Today comes the sad news that Orson Bean has died as the result of being hit by a car in Venice, California. The AP has posted an adequate obituary mostly written by the late Bob Thomas here. With a little help from Orson himself, I would like to add to Thomas’s obituary from a perspective you are unlikely to find in the mainstream media.
Orson Bean’s career spanned five decades. He was an incredibly bright and interesting man. In addition to being a successful actor and award-winning director, he was an acclaimed storyteller. He starred on Broadway for twenty years and appeared regularly as a panelist on To Tell the Truth and other game shows as well as a guest and guest host on the Tonight Show.
In a long and varied show business career, Bean always remained his own man. Blacklisted in Hollywood as a Communist in the 1950’s, he survived and came around sufficiently to face the new blacklist to which Hollywood conservatives are subject. I believe he said the new blacklist is tougher than the old. Donald Lambro explored part of Bean’s experience with the blacklist in his 2008 Washington Times column “Blacklist then and now.” Orson recalled: “Aside from the inconvenience of having a career ruined, being blacklisted in the ’50s was kind of cool.”
Orson was on a long quest for personal fulfillment. In his 1972 memoir Me and the Orgone, he recounted an early version of his quest. He also drank and snorted drugs “and DID inhale.” But, he says, he was never quite happy — until he sniffed around, became a recovering alcoholic, and discovered faith. This is the story he told in his book — M@il for Mikey — aimed at those seeking faith or recovery, but suspicious.
Andrew Breitbart was Orson’s son-in-law. When I toured Israel with Andrew in the summer of 2007, I asked him to convey our invitation to Orson to write something for Power Line. In response to our standing invitation, Orson provided the following account of “why I wrote this book” for Power Line readers. Orson wrote:
For most of my life I didn’t believe in God. Who had time? I was too busy with things of this world: getting ahead, getting laid, becoming famous. For most of my adult life I’ve been at least somewhat famous. Not so famous that I had to wear dark glasses to walk down the street, but famous enough that head waiters would give me a good table.
I didn’t want to be famous for its own sake. I wanted to be famous so as to be happy. My earliest memory, as a little kid, was deciding to be happy. I did my childhood in Cambridge Massachusetts in a rented apartment near Harvard Square. My father was a yard cop at the University. He was also a member of Mensa. An odd combination: an intellectual yard cop. My mother was a beautiful drunk. She was Calvin Coolidge’s second cousin and spent some time in the White House when Cousin Cal was president. Her parents, staunch Vermont Republicans, were not thrilled when their daughter took up with a New Deal Democrat who barely made a living.
Life was chaotic in our apartment in Cambridge: fights and drinking and affairs. I’d been sent from Central Casting to play the small but important role of the only child. One day I will be happy, I told myself.
When I grew up, I did become famous: first as a stand-up comic on television, then as an actor on Broadway, then as a fine game show panelist: a modest skill, like being a virtuoso of the kazoo.
The fame made me happy. It got me laid and made me money and it was fun. I wanted more, so I graduated to drugs and booze. They worked, too, for a while (quite a long while, actually). But when they finally stopped working, when my wife left and the game shows stopped calling, I realized that it was time for a change. I enrolled in a twelve step program.
They kept talking about a Higher Power. It could be anything: a tree, the ocean, whatever. And you were supposed to turn your life over to it. It could be God, of course, but they didn’t want to make you nervous. As long as it wasn’t you, they said, it worked.
There were speakers at the meetings, former drunks who were supposed to explain it all. One guy impressed the hell out of me. I heard him a few times. Bobby was his name. That’s how he always introduced himself and we’d yell back, “Hi, Bobby.”
Bobby was one tough bugger. Scars and tattoos. He’d done time in the pen. Hard time. The last time he was arrested, he was taken off the roof of a building in downtown L.A. by a SWAT team: helicopters, the whole shebang. They sent him away for fifteen years for something pretty violent, I’m sure; he didn’t say. It was his third conviction but this was before three strikes so he didn’t get life.
Well, while he was up the river, he started going to meetings; to break up the monotony, I suppose. And somehow or other, he got the message and his whole life changed. While he was still there in the jug. He began helping other cons and staying out of trouble and they knocked some time off his sentence. By the time I ran across him, he was out, of course, working at a regular job and “sponsoring” a number of young guys. “My babies,” he called them.
I decided I would ask him for advice. He was standing on the sidewalk in front of the meeting where he’d spoken and some cute young thing was bending his ear. There were a few of us hanging around wanting to talk to him but of course we all understood that if a good looking girl was praising him, probably flirting with him, common sense and good manners dictated that we wait our turns.
The girl finished and started to leave, but before any of us could get a shot at him, something strange happened. An LAPD motorcycle cop sped by on his big, black Harley, spotted Bobby, jammed on the brakes, jumped off the bike, ran over and grabbed hold of him.
“Holy God,” we all thought, “He’s done something bad again and they’ve come to get him.” But instead of arresting him, the cop gave him a big hug. Then he got back on the Harley and blasted off. Bobby turned to the little group of us there on the sidewalk.
“One of my babies,” he explained, and started off down the street. I decided to be a pain in the neck and hustled on after him. I caught up and introduced myself. I told him about how I had a few months clean and sober and about my reluctance to think about my higher power as God. What advice did he have, I asked?
“Get down on your knees,” he told me, ” and thank God every morning. Then, do it again at night.”
“But I don’t think I believe in God.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Just do it.”
“Why do I have to get down on my knees?”
“He likes it,” said Bobby. And that’s all he said to me. He stood there looking at me for a minute and then I said OK and thanked him and he took off.
I was living, in those days, in a little joint in Venice with a Murphy bed. That night, when it was time for me to go to sleep, I got down on my knees beside the Murphy bed, feeling like a complete fool, and spoke out loud.
“If there’s anybody there,” I said, “thank you for the day.” I had finally decided, I suppose, that since all else had failed, I would follow the instructions. That night, I slept like a log and in the morning I got down on my knees again and said, “If there’s anybody there, thank you for my night’s sleep.”
I kept doing this, day after day, and without my even being aware of it, it stopped feeling foolish to me. It started to feel good, in fact. After a while, I began to sense that my prayers were being heard. I didn’t know by who or what, but it was a good feeling. Then, before I knew it, I felt as if there was Something or Someone there who knew me and cared about me. Actually loved me.
“Alright,” I told myself. “I’ll call it God. Thank you, God” And I really meant it. That’s how it began for me and my life has kept on getting better ever since. Truly better. So finally, I thought I’d write a little book about it, to tell people how simple it is.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have an empty spot at the center of him, which must be filled in order to be really happy. That spot, like it or not, is reserved for God, and if you decide you are going to be lastingly happy, M@IL FOR MIKEY, my little instruction manual, could give you a jump start.