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Ernie Kovacs

Ernie Kovacs (January 23, 1919 January 13, 1962) was a creative and innovative entertainer from the early days of television. His on-air antics would go on to inspire TV shows like Laugh-In, the Uncle Floyd Show, Saturday Night Live and TV hosts like David Letterman.

Born in Trenton, New Jersey, Kovacs became a pioneer of television comedy as a distinct medium; earlier television comedians mostly continued comedy styles of vaudeville, film, or radio.

His shows were innovative for their time because of their ad-libbed routines; experimentation with video effects (including superimpositions, reverse polarity, and reverse scanning which flipped images upside down); the use of quick blackouts and running gags; abstraction and non-sequitur; and a willingness to break the fourth wall by allowing viewers to see activity beyond the set - including crew members and, on occasion, outside the studio itself. He would also talk to the off-camera crew, or introduce segments from the control room.

Visual Humor and Characters

Kovacs invented many camera tricks that are still common today. One of his most popular gags was a bit where Kovacs sat down at a table to eat his lunch. He took items out of his lunch box and one by one, each item mysteriously rolled down the table into a gentleman reading the newspaper at the other end. Kovacs then started to pour a glass of milk. The milk appeared to pour from the thermos in an unusual direction. The visual trick, which had not been seen on TV before, was created with a crooked table and an equally crooked camera tilted to the same angle as the table.

Kovacs constantly pushed the envelope of what was possible in the video medium, and accomplished many visual tricks with very primitive and improvised means to produce effects that later were more commonly done electronically. He once had the inspiration of attaching a children's kaleidoscope to the camera lens with cardboard and tape -- the resulting abstract images, set to music, were very avant-garde and very much ahead of his time.

Kovacs was rarely seen without a cigar, which he often incorporated as a prop. In one memorable segment, he was seen sitting in an easy chair, calmly reading a newspaper. After a short interval, he took the cigar out of his mouth and exhaled smoke. The unique feature of this otherwise ordinary sequence was that it took place entirely underwater. (The smoke was actually milk that Kovacs had filled his mouth with prior to submerging.)

Other popular bits included such gems as an all-gorilla version of Swan Lake; a poker game set to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony; The Nairobi Trio, three derby-hatted apes miming mechanically to the tune Solfeggio; the Silent Show, in which a nerdy character interacts with the world accompanied solely by music and sound effects; parodies of typical TV commercials and movie genres; and various musical segments with everyday items (such as kitchen appliances or office equipment) moving in sync to music. He used everything from long, extended sketches and mood pieces to quick blackout gags lasting a few seconds. (One famous example was a bit involving a used-car salesman, a jalopy, and a breakaway floor -- a bit that cost $50,000 to produce and lasted 6 seconds on screen!) There were no wasted moments in a Kovacs show, with gags starting during the opening theme song, and continuing even into the midst of the ending credits (which frequently incorporated bizarre fake credits and comments interspersed between the legitimate crew names and titles).

Recurring characters created by Kovacs included fey and lisping poet Percy Dovetonsils; German disc jockey Wolfgang von Sauerbraten; horror show host Auntie Gruesome; bumbling magician Matzoh Heppelwhite; Miklos Molnar, the sardonic Hungarian host of a children's show; Frenchman Pierre Ragout; and The Question Man, who would answer queries supposedly sent in by viewers.

Use of Music

His musical choices were certainly eclectic. His main theme was called Oriental Blues, a quirky piano number derived from a Gershwin tune. A German version of Mack the Knife frequently underscored mimed sketches. Robert Maxwell's Solfeggio became so associated with the infamous derby-hatted apes that it became better known simply as The Song of the Nairobi Trio. The piece de resistance, if that's the term, were tunes by Leona Anderson such as Rats in My Room. Leona was reportedly a kind and gentle soul, whose singing voice, in contrast, could be unfavorably compared to fingernails on a blackboard. Naturally, Kovacs incorporated her songs at every opportunity. Kovacs also incorporated classical music into his shows, usually as background for abstract visual images and montages. Two such pieces used were the Concerto for Orchestra by Bela Bartok and music from the opera The Love for Three Oranges by Sergei Prokofiev. The classical piece most often associated with Kovacs is Haydn's String Quartet, Opus 3, Number 5 (the Serenade, which was indeed written by Haydn, not Roman Hoffstetter), which was used in his memorable Dutch Masters commercials.

First marriage

Kovacs married his first wife, Bette Wilcox on August 13, 1945. When the marriage broke apart, he fought with her for custody of their children, Bette and Kippie. The courts awarded Kovacs full custody of them, which was extremely unusual at the time (in fact, setting a legal precedent), because they decided that his former wife was mentally unstable. Wilcox then kidnapped the children, taking them to Florida. After a long and expensive search that included many trips to the Sunshine State based on tips from private investigators, Kovacs was eventually reunited with his children, with the help of the police.

Second marriage

Kovacs married actress and singer Edie Adams on September 12, 1954 in Mexico City. The ceremony was presided over by former New York City mayor William O'Dwyer, and performed in Spanish, which neither Kovacs nor Adams understood; O'Dwyer had to prompt each to say Si at the I do portion of the vows. Adams, who had a very white-bread middle-class upbringing in suburban New Jersey, was smitten by the quirkiness and eccentricities of the Hungarian Kovacs. They remained very happily married until his death. (Adams later said about Kovacs, "He treated me like a queen -- Women's Lib be damned!") The couple had one daughter, Mia Susan Kovacs. Ernie frequently incorporated his wife into sketches on his TV shows, always referring to her in a businesslike way, as Edith Adams. She was always game for anything Ernie dreamed up for her to do, and was just as likely to take a pie in the face or a pratfall as she was to sing a serious and beautiful song or do a celebrity impersonation (she did an excellent Marilyn Monroe, among others).

Writing, TV, and Movie Credits

Kovacs wrote a novel entitled, ZOOMAR (A Sophisticated Novel About Love and TV) in 1956, published by Doubleday. While he worked on several other projects in book form, his only other published title was How To Talk At Gin, published posthumously in 1962. During 1955-1958 he wrote for Mad Magazine, including the recurring Strangely Believe It! (a parody of Ripley's Believe It or Not! that also was featured on Kovacs' TV show) and Gringo, a board game with ridiculously complicated rules that was renamed Droongo for the TV show.

His television programs included Three to Get Ready (local Philadelphia TV, 1950-1952), Time for Ernie in 1951, Ernie in Kovacsland in 1951, The Ernie Kovacs Show in 1952, The Tonight Show (as a 2-day per week substitute for Steve Allen) from 1956 to 1957, and the game show Take a Good Look from 1959 to 1961. He also did several TV specials, including the famous Silent Show in 1959, and a series of monthly half-hour specials for ABC in 1961-62. (These last shows, done on videotape and utilizing unprecedented editing and special effects techniques for the time, are said by many to be his best TV work.) Kovacs' comedic style was lost on many 1950's TV viewers, who were used to a steady diet of bland sitcoms and variety shows. (His pal Jack Lemmon said that no one ever understood his work because he was always 15 years ahead of everyone else.) Consequently, while he always had a small, hard-core fan base who got what he was trying to do, he never had a long-lasting or highly-rated TV series.

In the last few years of his life, Kovacs found modest success as a character actor in Hollywood movies, often being typecast as a swarthy military officer in such films as Operation Mad Ball and Our Man in Havana. But he also garnered critical acclaim for such roles as the perennially inebriated writer in Bell, Book and Candle and as the cartoonishly evil head of a railroad company in It Happened to Jane. His own personal favorite film was the offbeat Five Golden Hours (1961), in which he portrayed a larcenous professional mourner who meets his match in professional widow Cyd Charisse.

Shortly before his death, Kovacs had been slated to appear as Melville Crump in Stanley Kramer's star-packed comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, along with real-life spouse Edie Adams portraying his screen wife Monica Crump. The role eventually went to comedian Sid Caesar.

Lost and Surviving TV Work

Most of Kovacs' early shows, such as the local morning show he hosted in Philadelphia from 1950-52, do not survive as they were done live. Only a few short film clips of these shows still exist. Some, though not all of his later 1950's shows exist in the form of kinescopes. Videotapes of his 1960's ABC specials were preserved, but other videotaped shows such as his quirky game show Take a Good Look exist only in piecemeal fashion. After Kovacs' death, his widow Edie was horrified to find that the networks were starting to systematically erase and reuse the tapes of Ernie's shows. At great expense and effort, she managed to buy up the rights to the surviving footage and insure that future generations would not forget her husband's work.

Death

Kovacs died in a car accident in Los Angeles. He was driving a Corvair station wagon, a make of car later assailed as unsafe at any speed by Ralph Nader. During a rare Southern California rainstorm, he lost control of the car on a sharp mountain curve, and crashed into a telephone pole. (When Kovacs' body was found in the wreckage, there was an unlit cigar lying just out of reach of his dangling arm. Authorities theorized that he may have been momentarily distracted trying to light his cigar when he lost contol.) At the time of his death, he owed the IRS several hundred thousand dollars in back taxes. Kovacs had always felt the tax system was unfair, and had simply refused to pay, resulting in the eventual garnishment of up to 90% of his wages. Edie Adams eventually paid off the taxes herself, refusing help from their celebrity friends. Kovacs is buried in Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles. His epitaph reads Nothing in moderation/We all loved him.

His death was only the first of a series of auto tragedies that befell the Kovacs family. His youngest daughter Mia herself died in an auto accident in 1982, and daughter Kippie was also killed in a car wreck in 2001.

TV-Movie Bio and Retrospectives

In 1984, a TV-movie was made about Kovacs' life called Ernie Kovacs: Between the Laughter, which starred Jeff Goldblum as Kovacs. It focused on his private life, especially his attempts to retrieve his kidnapped children.

The TV-Movie had been inspired by a resurgence of interest in Kovacs, due to the broadcast of some of his work (mostly his videotaped ABC specials) by PBS under the title The Best of Ernie Kovacs. This package of shows introduced a new generation of fans to his unique style of humor. Later, in the early 1990's, the cable channel Comedy Central (which later merged with a competing channel called Ha! to become today's Comedy Channel) broadcast a series of Ernie's shows under the generic title of The Ernie Kovacs Show. This package included both the ABC specials and some of his 1950's shows from NBC. There are no broadcast, cable or satellite channels currently scheduling any of Kovacs' TV work.


Note: This profile was written in or before 2005.

Ernie Kovacs Facts

OccupationActor
BirthdayJanuary 23, 1919
SignAquarius
BirthplaceTrenton, New Jersey, USA
Date of deathJanuary 13, 1962 (age 42)

Selected Filmography

Bell, Book and Candle
North To Alaska
Jack Lemmon Showcase Volume 2
Our Man in Havana
It Happened to Jane
The Ernie Kovacs Collection
Death In Hollywood
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