Tom Poston; Played the Comically Clueless

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Tom Poston, 85, a comic actor best known for playing oblivious characters, notably the forgetful "man in the street" on "The Steve Allen Show" in the 1950s and the incompetent handyman on "Newhart" in the 1980s, died April 30 at his home in Los Angeles.

The family declined to provide the exact cause of death but said he had a brief illness.

Mr. Poston made his professional stage debut at 9 as an acrobat and went on to an active career on television, with occasional Broadway and film work as well.

As a performer, he rarely stepped outside his well-established role as a good-natured but constantly befuddled everyman. He showed early skill as part of the core ensemble of NBC's "The Steve Allen Show" along with Don Knotts and Louis Nye.

In particular, Mr. Poston excelled in the "man in the street" interview segments, with Allen always stumping Mr. Poston's camera-shy character on such questions as his own name.

For his work on "The Steve Allen Show," Mr. Poston won the 1959 Emmy for best supporting actor in a comedy series.

He played a mild-mannered prison guard on ABC's prison-based sitcom "On the Rocks," in the mid-1970s, and had a recurring role as the drunken Franklin Delano Bickley on the network's sitcom "Mork and Mindy."

For much of the 1980s, he played George Utley, caretaker of a Vermont inn, on CBS's "Newhart." He was nominated for an Emmy three times for his work on the show, which starred Bob Newhart as the owner of the inn.

Mr. Poston had earlier worked on "The Bob Newhart Show" portraying Newhart's dim-bulb college roommate, Cliff Murdock.

He once said the key to playing such characters is to realize that they never think they are the problem.

"Take George, for instance," Mr. Poston told an interviewer in 1983. "He doesn't know he's a handyman who makes matters worse when he tries to fix them. He's out of touch with reality, but not in an offensive way. And Cliff in the first Newhart show was from Vermont. He saw nothing odd about putting maple syrup on everything he ate."

"These guys are about a half-step behind life's parade," he added. "The ink on their instruction sheets is beginning to fade. But they function and cope and don't realize they are driving people up the walls. . . . When these guys screw-up, it reminds me of my own incompetence with the small frustrations of life."

Thomas Poston was born Oct. 17, 1921, in Columbus, Ohio. Various reports have described his father as a dairy chemist and a liquor salesman. Tom Poston also was said to have moved around more than 30 times by age 5.

He began performing as a child in an acrobatic troupe called the Flying Zebleys. He once noted that he began at the top and, as his muscles developed, worked his way down to the base of the human pyramid.

He went on to attend Bethany College in West Virginia but left during World War II to serve in the Army Air Forces as a pilot in Europe.

After attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he tried out for a small role in Jose Ferrer's New York production of "Cyrano de Bergerac" in 1947. Ferrer praised the young actor's devotion to realism when Mr. Poston, auditioning as an officer stabbed in a duel, tumbled off a high wall and right into the orchestra pit. He said his acrobatic training helped.

He won the "Cyrano" part and a steady flow of other minor stage and television roles.

In 1955, his emcee role in a live, daytime television program called "Entertainment" won positive reviews and brought him to Steve Allen's attention. He also served as a panelist on early quiz programs, including "To Tell the Truth." He hosted the show "Split Personality."

In later years, he appeared regularly on such sitcoms as "Committed," "Will & Grace," "Becker," "Grace Under Fire," "Coach" and "Murphy Brown."

On Broadway, Mr. Poston replaced the original stars of major productions such as "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" in 1955, "Romanoff and Juliet" in 1958 and "Mary, Mary" in 1962.

Mr. Poston made his film debut in "City That Never Sleeps," a 1953 crime drama in which he played a detective. His later film work was sporadic, with supporting (but often scene-stealing) roles in "Soldier in the Rain" (1963) with Jackie Gleason, "Cold Turkey" (1971) with Dick Van Dyke, "The Happy Hooker" (1975) with Lynn Redgrave and "The Princess Diaries 2" (2004) with Anne Hathaway.

In the early 1960s, he had leading parts in "Zotz!," a comedy about a professor who finds a magic coin, and "The Old Dark House," a campy thriller based on a J.B. Priestley novel.

His marriage to actress Jean Sullivan ended in divorce. He then married, divorced and remarried Kay Hudson Poston, who died in 1998.

Survivors include his third wife, actress Suzanne Pleshette, whom he married in 2001; a daughter from his first marriage, Francesca Poston of Nashville; and two children from his second marriage, Jason Poston of Los Angeles and Hudson Poston of Portland, Ore.

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