seen it at what I think was maybe one of its high points, maybe its high point in the fifties. Has seen it change over time.  Orson, when we were going to the break, we were talking about the love of and understanding of the appreciation of America that was evident in so many films that were made, really up until maybe the late sixties. That’s changed, but what drove it in the first place? You were just starting on that and I think it’s a fascinating story.

Orson Bean:   Well, the movie business was started by foreigners. They came over here and they got in on the very beginning with nickelodeons and little stereopticon viewers and then when the sound in movies became a possibility they did that. They started shooting them in New Jersey and when they really started making money on them, they moved out to LA because the weather was better. There was no big deal artificial lighting in those days, it was mostly done with the sun. Well, they, these people who had come from another country really appreciated the freedom that was here and they loved this country and they wanted to glorify it. They were happy to give the people what they wanted. A lot of them were Jews running the studio, happy to have a lot of pictures glorifying Catholic priests. Bing Crosby, “Going My Way.” Barry Fitzgerald. They said, “Sure, give the people what they want.”

There was such patriotism and under the much maligned studio system, so much was cranked out but so much of it wasn’t very good, but so much of it was wonderful. The year that “Casablanca” won the Oscar, seven or eight of the losers were memorable pictures that people still regard as classics.

Chris Buskirk:   Yeah. We talk about that sometimes. We here on the show will look back at some of the nominees. You look back at 19, gosh, I’m trying to think, it was ’60 or ’61. You have movies like “Lilies of the Fields,” “Days of Wine and Rose” being nominated and they didn’t even win. I don’t even think those were the high points in Hollywood’s, the high points of Hollywood’s years. I think that, I don’t know, I keep coming back to John Ford, but the movie that I love that I watch so many times over the years is “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” That is in such a way, that is the classic American movie.

Orson Bean:   Yes. “Stagecoach,” all of those westerns were wonderful. The thing, people wonder why the ratings for the Oscars, nobody’s seen the pictures. The pictures that are nominated appear in an art house in Duluth for one week and maybe people in Salt Lake City could see them for two weeks in an art house but most of them, the big, the last big really popular picture was “Titanic,” that people could root for. There are wonderful movies that are made towards the end of the year. I think “Silver Lining Playbook” is one of my favorite pictures in recent years, even though Harvey Weinstein produced it. “Shakespeare in Love” was another one he produced. Great movies but not an awful lot of people see them the way they saw the movies that won Oscars in the old days, because those were great popular pictures that were also excellent enough to deserve an Oscar.

Chris Buskirk:   Yeah. This I think is one of the keys, is that Hollywood at one time was able to speak to everyone at once.

Orson Bean:   Yeah.

Chris Buskirk:   They did not try to be esoteric. It wasn’t like we’re going to make these esoteric movies to win an Oscar and then we’re going to make “Ironman” or “Spiderman” in order to make money.

Orson Bean:    Yeah.

Chris Buskirk:   It was a different ethic.

Orson Bean:   That’s right.

Chris Buskirk:   Orson, we just have a couple of minutes left. I want to kind of switch gears on you, because I read something, I don’t know if it’s true, but I think it is. I read that you read C.S. Lewis’s book “Mere Christianity” and it had a profound effect on you.

Orson Bean:   It really tipped me over the edge to become a Christian. It’s so simple and it’s so brilliantly and simply written. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis began as a series of radio talks during World War II when the Germans were blitzing London and the BBC asked him to do a series of talks to boost people’s morale. In every pub in London, they’d say, “Shh, C.S. is on. Listen.” And people would put their pints down and listen to him talk about why you should love Jesus. Imagine a government asking for that. Nowadays, it’s inconceivable in England or America or anywhere else. But it’s so simple, that book, “Mere Christianity.” It’s my favorite of the books. I’ve read it two or three times.

Chris Buskirk:   It’s an amazing, it really is an amazing book because it is very clear. It’s very direct and yet it is profound.

Orson Bean:   Yeah.

Chris Buskirk:   There is, he walks people through things kind of like the discussion we were just having of the great movies of the forties, fifties, sixties. It appealed to everyone, but there’s a lot in them.

Orson Bean:   Yeah.

Chris Buskirk:   Everybody could get it.

Orson Bean:    Yeah.

Chris Buskirk:   Mere Christianity was like that. It’s one of those books. I didn’t read it until about 15 years ago. It’s one of those books you hear about and I don’t know maybe it was my natural skeptic thinking it can’t be that good.

Orson Bean:   Yeah.

Chris Buskirk:   I was about two pages into it and I thought, “No. It’s not that good. It’s actually better than what everybody’s been saying.”

Orson Bean:  Right. Well, the first time I really became a Christian was I had met this guy and he always seemed so happy, I said, “Why are you always happy?” He said, “Well, I feel God has my back.” I said, “Well, I don’t know if I believe in God.” He laughed. He said, “Hit your knees and ask for a sign.” So I hit my knees over and over again and after a while I started getting a sign.

Chris Buskirk:   What made you read that book? What brought you to Mere Christianity?

Orson Bean:   Oh. I was interested in an intellect thing to back up faith. Faith is what you really have to have to develop a relationship with God, but it’s nice to have the faith backed up with logic. He shows how the intellect and faith aren’t necessarily separated from each other. He comes back logically again and again. Not, it isn’t just, you don’t have to believe in God because you want to, but because it makes sense.

Chris Buskirk:   Yeah. That’s right. I mean, that’s one of the things about that book that I think is powerful. Again, it’s simple. It’s straightforward. It’s clear and yet C.S. Lewis, who was himself brilliant and he was a wonderfully clear and beautiful writer, demonstrates that reason and revelation, that reason and faith can work together.

Orson Bean:   Absolutely.

Chris Buskirk:    You can use your reason to apprehend what God has revealed to his, to people.

Orson Bean:   Absolutely. I was working with some actors who were not believers. And they, “You really believe in Jesus?” I said, “Yeah. I don’t care. More Jesus to me. Have a good time.” I didn’t try to proselytize.

Chris Buskirk:     That’s funny. Orson, what are you working on now?

Orson Bean:   Well, I just went to Boston and shot five wonderful scenes with Denzel Washington for a movie that’s coming out next year called “Equalizer Two.” It’s the first time he’s ever done a sequel.

Chris Buskirk:   Oh. Good.

Orson Bean:   These, they were wonderful scenes that are in a way the heart of the picture. I play this old Jew who when he was 12 years old was sent to the camps and separated from his sister and Denzel, well, I don’t want to spoil it, but Denzel helps me recapture my happiness and faith.

Chris Buskirk:  All right. So now I know, now there’s a movie I can go and see with my wife but I’ve got to wait till next year.

Orson Bean:   You’ve got to wait till next year.

Chris Buskirk:   Orson, thanks so much for the time. I appreciate it. Will you come back?

Orson Bean:   Sure, Chris. Bless your heart. It was fun.

Chris Buskirk:   Same to you. Thanks a lot. Orson Bean’s been my guest. I appreciate it very much. That was a lot of fun. We’ll be right back with more of “The Seth and Chris Show.”


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