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The Other Odd Couple : Brian Keith and Howard Morris Go Through Divorce, Vaudeville-Style, in ‘The Sunshine Boys’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One amassed a long resume of stage, screen and television credentials, including the role of the beloved uncle on TV’s “Family Affair.”

The other wrote and performed for “Your Show of Shows,” the highly regarded Sid Caesar comedy series of the 1950s.

So why are Brian Keith and Howard Morris appearing this month in Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” at the Center Stage, an 87-seat theater in Woodland Hills?

Why not? Morris is 72, Keith 69. Most of their roles are behind them. Theater today doesn’t offer the opportunities it did when they started in the business six decades ago.

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“There are fewer and fewer roles these days,” Morris said, “that have any real meaning or relevance to an audience, especially roles for people our age. It happened to radio, and now it’s happening to theater. We’re just trying to do our bit.”

Several months ago, Keith called Morris to suggest doing the play. Morris immediately agreed. Both were also excited about performing with their sons, David Morris and Robert Keith, actors who have smaller roles in the play.

At first it was tough to find a location for the play, until Howard Morris contacted Edmund Gaines, artistic director of the Center Stage. Gaines, who as a child appeared in several episodes of “Your Show of Shows,” was stunned.

“I really couldn’t believe it,” Gaines said. “I remember doing a sketch with Howard all those years ago.” Gaines offered the play a home and signed on as producer.

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Morris and Keith worked together before, when Morris directed Keith in the 1968 film comedy, “With Six You Get Egg Roll,” which also featured Doris Day. Again, Morris is the director, and it hasn’t been easy.

“It’s really schizophrenic,” Morris said. “To act is enough of a huge problem.”

For Morris, this is a second chance to play Al Lewis, the small vaudevillian with the lifelong habit of spitting when he says words beginning with t . Last time, he played Lewis at the Burt Reynolds Theatre in Jupiter, Fla. The experience wasn’t a positive one.

“I did it with a dead man,” Morris said. “The man was not funny whatsoever. The difference between that time and this time is night and day.”

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Morris and Keith share a mutual respect, as do their characters in “The Sunshine Boys.”

But in the play, after working together for 43 years, Lewis and Willy Clark (Keith) admire their respective talents but can’t tolerate each other’s personalities. One night, after appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Lewis decides to quit.

Clark never forgives his partner, but does agree to meet him 11 years later, when the producers of a TV special on the history of comedy decide to include them. They meet again, but all the old habits and idiosyncrasies are still going strong. Both have too much pride to apologize.

“It’s about a divorce,” Morris said, “and the residual effects years later. It’s something a lot of people can relate to. After everything that has happened, you just want to kill the other person.”

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Both Morris and Keith say the play is much stronger than the film version. (In the 1975 movie, Walter Matthau played Clark and George Burns played Lewis.)

“This is a genuine one-on-one piece,” Morris said. “It gets flaccid when it’s on the big screen.”

Keith said he had been searching for a play to do and was going to star in “Mass Appeal,” but chose “The Sunshine Boys” instead.

“I felt that ‘Mass Appeal’ was a bit dated,” Keith said. “This is still very current.”

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In many ways, Morris and Keith are perfect for the play. Both started their careers just as the days of vaudeville were coming to an end. They remember the characters from those days, and use those memories.

Morris believes that the play should be made into a television series. Keith, who appeared in “Family Affair” from 1965 through ’71 and in 10 other series, has also been in many movies. He’s hoping for a tour.

“If it works,” Keith said, “we can put it in our pocket and tour for six weeks.”

“Yeah,” added Morris. “It’s like an out-of-town tryout for us.”

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“The Sunshine Boys,” starring Brian Keith and Howard Morris, will open Thursday for a four-week run. The show plays at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays at the Center Stage Theatre, 20929 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. Tickets are $19.50. For information, call (818) 904-0444.


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