Just a few weeks ago, Orson Bean appeared on The Mark Steyn Christmas Show, and delighted both the audience in the room and the far larger crowd who watched the broadcast. All of us who worked on the show were devastated to learn that last night Orson was killed by a car while crossing the street in Venice, California.
As Orson said on stage, he was born during the last year of the Coolidge Administration, which would make him ninety-one years old, which is, as he put it, "not bad". (Silent Cal was a maternal second cousin once removed.) In fact, Orson was spectacularly "not bad" for his four-score-and-eleven - spry, vigorous, and working till the end. He and his wife Alley Mills (from "The Wonder Years", "The Bold and the Beautiful" et al) had just finished a run in Santa Monica in their new play Bad Habits, and they had every reason to believe he would die in harness somewhere the other side of his centenary.
As it is, in seven decades as magician, comedian, actor, author and more, Orson Bean had done pretty much everything he ever wanted to. He had been on television more or less since there was a television to be on, and was sufficiently in demand two-thirds of a century later to be guesting on "Modern Family", "Desperate Housewives" and "How I Met Your Mother". In between he starred on Broadway with Jayne Mansfield and Walter Matthau in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, on the big screen in Being John Malkovich, in "The Twilight Zone" as a memorable Mr Bevis, and minded the store in "Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman". He was a memorable witness for Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder, a hippie in Australia, the head of a school modeled on England's Summerhill (which gave us Rebecca De Mornay and Elton John's record producer), and the father-in-law of Andrew Breitbart. Orson was a master raconteur beloved by Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, which is why he made over two hundred appearances on "The Tonight Show" - until the new guys took over and witty anecdotalists were replaced by grunting pluggers. As he bemoaned to me, these days the bookers mainly want old people who can talk dirty - the potty-mouthed grampa shtick - but, on the other hand, he could more than hold his own at that: a couple of years back in Hollywood, I saw him deliver an almost spectacularly bad-taste stand-up routine.
His Christmas appearance came about rather casually via dinner I'd had with him and Alley a few months earlier. He had bicycled to the restaurant from his home, which I would have found remarkable had he been twenty years younger. I had had a rather dispiriting time in California, in which everything that could go wrong did go wrong. And it was just sheer pleasure to redeem a rotten day with a man who was boundlessly good company and whose enthusiasms roamed far and wide. We had mutual friends-of-friends, as it were: He was a fixture on TV's "To Tell the Truth" with Kitty Carlisle, with whom I used to introduce the "Lost Musicals" series in London; he studied acting with Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof; he had been Tony-nominated for Subways Are for Sleeping, by Jule Styne and Comden & Green; and I had visited the Bond-villain-lair-like pad of Wilhelm Reich, the Austrian psychoanalyst of whom Orson had once been a devotee. I mainly recalled Dr Reich's philosophy as being something to do with harnessing the power of the orgasm as an alternative energy source, but Orson, who wrote a book on the subject, said there was more to it than that. It was like a great leisurely unhurried edition of a golden-age "Tonight Show" - the perfect end to an imperfect day. And on the flight out of LAX the next morning I recalled his adaptation of A Christmas Carol and thought: Say, maybe that would be good for our little show...
So here he is just a few weeks ago, full of life, recalling his early years in Vermont, discoursing on the winter solstice, quoting somewhat surreally Stevie Wonder, and then giving us a rather moving performance as Ebenezer Scrooge on the road not taken:
Orson returned later in the show as a somewhat mercurial Uber driver in our "Baby, It's Cold Outside" sketch. It was a great honor to share the stage with him, and, as you can tell from the comments here, the audience loved him, as they had for an amazing seven decades.
Below is Orson on the left and Alley on the right with Ann McElhinney, Phelim McAleer, Andrew Lawton and yours truly:
Alley was there last night when the first car hit him, and then a second. It was a terrible, brutally sudden end, but it cannot diminish a rich and remarkable life.