Comedian Howie Morris, 85, Dies
Monday, May 23, 2005
Howie Morris, 85, the compact comic whirligig from the early days of television who lent his raspy voice to hundreds of cartoons and commercial voice-overs, died May 21 at his home in Hollywood. He had heart ailments in recent years.
Mr. Morris was a bar mitzvah band drummer, a radio performer and briefly a Shakespearean actor before he shot to prominence as part of the Sid Caesar ensemble casts of the 1950s, along with Carl Reiner and Imogene Coca.
Although "second banana" to the domineering forces of Caesar and Reiner, Mr. Morris was regarded as a staple of "Admiral Broadway Review," "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour" -- programs beloved by tens of millions of viewers.
He found kindred actors, if similarly untamed pranksters, among his cohorts, who thrived on improvisation and turned scripts into free-for-alls. He had mixed, sometimes profane, feelings about Caesar, a dynamo whose substance abuse often made him difficult.
"He was the most skillful performer I ever met, observed or worked with, but I don't want to be buried with the guy," he told the Knoxville News Sentinel in 2001. Still, he credited Caesar for showing him that once you can make a character real, "you can fly it to the moon."
Mr. Morris's favorite sketch role, which appeared on "Your Show of Shows," was a spoof of the mawkish reunion show "This Is Your Life."
He played Uncle Goopy, the emotional wreck who constantly leaps into the arms of his long-lost nephew (Caesar). He also sticks to the leg of the host (Reiner) like an adhesive and cries inconsolably, evidently much to the surprise of fellow cast members. Mr. Morris was largely responsible for tearing down the set and ending the episode on a high note.
The scene was so memorable that Billy Crystal later called it a defining early influence: "That's how I used to go to bed. I'd grab my dad's leg, and he'd drag me to bed like Sid Caesar."
Howard Jerome Morris was born Sept. 4, 1919, in the Bronx, N.Y. His father, a rubber company executive, had a fatal heart attack shortly after losing his job during the Depression, and Mr. Morris, the only child, helped support his mother. She played organ during silent movies, and Howard found himself drawn to mimicking on-screen performers.
He attended New York University on a scholarship but dropped out to serve in the Army during World War II. He was sent to the Pacific theater of operations, but his work was mainly in the operations of theater: He worked in the entertainment unit based in Hawaii.
"We did everything from small shows called 'Five Jerks in a Jeep' to 'Hamlet,' " he told an interviewer.
The latter was a production starring the classical actor Maurice Evans as the doomed Dane and Mr. Morris in the minor role of Rosencrantz. It was in this 1945 "GI version" that Mr. Morris made his Broadway debut. Twelve years later, he and Evans appeared in a much-praised 1957 television production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," with Mr. Morris as the clownish Feste and Evans as Malvolio.