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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Original Rubber-Faced Man

There was a time in the 1960s and 1970s when you couldn't turn on a TV variety show without seeing an impressionist. I'm not sure why we don't see modern-day versions of these performers anymore outside of Las Vegas, where acts like Danny Gans still play to packed houses.

Maybe it's that there is no such thing as "variety acts" on TV in the 21st century, with the exception of occasional guests on the late night shows. That unique form of comedian, the impressionist, peaked when several of the best impressionists -- Rich Little, David Frye, Fred Travalena, Marilyn Michaels, George Kirby, Charlie Callas, and, of course, Frank Gorshin, who has just died of lung cancer at age 72 -- banded together for a series called "Kopycats," which ran on ABC for about four months in 1972. My buddy Paul Murphy and I were obsessed with that show. We would talk about each episode the next day at school and recite the sketches verbatim from memory, doing impressions of the impressionists.

We weren't alone. Many pros copied note-for-nte from these greats, too. David Frye did the definitive Richard Nixon and William F. Buckley, and everyone else imitated him. No one has ever done Barbra Streisand better than Marilyn Michaels. Any Kirk Douglas impression you've seen in the last 40 years was really a facsimile of Frank Gorshin's Kirk.

Gorshin was the most rubber-faced of the bunch. He didn't just get the voice right, he somehow managed to contort his skin and bones into a physical duplicate of his comedic subject. He was the Jim Carrey of his day. In fact, he no doubt inspired some of Carrey's early standup material, which was almost exclusively impressions, too.

Interestingly, Gorshin appeared on one of the most-watched TV events ever, but very few people remember his part. On February 9, 1964, he appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" along with several other acts. He did his standard stuff, but the audience was a little impatient because they were waiting breathlessly for the second set by the stars of that Sullivan show. That was the night The Beatles made their American primetime debut.

A couple of years later, Gorshin got his best-known role, as The Riddler on TV's "Batman." He only did it for ten episodes before being replaced by John Astin, but Gorshin left his mark as one of the show's Three Best Villains Ever (along with Cesar Romero's Joker and Burgess Meredith's Penguin). He then did a memorable appearance on an episode of the original "Star Trek" with a face like a black-and-white cookie.

But it was the impressions that Gorshin was best at -- and which made him, ironically, an original.