Saturday, January 14, 2017

Dick Gautier Chats with the Café about Birdie, "Get Smart," Robin Hood, and His Caricatures

As a tribute to the late Dick Gautier, who passed away on January 13, 2017, we're republishing his interview with us from 2013.

Actor, singer, composer, author, artist, and voice talent--Dick Gautier is pretty much a man of all media. Perhaps best known as Hymie the Robot on TV's Get Smart, Mr. Gautier has appeared in over 100 films and TV series according to the Internet Movie Database, as well as ten stage productions. He still acts occasionally (having appeared in an episode of Nip/Tuck) and has gained fame as a caricaturist. Despite the hectic schedule, he found time to drop by the Café for a chat.

Café:  You portrayed Conrad Birdie in the original Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie and received a Tony nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical. How did you come to be cast as Conrad?

Gautier (in gold) as Conrad Birdie in
the original Broadway production.
Dick Gautier:  Unbeknownst to most folks, I started as a stand-up comedian. I was not really a joke teller, although I enjoy telling stories in which you can improvise and utilize character voices and accents, and that little advertised phase of my career has gotten me to places in the industry I never dreamed of. After my four-year stint in the Navy (U.S., thank you), I worked at the hungry i in San Francisco. I followed Mort Sahl, who had just made a good name for himself. As a side note, Maya Angelou, the distinguished poet, once opened for me doing a calypso act. The Purple Onion, which was across the street, spawned people like Phyllis Diller, the Kingston Trio, etc. I then went to New York and worked (after several fruitless months) at The Blue Angel, where I appeared with Margaret Whiting. It was there that Gower Champion, the wonderful dancer who--with his wife Marge--graced many MGM musicals, came in with Charles Strouse, the composer. They evidently stayed until the end of my show where I sang briefly, because a month later I received a call in Chicago from my agents, who told me that I was to meet about a project called Bye Bye Birdie. I flew to NY, we met, I sang for them and after they bolstered up my insecurities (I was comfortable singing Gershwin or Jerome Kern--but not rock 'n' roll), I got the part, over, I was told, about 750 other guys. I didn’t understand why I was chosen and I still don’t get it to this day. But I’m grateful. It was a great cast, Dick (Van Dyke), Chita (Rivera), Paul (Lynde), and Susan (Watson). Gower was a wonderful director and it began a totally unanticipated phase of my career.

Café:  Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde appeared in both the stage and film versions of Bye Bye Birdie. Was there any discussion about you recreating your role for the film?

DG:  My agents at William Morris didn’t want me to get typecast as a rock 'n' roll guy and the script was undergoing major changes; the part of Kim (Susan Watson) was being redone for Ann-Margret and Birdie was taking a backseat. So, we opted out of the film because, as my agents said: "The film along with the stage show would make the part indelibly mine." Not a good idea. They were right. I avoided the casting trap and poor Jesse Pearson (Birdie in the movie) didn’t have much of a career after that and passed away rather young.

Café:  You were brilliant as Hymie the Robot on Get Smart. How did you get the part and what was it like working on Get Smart?

Gautier as Hymie the robot in the
season 2 episode "Anatomy of a Lover."
DG:  It was fun doing Hymie on Get Smart, though not an actor’s challenge. When I met with the powers that be, I told them that when I was a kid in Canada I saw a man in a storefront window acting like a manikin to drum up business. If you could make him smile, you’d get $10. So, I tried, but not by acting crazy--I merely imitated his movements. I didn’t win the $10, but I got the part of Hymie, which was a little better. Again, I was blessed to be working with a talented, nice group of actors. Don (Adams), Barbara (Feldon), Ed Platt, and even Victor French, who was always stuck in a clock or something. They were always pleasant and creative and encouraging to me.

Café:  You were always a popular panelist on game shows like Password, The Match Game, and Win, Lose or Draw. What were your favorite game shows and why?

DG:  I loved doing game shows. Sure, the games were fun, but the other celebrities were usually quick-witted opponents and we had a great time trying to crack each other up. (I’m a patsy, it’s easy to get to me).  I especially liked Password because I’m sort of a word freak. I enjoy etymology (word derivations) and being a part-time writer. I enjoy word play of all kinds. Match Game was fun because Gene Rayburn and all the others were absolute crackups. I always felt guilty accepting the money. (Well, not THAT guilty!)    

As Robin Hood in When Things Were Rotten.
Café:  You played Robin Hood on Mel Brooks' When Things Were Rotten, a delightful parody that was sadly cancelled after 13 episodes. It has a big cult following now. What are your memories of working on it?

DG:  I was thrilled when I got the part of Robin Hood. I mean who ever thinks of himself as a classic character?  We had the best time. All we did was giggle it was so silly. And to work with our great guest stars like Sid Caesar and Dudley Moore or be directed by Marty Feldman…it was a hoot! I wish it had gone on longer, but Fred Silverman didn’t like it when it was offered to him at CBS, so it was no surprise that we disappeared when he took over ABC.  I don’t think he has the greatest sense of humor anyway. The jokes always parted his hair when they flew over his head.

Café:  You wrote several episodes of the TV series Love, American Style. You also penned the screenplays for Maryjane, a 1968 drama about a teacher framed for drug dealing (starring Fabian and Diane McBain) and the 1972 anti-war comedy Wild in the Sky (aka God Bless You, Uncle Sam). Did you ever consider writing screenplays full-time? And, hey, why aren't those movies on DVD?

DG:  I really enjoy writing, probably more than the people who buy movies. I’ve written at least 11 films, I’ve only sold six and two were produced. Oh well…you can’t be a hit at everything. I’m still trying. Why not? I send them out all the time, better than just sitting in a dirty underwear drawer.

Café:  You worked with just about every actor in Hollywood in the 1970s and 1980s, from Jack Nicholson to Diana Rigg to Angela Lansbury. Who were some of your favorite actors to work with and why?

Gautier and Mary Tyler Moore.
DG:  This is tough. I loved working with Diana Rigg. Mary Tyler Moore was a joy. Jimmy Stewart, what a gracious sweet man, the superbly talented Brian Dennehy, Nicholson of course, Robert Young, the charming Elizabeth Montgomery, the great Angela Lansbury, Jack Klugman--"Mr. Mench," all of Charlie’s Angels, the wonderful and weird Larry Hagman, Bob Newhart was a delight, my good pal Lucy, lovely and terrific Doris Day, funny Buck Henry, the versatile Nancy Dussault, and too many more to mention.    

Café:  You're a well-known caricaturist and oil painter. In fact, you've written several how-to books on drawing caricatures, such as The Art of Caricature (1985), The Creative Cartoonist (1988), and Drawing and Cartooning 1,001 Figures in Action (1994). How did you become interested in art?

Gautier's Sammy Davis, Jr.
caricature.
DG:   I've always drawn cartoons and caricatures. It got me in big trouble when I was a kid, ridiculing my teachers, but I was a class clown anyway so that was merely another extension of the same stuff. I got a little more "serious" later and tried portraits in acrylics and oils. My relatives in Canada are painters and so I come by it naturally. The books were a complete surprise to me. I got one published and then two… and finally up through fourteen. But no more, I've squeezed an awful lot of books out of a very small talent. I can’t think of another idea anyway.

Café:  Looking back over your acting career in stage, film, and television, what are your favorite roles?

DG:  I’d have to say Birdie, Robin Hood, Hymie, the stage musical Little Me where I got to play seven different characters, all written by Neil Simon, The Rockford Files as a real bad guy, South Pacific where I got to stretch my vocal range as Emile De Becque, and as the preacher in Fun with Dick and Jane with Jane Fonda and George Segal.

Café:  You seem to stay incredibly busy. Are there any upcoming projects you want to share with our readers?

DG:  I try to stay busy, it’s easier since I’m getting "up in years," but I recently wrote a play and it’s gotten some nice reactions from those who've read it. It’s called Commisseration and it’s a dialogue between two guys in their sixties. Some think it’s very funny, some think it’s "touching," some think it stinks. We’ll see. We’re close to a production with a couple of very fine actors and I’ll direct. If this all works out, it will be pretty exciting.  

You can learn more about Dick Gautier at his web site:  www.dickgautier.com and even purchase some of his artwork.

12 comments:

  1. Nice interview. I'm sure I've seen Gautier in countless things.

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  2. Rick, this is an outstanding interview! The role of Hymie will always be a favorite of mine because our whole family would gather around the television to laugh and laugh at "Get Smart." I didn't know Dick Gautier was the original Conrad Birdie and I loved the picture of him dressed in gold. We were also fond of "Love American Style." It was really interesting to hear about Dick's talent in caricature and the fact that he garnered 14 books from that passion is pretty awesome.

    I really enjoyed the pictures that are posted as well. This was a fascinating read about a very interesting and multi talented gentleman. Dick, thanks for sharing your stories with the Cafe!

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  3. "When Things Were Rotten" was a terrific show. Boo, Fred Silverman! It was much funnier than the Mel Brooks movie "Men in Tights."

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  4. I've seen Gautier, perform in many TV shows over the years. I did not know that he started out as a stand-up comic.

    Thank you Rick, for sharing Gautier's very interesting interview with us..

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  5. Wow - he IS a busy guy! Great interview. :)

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  6. Hymie the Robot is the best. Great interview, Rick.

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  7. What a splendid interview! I'm always amazed by a talented actor displaying yet another skill, such as Mr. Gautier's caricatures. I perused his art via his website, and the caricatures are terrific. My favorite is Telly Savalas, who is still a handsome gent when caricaturized. And I've never seen WHEN THINGS WERE ROTTEN, which will now be added to my must-see list.

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  8. It was one of the "Get Smart" reunion shows, where Max tracks down Hymie, who is quick to lay a guilt trip on Max. "You never call, you never write." Hilarious.

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  9. Great interview with a great guy! Yeah, he played a loathsome villain on ROCKFORD FILES. It was almost painful to watch "Hymie" as the heavy. Around that same 1975 period he guest starred in the werewolf episode of KOLCHAK: THE NIGHTSTALKER. A fun and manic appearance. Gautier and McGavin had real chemistry. I loved Gautier already, but this interview gave me a greater appreciation for all he's done and for what a gracious man he is.

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  10. I was just watching an old episode of Tattle Tales and Dick Gautier was on it. I alwaya liked him and really enjoyed your interview. Thank you Jeff Sklute

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  11. This is a great interview! I'm glad you reposted after his death. A lovely peek inside a great talent.

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