Frank Gorshin, 71; Impressionist, Actor Famously Played Riddler, George Burns

Times Staff Writer

Frank Gorshin, the master impressionist and character actor who received an Emmy nomination for his role as the villainous Riddler in the campy 1960s "Batman" television series and more recently brought comedian George Burns to life in a one-man Broadway show, has died. He was 71.

Gorshin died Tuesday at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, where he had been hospitalized for three weeks.

"He put up a valiant fight with lung cancer, emphysema and pneumonia," his estranged wife, Christina, said in a statement.

Gorshin had just finished the national tour of the Tony-nominated "Say Goodnight, Gracie" before he was hospitalized with pneumonia. The show opened on Broadway in 2002 and ran for 364 performances.

"It's just very sad," actress Lee Meriwether, a longtime friend who appeared as Catwoman with Gorshin in the 1966 "Batman" movie, told The Times. She said she had visited Gorshin in the hospital a few days ago and thought he would pull through.

"This man was so gifted, so talented, and he had a lot more years to entertain us," she said.

A short, compact performer with a repertoire of about 50 celebrity voices ranging from Kirk Douglas' to Sydney Greenstreet's, Gorshin was a frequent guest on television variety shows in the 1960s.

His Feb. 9, 1964, appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" was famously overshadowed by the American TV debut of the Beatles.

But if that made him a footnote in pop-culture history, the entertainer made his own lasting mark two years later when he donned a pair of skin-tight lime leotards festooned with black question marks to play the Riddler.

Gorshin later said he developed the character's maniacal laugh from listening to his own high-pitched giggle at Hollywood parties.

"He made an indelible impression as the Riddler," said "Batman" star Adam West in a statement, adding that Gorshin "was a fine impressionist as well. Frank made me laugh. He was a friend and fascinating character."

Although Gorshin's recurring role as the Riddler raised his show business profile -- he moved from being a Las Vegas opening act to a headliner -- he told Entertainment Weekly in 1996 that it had a drawback.

"Being known as the Riddler all this time," he said, "there's always that feeling: 'Gee, I wish there was something else they would recognize me for.' "

Gorshin preferred to think of himself as an actor, rather than simply an impressionist. His long list of credits included roles in such movies as "The Great Impostor," "That Darn Cat!" and "12 Monkeys" and guest shots on TV shows such as "Naked City" and "Star Trek," as well as a stint on the soap opera "The Edge of Night."

The performer made his Broadway debut in 1969, starring in the title role of "Jimmy," a musical based on the life of former New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker. Gorshin appeared regularly in national touring shows and regional theater as well.

Then, in 2002, he returned to Broadway for his biggest stage triumph in the hit "Say Goodnight, Gracie."

Halfway through writing the show, playwright Rupert Holmes told The Times on Wednesday, someone suggested that Gorshin play the legendary Burns.

"The second his name was brought up, he was No. 1 on the list of one in my mind," Holmes said. "I knew of him not only as an impressionist; I knew he was a really good actor."

After completing the play, Holmes went to see Gorshin perform in Atlantic City.

"He did the most astounding magic trick I've ever seen an actor do," the playwright recalled. "He finished an impression of Dean Martin, and then he turned his back to the audience and turned back around again. He did not take out a cigar. He did not put on the trademark glasses. He just stood differently, and I heard three people in the audience whisper, 'George Burns,' and he hadn't spoken a word.

"At that moment, I thought, 'We have to have him.' "

Five minutes into each performance of "Say Goodnight, Gracie," Holmes said, "everyone in the audience would forget they were seeing Frank Gorshin.

"He got a standing ovation at every performance, and on the third bow he'd let George drop away from him -- he just gave up George. And the audience would hesitate for a moment, because they'd suddenly remember they had been watching Frank Gorshin, not George Burns."

The son of a railroad worker and a seamstress, Gorshin was born in Pittsburgh. In high school he discovered he had a flair for impressions.

"I saw 'The Jolson Story,' and I just started singing like him," he told The Times in 1999. "I'd do him everywhere I went -- schools and parties, holiday functions."

Gorshin's repertoire of impressions grew while he was an usher at the Sheridan Square Theatre in Pittsburgh. If an Edward G. Robinson picture was screening, he'd greet moviegoers with a Robinsonesque snarl: "All right, three of us are going down the aisle; only one of us is coming back."

Gorshin launched his show business career at 17 when he won a local talent contest: First prize was a one-week engagement in a Pittsburgh nightclub.

He studied drama at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) before he was drafted into the Army in 1953. He served in Special Services and entertained GIs in Germany, where a visiting agent from New York saw him and told Gorshin to look him up when he got out.

The performer's final television performance, on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," will be broadcast tonight on CBS-TV Channel 2. "Manna From Heaven," which includes his last starring role in a feature film -- as a con artist -- is due in theaters July 12. It co-stars Shirley Jones.

Although his wife was with him when he died, the couple had been estranged in recent years.

Gorshin is survived by his girlfriend, Haji; a son, Mitchell, of Orlando, Fla.; his sister, Dottie Roland, of Pittsburgh; and a grandson. A private funeral will be held.

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