The cause was cardiac arrest, said his longtime writing partner, Alfa-Betty Olsen.
A roly-poly comic force with a drooping walrus mustache, Mr. Efron dabbled in the counterculture of 1960s San Francisco before becoming a humorous mainstay of Pacifica’s listener-supported radio stations in Los Angeles and New York. He went on to develop a reputation as an adroit voice artist, manic improviser and acerbic critic of corporations and conservative politicians — even as he turned toward biblical material more often associated with the political right.
Mr. Efron was best known for his work on “The Great American Dream Machine,” a variety show that mixed animated shorts, comedy sketches, documentary segments and musical performances. Premiering in 1971 on the newly formed broadcaster PBS, it evoked series like “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” but added a left-leaning, politically charged edge.
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Read the obituary (Charles Sykes/AP)
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Episodes featured Chicago author Studs Terkel moderating a conversation with ordinary people over drinks; Kurt Vonnegut reading from his novel “Slaughterhouse-Five;” Chevy Chase and Ken Shapiro lip-syncing orchestral music while painted in whiteface; a profile of Evel Knievel; and humorous sketches from Mr. Efron, who was sometimes described as the series’ host.
Perhaps his most memorable segment centered on “modern baking through modern chemistry,” as a toque-wearing Mr. Efron read the ingredients of a Morton lemon cream pie and tried to replicate the dessert from scratch.
“We’ve eliminated all the old sentimentalities,” he declared, before filling his mixing bowl with such unappetizing ingredients as polysorbate 60 (“your local organic chemical supply house will probably have a little for you”), “monosodium and diglycerides” (to make the pie “hang together and stay sloppy in your tummy”), and artificial flavoring and coloring.
“Factory fresh, factory approved,” Mr. Efron concluded, to the apparent horror of Morton executives. “No lemons. No eggs. No cream. Just pie.”
One week after the skit aired, the showrunners received a cease-and-desist order from Morton’s lawyers. “The producers verified the facts on the segment, and eventually ran it again,” according to James Ledbetter’s book “Made Possible By…: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States.”
“Dream Machine” was produced by the New York-area station WNET and featured performers including Albert Brooks, Charles Grodin, Linda Lavin, Penny Marshall and Henry Winkler. But it proved expensive to make and, despite drawing acclaim from critics and stars such as John Lennon (“as good as, if not better than, anything that’s on British TV”), it was canceled after two seasons.
Mr. Efron’s next major television project was the CBS children’s series “Illustrated, Simplified and Painless Sunday School” (1973-77), an occasionally absurdist retelling of Bible stories. Olsen, who worked as the casting director on Mel Brooks’s film “The Producers” before writing for Mr. Efron on “Dream Machine,” said she created the show after CBS offered the duo a Sunday morning time slot.
“I said, ‘It’s Sunday morning, let’s do Bible stories,’ ” she recalled. “Marshall really admired this Japanese guy who did ‘Hamlet’ and played all the parts, so I suggested he do the same.”
Mr. Efron played every character on the series, including both David and Goliath and the voice of God. At least one episode began with a tongue-in-cheek disclaimer that the show “may not be suitable for adults;” nonetheless, the dialogue was often laden with Easter eggs for older viewers, including references to Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” and Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man.” (“We’ve got trouble, right here in Nineveh City.”)
The series received an award from a Protestant church council, Olsen said, and resulted in a book co-written by her and Mr. Efron: “Bible Stories You Can’t Forget, No Matter How Hard You Try.”
Marshall Harold Efron was born in Los Angeles on Feb. 3, 1938. His father was an accountant, his mother a homemaker. “School wasn’t much fun for me,” he told the New York Times in 1971, explaining that he was picked on for being short and heavyset. “I started being funny as a kid to avoid being pushed around.”
Mr. Efron graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles, received a master’s degree in English from the University of California at Berkeley in 1964, and spent one year in law school before turning to acting. He also connected with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and was described in Tom Wolfe’s book on that group, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” as “the round Mercury of Hip California.”
In 1967, he moved to New York, where he appeared in Broadway productions of “The Great White Hope” and “Much Ado About Nothing.” He was also featured at radio station WBAI, where he hosted a program called “Satirical View” and sometimes filled in for broadcaster Steve Post.
After student protesters at Columbia University began occupying buildings on campus in 1968, Mr. Efron and fellow humorist Paul Krassner pretended to be young radicals “liberating” the station’s airwaves. Some listeners apparently failed to recognize the joke.
“Within an hour police arrived at the studios, having received reports of a student takeover and of my detention as a hostage in WBAI’s bathroom,” Post later wrote in a memoir. (Mr. Efron, he added, later called in from a Manhattan telephone booth to play the role of Spiro T. Agnew, the vice president-elect, in an improvised “interview” in which he announced plans to “open a Cabinet seat for the Department of Astrology.”)
Mr. Efron’s radio work resulted in an offer to join “Dream Machine.” “If you got high,” executive producer Jack Willis recalled in an interview for WNET, “it was a great show to watch.”
Among many other sketches, Mr. Efron once explored the intricacies of olive grading, in which olives are variously labeled large, extra large, mammoth, giant, jumbo, colossal and supercolossal. Gargantua olives, he joked, came one per can.
He also appeared in director George Lucas’s feature film debut, the science-fiction thriller “THX 1138” (1971), and did voice work for movies including “Ice Age: The Meltdown” (2006) and “Horton Hears a Who!” (2008), as well as cartoon series such as “Kidd Video,” “The Biskitts” and “The Smurfs,” as Sloppy Smurf.
Survivors include a sister.
On “Dream Machine,” Mr. Efron instructed viewers on the art of writing their own famous last words, which he described as “the final chance for you to correct the gross impression you’ve been leaving of yourself all over town.”
It was unclear what words he ultimately selected for himself. Presumably, he followed the advice he issued decades earlier, seated between two ferns and smiling for the camera: “Speak clearly. Make sure your mouth is empty. Remove all tubes if you have to. Have a pleasant, open attitude. Don’t be cranky.”