Revisiting Kovacs' Unique Comic Vision

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brilliant. Innovative. Wacky. Original.

Ernie Kovacs was all of the above and so much more. With his bushy eyebrows, mustache and ever-present cigar, Kovacs was one of the craziest and most visionary comedians to emerge during the Golden Age of TV in the 1950s.

He pushed the visual envelope on his comedy-variety series "Ernie in Kovacsland" and "The Ernie Kovacs Show," and in his comedy specials. Kovacs also created the hysterically funny and beloved characters Percy Dovetonsils, Mr. Question Man and the Nariobi Trio.

But Kovacs left the world far too soon. He died 34 years ago Saturday at the age of 42. Kovacs was killed instantly at 1:35 a.m. Jan. 13, 1962, when his station wagon crashed into a power pole on rain-soaked Santa Monica Boulevard, just a few hundred feet west of the Beverly Hilton. He had been attending a baby shower for Milton Berle and his wife at Billy Wilder's house. Kovacs' wife and frequent co-star, Edie Adams, had left the party in a separate car.

Kovacs may be gone, but thanks to video, he won't be forgotten.

Kultur Video's five-volume "The Best of Ernie Kovacs" ($20 each) is a must-have for any Kovacs fan. Each video offers a terrific assortment of the crazy sketches and characters that made his shows unique. Sketches included are such sidesplitting musical parodies as a gorilla "Swan Lake" ballet, the woman-in-the-tub bits, Percy Dovetonsils reading "Leslie the Mean Animal Trainer" and an interview with painter Mother Rustic.

Video Yesteryear offers his acclaimed silent 1961 special "Eugene" ($20), in which the innocent personality visits a library and a museum where the contents take on a life of their own.

Episodes from Kovacs' 1959-61 ABC quiz show "Take a Good Look" ($20) are available on Video Yesterday and Moviecraft Inc. ($20).

Kovacs was also the subject of a standard 1984 TV biopic, "Ernie Kovacs: Between the Laughter" (WesternWorld Video). Jeff Goldblum, far from a dead ringer for Kovacs, stars.

A few of Kovacs' feature films are available on video. He plays a drunk author who teams up with a mischievous warlock (Jack Lemmon) to write a book on magic in the bewitching 1958 comedy "Bell, Book & Candle" (Columbia/TriStar). James Stewart and Kim Novak star.

Kovacs supplies a gold mine of laughs as a con man operating in Alaska in the 1960 John Wayne action-comedy "North to Alaska" (Fox, $20). Fabian, Stewart Granger and Capucine also star.

He goes dramatic with pretty good results in the glossy 1960 soap opera "Strangers When We Meet" (Columbia/TriStar). Kirk Douglas and Novak play two married people who fall for each other.

Though not yet out on video, these Kovacs comedies are definitely worth watching the next time they air on TV: 1957's "Operation Mad Ball" with Jack Lemmon (who was one of the Nairobi Trio); 1959's "It Happened to Jane" with Lemmon and Doris Day; and 1960's "Our Man From Havana" with Alec Guinness.

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Documentaries: "Anatomy of Love" (Turner Home Entertainment), which originally aired on TBS, explores love-related topics such as courtship, marriage, adultery and breaking up and staying together.

"Great American Monuments" (A&E; Home Video, $20 each) is a fascinating look at the history of "The White House," "The War Memorials" and "Presidential Memorials."

"The 1996 Rose Parade Classic Home Video Edition" (Westlake Entertainment Group, $15 and $20) offers complete Rose Parade coverage seen from varying locations.

Animation: Based on the popular video game, "Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie" (Sony Music Video's Renegade, $15) is a poorly animated, plodding action-adventure.

BMG Video is introducing the first three titles--"Space Time Twister," "Jailhouse Shock" and "The Petrified Cheese"--from the new CBS-TV series "The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat" ($13 each).

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The Killer Bs: A psycho scarecrow, definitely not of the Ray Bolger variety, emerges from his cornfield and goes on a killing spree in the sadistic, violent thriller "Night of the Scarecrow" (Republic). Elizabeth Barondes, Stephen Root and Bruce Glover star.

Alyssa Milano, who played Tony Danza's wholesome daughter on "Who's the Boss?," goes the sex kitten route in "Poison Ivy 2: Lily" (New Line), a boring erotic thriller about a college student who transforms herself into a seductive babe.

If you love Don "The Dragon" Wilson making mincemeat of the bad guys, gratuitous nudity and inane dialogue, then you'll love "Virtual Combat" (A-Pix Entertainment). Andrew Stevens directs. His mom, Stella, has a supporting role.

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New This Week: Hugh Grant stars with Julianne Moore and Tom Arnold in the romantic comedy "Nine Months" (FoxVideo).

Melissa Mathison of "E.T." fame penned the screenplay of the fantasy "The Indian in the Cupboard" (Columbia/TriStar, $23).

Scott Bakula plays a private detective who confronts a supernatural enemy in Clive Barker's "Lord of Illusions" (MGM/UA).

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