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.
While continuing to do theater work in the late 1940s, he was hired for a bit part in "The Admiral Broadway Review," produced by Max Liebman.
Catching sight of the burly Caesar ("a hulk"), the diminutive Mr. Morris found himself being assaulted: "He grabbed me by the lapels and lifted me up in the air and said, 'Max! Him! Get!' And that was my audition for 'The Admiral Broadway Review.' "
The cast returned for the Emmy Award-winning "The Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris Special" (1967). One skit, parodying the Beatles, featured the three men in long-haired wigs singing "If I Could Take a Ring and Put It on My Finger -- I'd Marry Me."
Other television offers kept Mr. Morris busy as an actor and director; he directed the pilot episode of "Get Smart," the spy comedy created by his friend Mel Brooks.
Perhaps one of the more memorable characters he created was on the "The Andy Griffith Show." Playing hillbilly Ernest T. Bass, he wooed the local women by throwing too-large rocks through their windows and reciting doggerel.
"None of the scripts called for Ernest to jump around like a nut," he wrote for an Internet fan site. "That was just the result of my innards searching for ways that the character needed to move. I also used poetry to fill in other character gaps which results from an actor's basic insecurity in terms of the character having a unique depth of personality. I discovered even more personality elements using poetry. This occurred by pure accident. Each silly line came to me on set as the cameras rolled."
Mr. Morris directed a handful of feature films, from "With Six You Get Eggroll" (1968), a Doris Day comedy, to the Donny and Marie Osmond feature "Goin' Coconuts" (1978). He also played Jerry Lewis's father in "The Nutty Professor" (1963) and Prof. Lilloman ("Little old man") in Brooks's Hitchcock spoof "High Anxiety" (1977).
He provided voices for Hanna Barbera-produced cartoon characters and also ran an advertising agency for a while, winning such lucrative accounts as Kellogg's and McDonald's. "I have a beach house at Malibu with arches on top of it," he once told Adweek.
Mr. Morris was married and divorced five times, twice to the same woman. His son, David, said his father's personality mirrored what audiences saw. "Living with him, for me, was like having a cartoon character as a best friend," he said. "It was craziness."