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Orson Bean, droll actor, comedian and raconteur, dies at 91

Seated from left in 1964, panelists and actors Tom Poston, Kitty Carlisle and Orson Bean sit with game show host Bud Collyer on the set of “To Tell the Truth.” (CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Orson Bean, a veteran actor and crackup artist who became a witty staple of game shows in the 1960s, then tuned in and dropped out amid the countercultural upheaval, later reemerging in droll supporting parts on stage and screen, died Feb. 7 after a car accident in the Venice section of Los Angeles. He was 91.

His death was confirmed by family representative Eva Basler Demirjian, who said he was struck by two cars while crossing the street near the Pacific Resident Theater, where his wife — actress Alley Mills — was working on an upcoming production. A police spokesperson said Mr. Bean was pronounced dead at the scene.

A master raconteur and unabashed eccentric, Mr. Bean worked as a magician, a standup comedian and a Tony-nominated actor, appearing in dozens of film, TV and stage roles over a seven-decade career. He was a performer, director and producer (on and off-Broadway), an acolyte for a post-Freudian therapy that was widely dismissed as pseudoscience, and came to call himself a “neo-celebrity,” someone who was “famous for being famous.”

Mr. Bean drew rapturous applause on prime-time game shows, only to abandon show business for a hippie lifestyle in the early 1970s. Acquiring renewed prominence much later in life, he appeared in the fantasy comedy “Being John Malkovich” (1999) as an entrepreneurial physician who claims to be 105 (“Carrot juice, lots of it”) and in the 1990s TV Western “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” as a crusty storekeeper.

Raised near Harvard University, where his father was a campus police officer, Mr. Bean had a difficult childhood but acquired a reputation for telling sophisticated jokes, which he honed while ad-libbing stage patter during his magic act. “Mr. Bean’s face comes wrapped with a sly grin, somewhat like the expression of a child when sneaking his hand into the cookie jar,” the New York Times wrote in 1954, when at age 25 he hosted a CBS variety series called “The Blue Angel.”

The show flopped, but Mr. Bean acquired national recognition while appearing more than 100 times on “The Tonight Show,” filling in for hosts Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. By his account, a “cute communist girlfriend” made him a casualty of the Cold War for about a year, when he was blacklisted from television. Soon enough, however, he became a mainstay of game shows such as “Password,” “The Match Game,” “Tattletales” and “To Tell the Truth.”

Mr. Bean played a psychiatrist in the 1959 courtroom drama “Anatomy of a Murder”; starred in a memorable 1960 “Twilight Zone” episode as a bumbling man helped by a guardian angel; and was featured in “Subways Are for Sleeping,” a 1961 musical comedy that earned him a Tony nomination.

He also made headlines by co-founding a Laurel and Hardy appreciation society — the Sons of the Desert, named for one of the comedy duo’s films — and in 1964, opening a progressive school, the Fifteenth Street School in Manhattan. Modeled after educator A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School in England, it was operated by Mr. Bean and his wife at the time for seven years, even as he appeared on five panel shows a week, performed on Broadway and told stories on talk shows.

The school was partly inspired by the theories of Austrian ­psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, whose therapies Mr. Bean chronicled in a book, “Me and the Orgone” (1971), written after he uprooted his family and moved to Australia.

[Wilhelm Reich, “a prince of the early psychoanalytic movement,” died in prison in 1957]

“Your agent doesn’t call you when you’re in Sydney,” he later explained. He also recalled fearing that America “was going fascist,” although after a year and a half in Australia, the Bean family decided to return home. Mr. Bean became a self-described “househusband” and “old hippie,” traveling the country in a van, experimenting with LSD, emptying his bank accounts and reading “Moby Dick” aloud with his children.

His decade in the sometimes-literal wilderness “was the best thing I ever did,” he told the New York Times in 1983. By then, he had tired of “the dropout thing” and had returned to acting in earnest, performing in regional theater productions while supporting himself through voice work for commercials. Television parts soon followed, including for episodes of “The Facts of Life,” “7th Heaven” and “Desperate Housewives.”

“I made up my mind I was going to walk that thin line between fame and oblivion,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1989, reflecting on his career. “The only real benefit of being famous is being recognized by head waiters and getting good tables at restaurants. The rest is part ego trip and part inconvenience.”

“Of course, [adulation] is one of the reasons you start doing this,” Mr. Bean added. “It’s why I stood up in grammar school, made faces and wrote filthy things on the blackboard. But once you get past that, the actual craft is there — and that becomes the fun.”

He was born Dallas Frederick Burrows in Burlington, Vt., on July 22, 1928. A piano player later suggested his stage name, which combined “a pompous first name and a silly second name” and seemed to amuse audiences more than his initial choice of Roger Duck. (He later adopted Orson Bean as his legal name.)

Mr. Bean counted Calvin Coolidge as a cousin — he was said to have peed on the president’s necktie at the age of 6 months — and after his family moved to Cambridge, Mass., when he was a child, his father became a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union. “My house was filled with causes,” Mr. Bean later said, serving as a meeting place for liberal nonprofit organizations as well as Democratic politicians.

It was also a somewhat contentious environment. He recalled loud fights between his parents and said his mother was a heavy drinker who died by suicide when he was a teenager.

After graduating in 1946 from the Cambridge High and Latin School, Mr. Bean served in the Army in peacetime Japan, performed in nightclubs across the Northeast and settled in Manhattan, playing half the year at the Blue Angel nightclub.

He made his Broadway debut in the 1953 comedy “Men of Distinction” by novelist and playwright Richard Condon and later appeared in productions, including the 1955 Hollywood sendup “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” and the 1962 comedy “Never Too Late,” starring Paul Ford and Maureen O’Sullivan.

Mr. Bean’s few acting credits in the 1970s and early ’80s included voicing Bilbo Baggins in animated adaptations of “The Hobbit” and “The Return of the King.” But for all his countercultural activities during that period, he later was something of a conservative. His daughter Susannah married right-wing commentator Andrew Breitbart, who founded the Breitbart media network and wrote in a 2007 Los Angeles Times article that Mr. Bean said it was “harder now to be an open conservative on a Hollywood set than it was back then to be a Communist.”

Mr. Bean’s marriages to Jacqueline de Sibour and Carolyn Maxwell ended in divorce and in 1993, he married Alley Mills, a star of “The Wonder Years” and “The Bold and the Beautiful.” In addition to his wife, survivors include a daughter from his first marriage; three children from his second; and many grandchildren.

“I think of my life as a cheap novel,” he told the New York Times in 1983. “Part of you wants it to go on forever, and part of you wants to see how it comes out. I can’t wait to die — I’m sure I’m going to go down that tunnel everyone talks about, with all the lights, and my grandmother will come out to meet me. But I also want to live to be 130 and do Dannon yogurt commercials.”

He had learned, he continued, “not to take life or myself too seriously. And therefore I learned that it’s all right to be a fool — and that’s really what an actor is.”

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