Classic Hollywood:  Orson Bean, a sage on the Geffen stage

Orson bean at the Geffen Playhouse in 2014.
Actor Orson Bean at the Geffen Playhouse in 2014, before rehearsals of “Steven Drukman’s comedy-drama “Death of the Author.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Orson Bean never met a leading lady quite like Jayne Mansfield.

The voluptuous blond sex symbol was the toast of Broadway in the comedy “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” in 1955 and 1956.

“It was interesting,” recalled Bean, breaking into a wide grin remembering “Rock Hunter,” which also featured Walter Matthau and Martin Gabel, who were not happy that newcomer Mansfield was getting the lion’s share of attention for the comedy.


“She liked me,” Bean said. “She would hear me going by her dressing room and she’d said ‘Orsie.’”

Bean would walk into the dressing room where, invariably, she would be sitting stark naked, “completely guileless, no flirtation, just putting on makeup,” he recalled. “She’d say to me, ‘Who is out front tonight?’ because if there was a famous person, she’d do a good performance.”

Bean would peek through the curtain, and if no celebrity was there, he would make one up.

“I’d say ‘Marlon Brando,’ and I knew she’d be good,” Bean said. “It was a funny experience for a year.”

Now 85, Bean is a master raconteur and a total charmer. Baby boomers remember him fondly for bringing his wit and sophistication to game shows such as “What’s My Line?,” “I’ve Got a Secret” and “To Tell the Truth” and variety series and talks shows including “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Tonight Show” and “The Mike Douglas Show.”

Bean also played Loren Bray, the crotchety owner of the general store on the mid-'90s CBS family series “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” Karen McCluskey’s husband, Roy, on ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” from 2009 to 2012, and the wonderfully eccentric 105-year-old Dr. Lester in the 1999 film “Being John Malkovich.”

Father of four and grandfather of nine, Bean lives with his third wife, actress Alley Mills (the mother on “The Wonder Years”) in Venice. He recently self-published his fourth book, the autobiography “Safe at Home.”

On a recent sunny Monday afternoon, Bean was holding court at the Geffen Playhouse before rehearsals for Steven Drukman’s comedy-drama, “Death of the Author,” which is having its world premiere. The play starts previews Tuesday and continues through June 29.

“I’m an old professor who is mentoring a young professor,” said Bean, dressed liked tenured faculty in a khaki-colored suit replete with a red sweater. “The young professor has a student who is accused of plagiarism. I am not so sure it is plagiarism.”

Director Bart DeLorenzo said finding the “perfect person” to play Bean’s role of J. Trumbull Sykes was difficult.

“It was a big search,” he said. “We brought in a lot of different people to read, and no one was satisfying us perfectly. It occurred to me to bring in Orson because he had some of the correct qualities for the role. He brings a bit of New England to the part.”

The New Hampshire native, DeLorenzo said, “works terrifically well with everyone in the cast. He has an extraordinary sense of discipline. He works very hard outside of rehearsal, and he’s well-prepared with his lines and comes in with lots of ideas for the scenes. I’ve got to say putting together his scenes has been very quick work for the most part.”

Bean, a lifetime member of the Magic Castle, broke into show business doing a comedy magic act. After being stationed in Japan after World War II, he came back to the U.S. and played small clubs outside of Boston for a year and then went to the Philadelphia area, where he played the Moose club in Altoona and the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Harrisburg, he said, honing his acting and writing.

His opening line — “My name is Orson Bean, Harvard ’48, Yale nothing” — got no laughs from the small-town audiences. Only the band would laugh. “They said, ‘You are too hip for the room.’”

Ditching the magic portion of his comedy routine, Bean sought his fame and fortune in New York. He didn’t have an agent, but he did have had chutzpah.

Bean had heard of the Blue Angel night club, and shortly after arriving in New York he went there to see if he could audition.

“The door was unlocked and I went up the stairs,” Bean recalled. “There was a light on, and a guy looked up — he was counting receipts — and said, ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘I’m a comic.’”

The man looked at Bean and said, “Say something funny.”

Bean said, “Belly button.”

“He looked down,” Bean recalled, “and got a little smile on his face and said, ‘I’m short an act tonight. I’ll put you on.’ I got laughs for the first time.”

And from 1950 to 1960, he was the house comic at the Blue Angel.