Blessed are the meek, but whatever they will inherit hasn’t historically been the show-biz world. On the other hand, look at Henry Gibson. He surely should have peaked playing the flower-bearing poet and parson-in-residence on NBC’s landmark series, Laugh-In. So Gibson had to be a damned fool to quit when the show was halfway through its five-and-a-half-season run. His only other possible shot at celebrity was having shared a pad with fellow Catholic University alumnus Jon (Deliverance) Voight. Henry, being 5’4¾”, slept in the bathtub.
But Gibson’s guts-ball decision to leave Laugh-In made him available to director Robert Altman, who cast him in a bit part as a Beverly Hills shrink in his Raymond Chandler impression, The Long Goodbye. This, in turn, insinuated Gibson into the Altman retinue and led to a starring role in the current Nashville, the director’s most talked-about and possible first commercial smash since M*A*S*H. Henry plays the flag-waving, arrogant and basically banal country-music baron named Haven Hamilton. Though some members of the grand ole local establishment felt exploited by the movie, the Nashville Tennessean called Gibson “the male superstar most surely to be in line for an Academy Award.” His performance, the paper concluded, was “so real to Music Row habitués as to be frightening.”
The Hamilton portrayal deftly conceals Gibson’s Philadelphia roots (though his actual crooning sounds closer to Como than to Haggard). The fifth of seven children of a builder, Gibson, 39, says he was “an annoying kid.” By high school, his histrionics led to parts with a touring company. Following praise from Helen Hayes, who’d seen him in summer stock, he won a scholarship to the drama department of Washington’s Catholic University at 16. “It was probably the only fib she ever told,” he says.
After graduation in 1957, he spent three years in the Army, then a year at London’s lofty Royal Academy, but returned disheartened to New York in 1961. One sleepless night he created the character and the act that became Laugh-In’s poet. He was so convincing that he coaxed his way onto PM East to read his verse. Finally in 1967 Gibson heard about a new TV concept. “I was sitting in producer George Schlatter’s office,” remembers Henry. “The desk was covered with telephones and they were all ringing. I had to get his attention so I reached for my heart, gasped, did my famous triple back flip. He hung up and said, ‘I don’t know who you are but you are funny and you’re going to be on Laugh-In.’ ” (For news of other Laugh-In alums, see next page.)
By then Gibson had met Lois Kogen, a Hollywood writer type. “Lois was very shy,” he says, “and I’m not overly demonstrative. It’s so corny, but she said, ‘I think I’m in love with you.’ That night I moved in with her.” Eight months later, they got married in the Malibu sheriff’s office, which had in leaner times issued Lois summonses for nonpayment of some debts.
Right now, the Gibson family includes two sons adopted from her first marriage and their own 7-year-old. Like all kids, Henry’s are harsh movie critics. Said one, after screening Gibson as egomaniac Haven Hamilton: “Dad, it took them all these years to find the real you.”
Remember the Fickle Finger of Fate? Here’s what it did to ‘Laugh-In’ alums
Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater was the cynosure of television’s formative years, just as All in the Family was the breakthrough of the ’70s. But in 1967 came the show that set America—and the video technology—on its bippy: Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. TV would never again be, as co-host Dick Martin says, “just televised radio or televised vaudeville.”
Laugh-In was the first program that had to be watched, the one which really socked it to America, creating new household phrases and faces—and a few names. Goldie Hawn went on to win an Oscar in her maiden film Cactus Flower, and now with Nashville, Henry Gibson and Lily Tomlin have also emerged as movie stars. Just last fall Teresa Graves became the first Laugh-In graduate elevated to her own prime-time series. She was the policewoman heroine in the title of ABC’s Get Christie Love!, though by the end of the season the Nielsen ratings did just that.
Speaking perhaps for the rest of the cast, Judy Came, Laugh-In’s sock-it-tome-girl, is ambivalent if not quite embittered by their common experience. “We went in as actors,” she says, “and came out as half-assed variety artists.” Of course, almost all of the performers, points out co-producer Ed Friendly, “were totally unknown, though very talented. There is nowhere to go but up from zero. For some it has been a platform,” Friendly philosophizes, “for others, a memory.”
Rowan and Martin, still together after 24 years, are $100,000-a-week super draws in the Nevada casinos, but a few of their Laugh-In supporting bananas are now tabled on the dinner-theater circuit. Here comes an interim update on some of them, but where they all end up awaits the final judge.
Gary Owens, the show’s radio announcer and coiner of the phrase “beautiful downtown Burbank” may, financially, be the most secure of the old gang, though he is beginning to resemble his own parody. His 13 years with Gene Autry-owned KMPC have established Owens as perhaps the second-highest paid deejay in L.A. That means perhaps $125,000 a year for 15 hours a week. In addition, he has taped some 3,000 spots since 1970, and as Owens points out, “You can make more money with commercials than Liz Taylor may make in a film.” But none of that makes up for the old Laugh-In ambience, which to Gary was Camelot.
Pamela Rodgers was the last in the Laugh-In succession of dumb bunnies, and her career since has amounted to the least. A redheaded former Miss Texas, with a voice like steamed treacle, Pam blames her flameout on marriage. So she has just shucked her second husband, “a very chauvinistic type, a doctor who didn’t want me to work.” Right now, she is peddling her credentials (including Miss Portable Radio and Miss Lion Clubs) for movies such as a forthcoming Rin Tin Tin spoof. Pam reports that she is tight with Laugh-In’s original “quickie” girl and most permanent success, Goldie Hawn, but has a differing world view. “Goldie was not that ambitious,” says Pam. “What she really wanted was to stay home and have kids.”
Judy Carne says she “really freaked out about that bucket of water” that kept getting socked to her and now regrets quitting after two-and-a-half of Laugh-In’s five-and-a-half seasons. She also has misgivings about her unhappy three months with Robert Bergmann (shown with her), who was briefly her second husband, as well as about her first, Burt Reynolds (1963-65). “Burt and I tend to panic when we’re alone in a room,” she finds. “We prefer to have other people around so we’re not vulnerable. But I’m very much for him.” Her own career? Carne reports, “I’ve really got myself together after tons of therapy which Goldie Hawn talked me into.” One recent gig was The Owl and the Pussycat in Edmonton, Alberta.
Chelsea Brown, the first black woman on Laugh-In, did the Boogaloo in a bikini and more zonky graffiti painted in the interstices than a New York City subway car. So how did she end up at the Sydney, Australia opera house? While on a movie break in Acapulco last summer she met an Aussie land speculator, and (as the Laugh-In line says, “blow in my ear, and I’ll follow you anywhere”) she is now pursuing her career as a cabaret and telly star Down Under. By way of compromise they plan to marry in Bali and spend half of the year in the States, where Chelsea is still a hot TV guest-spot property.
Jo Anne Worley, the buxom farmer’s daughter with the horse laugh, is the cream in the cold coffee on the proliferating dinner-theater circuit. She is always breathlessly on the run (Lovers and Other Strangers in Dallas, Luv in Ravenna, Ohio) but often takes along as co-star Roger (TV’s Arrest and Trial) Perry, her longtime steady, whom she finally married in May. “I like dinner theater very much,” claims Worley. “It’s not at all like a supper club. There is no chomping on rolls and clanging of knives and forks.”
Ruth Buzzi no longer thwacks doddering masher Arte Johnson with her purse, but her everlastingly homely Gladys Ormphby steadily schlumps up on TV guest spots. Unlike more restless Laugh-In colleagues, Buzzi “never wanted to leave” and played her husband-hungry spinster from the original pilot to the last “Say goodnight, Dick.” (Ruth landed her own hubby, Bill Keko, nine years ago.) “I still think of myself as a character actress,” she says, though she’s seen in more amiable face on Clorox commercials, in Las Vegas and, next month, opposite Jim Naborson ABC’s new children’s series, The Lost Saucer.
Arte Johnson, the krazy kraut in the coal-scuttle helmet, made “veree interesting” the sinister non sequitur of its time and was Laugh-In’s only player to cop an actor’s Emmy. (Arte was “the man with a thousand faces,” cracked Dick Martin, “which made bed check difficult after some of the cast parties.”) Perhaps the most ubiquitous of the alumni on the tube, he did spots for Ford and United Airlines, has clowned on Hollywood Squares and is currently a regular on Ben Vereen’s summer fill-in on NBC. He’s married to a tall draught of blonde lager named Gisela, who has a dog named Fräulein. “What else,” he quips, “would a German girl call her dog?”