There was a time in New York City in the mid-'50s when Orson Bean, whose musical play "Waiting for Phil" is playing at the Burbage Theater through Sunday, was about as hot as you could get. Not Elvis hot, but the next best thing.
He was house comedian at the famed Blue Angel six months out of the year. Onstage, he played "John Murray Anderson's Almanac." He would go on to substitute-host "The Tonight Show" for both Jack Paar and Johny Carson, as well as appear regularly on "To Tell the Truth," "Playhouse 90" and "Studio One." He was a favorite on Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town," where national audiences took to this wry, slender New Englander whose offbeat lines were emulsified with clench-jawed insinuation. (Who else could get a laugh with a line such as "I like to say 'Yucca Flats' "?)
"In 'Waiting for Phil,' which is a sort of parody of 'Waiting for Lefty,' I play the manager of the pizza place who is a former Communist and radical union organizer," Bean said. "He agrees to lead them in a sit-down strike. The kids have accidentally called the 'Phil Donahue' show when they meant to call 'Live at Five,' and they're all waiting for the TV crew to arrive. The manager argues for a traditional sit-down strike--he's got his old activist juices going. But they want to get on TV. 'If it ain't on TV, it ain't real,' one of the kids says.
"The thing is, they're probably right. TV has changed everything. There are a lot of things you may not feel good about, but when you see CNN in front of the Kremlin, or Gorby and Yeltsin in a town hall meeting, it's got to be thrilling."
"Waiting for Phil" has received mixed notices, none of which would ever make it into Bean's Top 10 list of setbacks. In his salad days, and well into a happy second marriage, he and his wife, Carolyn, refurbished a Greenwich Village townhouse and turned it into a showplace. He started and maintained a successful elementary private school called Summerhill, which lasted for 15 years. Like Tony Randall, he was a popular and urbane eccentric, a droll raconteur, a dependably amusing guest.
But Bean has taken lot of body blows in his life and career. His mother committed suicide when he was a boy, the day after he refused her plea to visit her. He was blacklisted in the '50s and his TV career dried up overnight.
The infamous March, 1970, Weather Underground explosion happened around the corner from Bean's home in Greenwich Village and was, to him, a terrifying symbol of mounting U.S. political chaos. He tried to relocate with his family to Sydney, Australia, but was driven out by a satanic cult.
Eventually his wife left him. He went through a period gripped in the down cycle of booze and drugs. Eight years ago, he was walking along a street in Venice, Calif., morosely contemplating his inability to make his house payment.
"I walked by this squatters' box city," he said. "The sun was going down. Suddenly I smelled sausage. This bum was cooking a meal and it smelled terrific--I was so hungry. I thought to myself, 'This isn't bad. I could live like this, only I'd get the best box on the block, a refrigerator crate. I'd cut windows in it. I'd make it great.'
"Then I rediscovered the one thing I've wanted out of life since I was a boy--to be the happiest sonofabitch alive. The next day my agent called with a job to do a commercial voiceover." He's been making, in his estimation, a fortune ever since.
Aside from his traditionally American pursuit of happiness, two other themes have informed Bean's life: humor and politics. Both are combined in "Waiting for Phil."
At 63, Bean's hair is liberally flecked with gray and his face is lined and somewhat weathered from his obvious love of being out in the sun. But his frame hasn't puffed out to where it obscures his early Yankee leanness. In 1984, when he appeared in "Hess" at the Odyssey Theatre, he looked fragile, tentative and spooked with melancholy. (Maybe the role had something to do with it.) Now, in a restaurant floodlit with Venice sunshine, he seemed more in tune with his easy conviviality of old.
Of his abysmal '70s period, he said: "I did all this stuff, the drugs, getting my kisser on the tube, because I thought it would make me happy. But it didn't work. I didn't find happiness until I learned to surrender, to give up the crazy pursuit."
Bean has done several plays at the Odyssey, he's been commissioned by Carolco to write a TV screenplay about his Australian misadventure, and he's just completed an ABC-TV movie with Betty White and Leslie Nielsen. As for any other major plans he said, "You wanna make God laugh? Tell him your plans."
At the end of the interview, as he said goodby, he strode off purposefully to his car--in the wrong direction. It seemed touchingly characteristic. In his autobiography "Too Much Is Not Enough," he mentions the Robert Frost poem he has taped to his kitchen wall:
"Forgive, oh Lord, my little jokes on Thee. And I'll forgive Thy great big one on me."