TheaterMania Logo
Theater News

Burns Returns

Frank Gorshin and Rupert Holmes bring George Burns to Broadway in Say Goodnight Gracie. logo
Frank Gorshin in Say Goodnight Gracie
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
"I told an actor friend of mine that I was going to do a one-man show on Broadway," says Frank Gorshin, "and he asked, 'Anything in it for me?'" The veteran actor-impressionist is playing comedian George Burns (1896-1996) in Say Goodnight Gracie, written by Rupert Holmes and directed by John Tillinger. It's Gorshin's fourth New York stage experience: He starred as one-time city Mayor James J. Walker in the musical, Jimmy; replaced George Hearn in Whodunit; and, most recently, appeared in Gilbert & Sullivan's Princess Ida at Symphony Space.

Gracie runs 90 minutes without intermission. "That's a long time onstage when you're by yourself," says Gorshin. "I keep waiting for other actors to show up -- but nobody does. When you say that last line, it's such a relief. Actually, there is a moment when I get to leave the stage; they show a film clip of George Burns and Jack Benny." Does that give Gorshin time to eat a sandwich and get some rest? "Yes," he laughs, "and answer all my phone calls." He describes the show as "the performance George Burns would have done if he'd been able to perform on his hundredth birthday. It's his tribute to Gracie [Allen, who was Burns' partner from 1922 to her 1958 retirement and his wife from 1926 until her death in 1964]. The setting is limbo. He's been confronted by God -- whom he played in the movies [thrice, starting with 1977's Oh, God!] -- and he finds that he has to audition. If he's approved, he'll be reunited with Gracie."

In 2000, a slightly shorter version of the play tried out in Fort Lauderdale and Miami, winning two 2000 Carbonell Awards (presented by Florida critics): one for Best Play, the other for Gorshin for Best Actor. Ironically, Burns was not one of the many celebrities Gorshin included in his act during his years as a top-flight impressionist. "I was asked to do him for a film that was never made and never will be," he says. "I made a tape that someone showed to Bill Franzblau [one of the play's seven producers]. My manager brought him to see my act in Atlantic City, and subsequently Bill brought Rupert Holmes to see me."

I tell Gorshin that I once asked James Cagney who did the best impression of him and he unhesitatingly responded, "Frankie Gorshin." That reminds Gorshin of when he met Cagney at the American Film Institute tribute in 1974. "[Cagney] told me, 'One of us is doing it right,'" he recalls. Gorshin's gift for impersonation stems from a job he held while in his teens: As a movie usher, he'd watch films over and over. "That's when I began doing impressions and entering contests," he relates. "My parents were both from Yugoslavia and didn't know any of the people [I impersonated], so they couldn't understand why I was winning prizes. My mother did start going to movies and she'd often say, 'I saw someone who acts just like you.' Mom's 93 now, and she has Alzheimer's. I lost Dad three years ago."

One of three children of a seamstress and a railroad worker, Gorshin was born in Pittsburgh. At 17, he won a talent contest by performing Al Jolson songs ("I knew every one he sang"). First prize was a week's engagement at a nightclub, where Gorshin was the opening act for a young comedian named Alan King. The night before the opening, Gorshin's brother was killed by a car. "My parents insisted that I not cancel," he tells me. "Between shows, I'd spend time at the funeral parlor." In Special Services during the Korean War, Gorshin acted in plays and was seen by a motion picture executive who later arranged for a screen test. His movie debut occurred in a small role in The Proud and Profane (1956), starring William Holden and Deborah Kerr.

Gorshin played several supporting roles in movies -- including a street kid in the Jerry Lewis comedy The Delicate Delinquent and Richard Widmark's brother in the Western Warlock -- and did impressions on TV variety shows. He played Blake Barton, a parody of Marlon Brando, in the film version of Bells Are Ringing. But the part that changed his career was that of The Riddler in the 1966-68 TV series Batman. "I appeared on the pilot, and right after that I headlined in Vegas for the first time," he says. "That's what did it for me." He made 10 appearances as The Riddler, received an Emmy nomination, and also played the part in the 1966 Batman movie.

"It's so strange," observes Gorshin: "When you've done impressions, it takes forever to get people to think of you as an actor. After I did The Riddler on Batman -- such a bizarre role -- it took so long to squelch that image. Not that I wanted to squelch it, but I wanted people to see me in a different way." A 1969 Star Trek episode, "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," won Gorshin a second Emmy nomination. The actor's stage work includes productions of Promises, Promises, Guys and Dolls, What Makes Sammy Run, Deathtrap, Ah, Wilderness! ("as the father; I thought it would be a challenge"), On the Twentieth Century ("with Judy Kaye and Imogene Coca"), Broken Legs ("I really love that play but people don't know it"), The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and The Sunshine Boys ("I loved working with Dick Van Patten").

In Say Goodnight, Gracie, Gorshin wears a wig and eyeglasses, and sings "a couple of patter songs -- throwaway ditties that are broken up with gags. So many people loved George Burns," the actor says. "He was a favorite in England, too. I can see us going to London with this play!"


Rupert Holmes
"It was a joy and an honor to write Say Goodnight, Gracie," says Rupert Holmes. "I grew up on the Burns and Allen TV series, which broke the fourth wall. George would talk to the audience. No one gave me more pleasure."

The new play came about because Holmes received a phone call from producer Franzblau. "He knew my work on Remember WENN [Holmes' cable TV series]. He said, 'I know you're steeped in old radio, and that was the heart of the success of Burns and Allen.' He had been meeting with Ronnie Burns, George and Gracie's son, and believed that there would be an audience for a show about George." Holmes explains the play's fanciful setting in limbo as follows: "Before George can move onto the Big Time and Gracie, he needs to go through his life, from the Lower East Side -- where he grew up within two blocks of Eddie Cantor, Fannie Brice, the Marx brothers, Jimmy Durante, and Milton Berle -- to lying in bed at the age of 100 years and four months. [The play] focuses heavily on his years with Gracie."

While doing research, Holmes became fascinated with his subject. "[Burns] died four years short of living in three centuries," he notes. "He traveled a journey of American entertainment -- performing on streets, in vaudeville, in movie shorts and features, on radio and television. He changed his vaudeville act -- and his name -- so many times. Once, he had a trained-seal act called Flipper and Friend; he was Friend. It required him to wear a jacket with a pocket full of fish. Meeting Gracie Allen changed his life. He said -- and I may be paraphrasing -- 'I had a great talent, so I married her.' The play is really a love story, first and foremost, about his love for Gracie. Then there's the other great love of his life, Jack Benny. It's also about his love of performing."

A Tony Award winner for the book, music, and lyrics of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Holmes also orchestrated that Best Musical of 1986. "It was the most remarkable experience of my life," he says of Drood. "We did it at the Delacorte [in Central Park] and then transferred to Broadway. What a company!" The audience voted on the show's ending. "Someone worked it out. There were 458 different combinations of endings, eight different murderers' confessions, seven choices of who was the detective in disguise, 36 combinations of lovers. Only once or twice was an audience perverse enough to pick the brother and sister."

Born in Northwich, England ("half-way between Manchester and Chester"), Holmes grew up in Nyack, New York. He has dual citizenship; his father was an American GI and his mother was British. He and his wife, Liza, are the parents of two sons, Nick and Tim. His other Broadway credits include Accomplice and Solitary Confinement, and the multi-talented Holmes has also produced albums for Barbra Streisand as well as having written songs, arranged, and conducted for that megastar. "She was wonderful with me, very supportive," he says. "We never had a conflict."

Holmes wrote the book for a musical version of Marty that's opening in Boston at the end of October. "The score is by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, who are heroes of mine," he says. "Mark Brokaw is directing and Rob Ashford's the choreographer. John C. Reilly is a wonder as Marty. It's a very personal, small-scale musical. We're doing it without an intermission. Boston's the first time it'll be seen by an audience, and we do hope to bring it to Broadway."

Early next year, Holmes' first novel, Where the Truth Lies, will be published by Random House. "It's about a once wildly successful comedy duo, Vince Collins and Lanny Morris, who split after a very dark thing happens. Years later, a female journalist wants to write a book about what happened." Holmes also plans a musical based on Remember WENN and is in the very early stages of working on a show with Lonny Price.

"From the outset," says Holmes of Say Goodnight Gracie, "Frank Gorshin's name was mentioned to play George Burns. I knew him as an impressionist on the Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen [TV] shows. His Burt Lancaster/Kirk Douglas was amazing! So was his [Alfred] Hitchcock and Boris Karloff. He did a great Richard Burton, too; still does." But, apparently, Gorshin never imitated Burns until he heard about the Gracie project from Bill Franzblau. "I went to Atlantic City to see his act," says Holmes of Gorshin. "He finished with Dean Martin and then he turned his back to the audience. When he turned around again, just by his stance, you could see it was George Burns. From that day on, Say Goodnight Gracie was Frank's show."

Tagged in this Story