Benny Show's Phil Harris Dies at 89

From a Times Staff Writer

Phil Harris, the bandleader who became famous by portraying himself as a flashy, hard-drinking musician on the old Jack Benny radio show, died late Friday. He was 89.

His wife of 54 years, former actress Alice Faye, and daughter, Phyllis Harris, were at his side at their Rancho Mirage home, said family spokesman Jewel Baxter.

Although Harris was a successful bandleader and vocalist before he joined Benny in 1936, he quickly became a popular fixture on the comedian's weekly radio show, remaining for 16 years. He teased Benny for being vain and a tightwad, always greeting him with a cheery "Hi ya, Jackson!"

In the late 1940s, while still appearing on the Benny show, Harris joined his wife on the NBC radio network in "The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show," an outgrowth of "The Fitch Bandwagon." He perpetuated the characterization that had made him a star on the Benny show. An actor was used to portray Harris' guitarist, Frankie Remley, as a sidekick constantly leading the bandleader into trouble ("I know a guy . . .").

Faye played herself--a former movie star who had given up her career to be a wife and mother. On the show, she spent much of her time extricating her husband from the scrapes Remley got him into.

Harris had some big hits as a novelty singer, notably "That's What I Like About the South." (Benny once wanted Harris to explain the lyrics: "What is 'doo-ah ditty'?")

Some of his other top-selling records were "Deck of Cards," "Lazy River," "Smoke, Smoke, Smoke" and "The Thing."

Harris also appeared in several movies, beginning with "Melody Cruise" in 1933 and including "Turn Off the Moon" (1937), "Buck Benny Rides Again" (1940), "I Love a Bandleader" (1945), "The Wild Blue Yonder" (1951) and "The Wheeler Dealers" (1963).

He played a dramatic role in "The High and the Mighty," the 1954 John Wayne-Robert Stack film about a stricken transpacific airliner.

Harris made numerous television guest appearances and one or two unsuccessful attempts to launch series shows.

Asked in 1984 whether his success in "The High and the Mighty" had prompted him to wish for a serious acting career, Harris said wistfully: "I always wanted to do a more serious part, but I never had another chance. It was just one of those things."

Then 78, he said he had also wanted to work on Broadway. "The worst mistake I ever made," he recalled, "was when Meredith Willson tried to get me to do 'The Music Man' before anyone else. We were old friends. I told him, 'If you take that thing to New York, they'll stone you.' I thought it was the corniest thing I ever heard."

Harris said that at the time he was doing well on the Jack Benny radio show and was not eager to go to the East Coast.

Phil Harris was born Wonga P. Harris on June 24, 1906, in Linton, Ind. His father was a bandleader and by the time he was 12, the boy was playing drums in his father's band.

Harris said the name Wonga was Cherokee, meaning "messenger of fleet." He was given the name by an Indian chief who took care of him while his mother and father worked in circuses.

Sent to a Nashville military academy, Harris soon became active in that institution's orchestra and managed to pick up the Southern accent that marked his performances for the rest of his career. He also formed a five-piece Dixieland band during his school days and got the group booked to open a new theater in Honolulu during his vacation.

Returning to the mainland, where the four other young men returned to school, Harris joined an orchestra in San Francisco. He played with a number of bands, and in 1928, while working in Sydney, Australia, Harris met and married Australian actress Marcia Ralston. They adopted a boy, Tookie. The couple divorced in 1940.

It was still in the late 1920s that Harris formed a band with Carol Lofner, playing for three years at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. When that engagement ended, Harris formed his own band and played for a year at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles before going on tour.

By that time, he had discovered that his singing was a more salable item than his drumming and he became a successful vocalist-leader, going from the dance pavilions and hotel ballrooms to the film studios. The film "Melody Cruise" launched his movie career.

Then, in 1936 came the Jack Benny radio show and national fame.

Harris had met Faye in 1933, when she was singing with Rudy Vallee, but her face was bandaged because of an accident and he was not instantly attracted to her. She later became a top film star and married singer Tony Martin, whom she divorced in 1940.

About that time, Harris saw her again--without bandages. They were married by a Tijuana judge in May, 1941, then remarried in a church later that year.

They had two daughters, Alice, born in 1942, and Phyllis, born in 1944.

The family took to the relative quiet of desert life in the early 1950s, when Harris told a visitor, "I'm a golfing bum. . . . As you can see, I can walk out of my house, jump into the pool on one side, climb out the other, pick up my golf clubs, play a round of golf starting at the seventh hole and be back in the swimming pool before one can say 'Old Forester.' It's really the life."

Harris appeared numerous times on the "American Sportsman" TV show with Curt Gowdy and his old pal, Bing Crosby, to talk about fishing and hunting. "That was my really big deal," he said later. "I really enjoyed that."

In his 70s, he played less golf, but still performed occasionally at charity tournaments and devoted himself to his desert real estate interests. Harris and his wife had a home in Palm Desert and another at the Thunderbird Country Club (which he helped found) in Rancho Mirage.

One tournament in which he appeared was in his honor at Linton, Ind., his birthplace, to raise money for scholarships at the University of Indiana. A library in Linton was also named for Harris.

Retired newscaster Alex Dreier, one of Harris' card-playing companions at Thunderbird, said the former bandleader had a lot of open land around his Palm Desert home and "being part Cherokee, he sometimes wanders around wearing a goddamned Indian brief."

Whether that was true or not, Harris was tanned and seemingly in good physical condition, enjoying the desert solitude. However, he was hospitalized in 1984 for abdominal surgery.

Dreier said Harris was still a two-fisted drinker right up to then, but it was obvious that the aging drummer could not have lived such a healthy life and been as shrewd a businessman as he was if he really drank as much as he pretended. Nevertheless, he rarely failed to play on the public concept of him as a sodden musician.

"I've been known to take a drink from time to time," Harris said in 1976 when he and Crosby formed a corporation to import tequila. He confided that the business deal would give him "an official excuse to hang around bars. You know, checking on sales. I can tell Alice I'm working."

Harris is also survived by daughter Alice Regan of New Orleans, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

A funeral at Palm Springs Mortuary will be private.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
68°