Making a good impression, all by himself

Frank Gorshin channels the spirit of George Burns in his one-man show

Theater

February 20, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Over the course of a five-decade career, actor, impressionist and stand-up comic Frank Gorshin has impersonated just about everyone but God. Until now.

OK. He's not playing God. He's playing someone who played God.

In the one-man show Say Goodnight Gracie, which opens a two-week run at the Hippodrome Theatre on Tuesday, Gorshin portrays George Burns, the actor who had the title role in the 1977 movie Oh, God! and its two sequels.

Although Burns, who died at the age of 100 in 1996, portrayed the Almighty, he spent the core of his career playing straight man to his wife, Gracie Allen, first in vaudeville, then in their long-running radio show and subsequently on TV.

Gorshin, 70, spoke about Burns' career - and his own - earlier this week from Farmington, N.M., where he was performing Say Goodnight Gracie. Previously best known as The Riddler in the 1960s TV series Batman, Gorshin first starred in Say Goodnight Gracie when it made its premiere in Florida in 2000; he went on to play the role for a year on Broadway.

Over the phone, Gorshin sounds nothing like raspy-voiced Burns, who was known for his pregnant pauses. Instead, Gorshin speaks rapidly, tossing in a smattering of jokes along the way.

Do you think the fact that George Burns played the Hippodrome will add resonance to the show, for you or for the audience?

Maybe some chosen few [theatergoers] happened to see him there and now they're back in that theater again. There have been theaters along the way that George Burns and Gracie Allen played - Cleveland being one. That's where they got married. But I didn't feel anything different. ... The reaction from the people has basically been the same. People love George Burns and Gracie Allen.

What was the source of Burns' appeal?

That was such a different time in show business. I was watching the Grammies, and today you've got to be able to stand on your head, got to be macho, got to set things on fire. There's no more humility in show business. When George Burns was around, the humility was there. ... In doing George Burns, I get to do what I thought show business was - the humility.

Why did you insist that Rupert Holmes, author of Say Goodnight Gracie, add material about Burns being unfaithful to Allen?

I insisted because it was so lily white. ... He's got to have something to make him more human. I heard about this incident where he betrayed her. The estate of George Burns, they wanted it to be lily white. I said, "Let me do it and let's see what happens." The reaction was so great, they accepted it.

You were on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 right after the Beatles. What was that like?

I didn't know they were going to be on the show. I'd just come from Australia. I went right up to my dressing room. I looked out the window and saw thousands of kids there. I thought, `How'd they find out I was going to be on the show?' I went on right after the Beatles. It worked for me. As much as they screamed for the Beatles, it carried over for me.

Did becoming identified with the Riddler on Batman help or hinder your career? Do you still get recognized as the Riddler?

The Riddler was a big thing for me, but it was so stylized. Sometimes it works for getting you exposure, but sometimes people think you can't do anything else. People [see me and] say, "It's the Joker [Cesar Romero's character]."

George Burns wasn't part of your repertoire of impressions until you played him in a yet-to-be-released movie, a clip from which led to your being cast in Say Goodnight Gracie. Why hadn't you included Burns in your act?

I had never done George Burns because other people were doing him - Rich Little, Jon Byner. I tried to keep my impressions offbeat. It wasn't until somebody asked me if I could do George Burns for the movie, I thought, "Maybe I think I can." I had seen so many people doing it, I was doing my impressions of them doing him.

Is there an art to doing impressions?

I don't recognize it as being an art. It just so happens I've done a lot, gotten great reviews. It's just one of those things I do. ... I never really thought impressions were an art, it's acting.

What's the most difficult thing about doing a one-man show?

It's a little tough when you're on stage [alone] for an hour and half. ... I keep hoping other people will show up. ... There's never a cast party. I keep thinking, "One day ... "

"Say Goodnight Gracie"

Where: Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St.

When: Feb. 22-March 6. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 6:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $19-$59

Call: 410-547-SEAT

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