Orson Bean, the American actor, television personality and author, was born Dallas Frederick Burrows on July 22, 1928 in Burlington, Vermont to George Frederick Burrows, a policeman who later went on to become the chief of campus police at Harvard University, and the former Marion Ainsworth Pollard. The newborn Dallas Burrows was a second cousin once removed to Calvin Coolidge, who was President of the United States at the time of his birth. The young Dallas, an amateur magician with a taste for the limelight, graduated from Boston’s prestigious Latin School in 1946. Too young to see military service during World War II, the future Orson Bean did a hitch in the U.S. Army (1946-47) in occupied Japan.
After the war, he launched himself onto the nightclub circuit with his new moniker, the “Orson” borrowed from reigning enfant terrible Orson Welles. His comedy act premiered at New York City’s Blue Angel nightclub, and the momentum from his act launched him into the orbit of the legitimate theater. He made his Broadway debut on April 30, 1954 in Stalag 17 (1953) producer Richard Condon’s only Broadway production as a playwright, “Men of Distinction”, along with Robert Preston and Martin Ritt. The play flopped and ran only four appearances.
The following year was to prove kinder: he hosted a summer-replacement television series produced at the Blue Angel, and won a Theatre World Award for his work in the 1954 music revue “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac”, which co-starred Harry Belafonte, Polly Bergen, Hermione Gingold and Carleton Carpenter. It was a hit that ran for 229 performances. He followed this up with an even bigger hit, the leading role in “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter”. Next up was a succès d’estime as the leading man in Herman Wouk’s comic play “Nature’s Way”, which co-starred Bea Arthur, Sorrell Booke and Godfrey Cambridge. Though the play lasted but 67 performances, Orson Bean had established himself on the Broadway stage.
He enjoyed his greatest personal success on Broadway in the 1961-62 season, in the Betty Comden and Adolph Green musical “Subways are for Sleeping”, which was directed and choreographed by Michael Kidd and featured music by Jule Styne. Bean received a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical (his co-star Phyllis Newman won a Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in a Musical. The following season, he was in a bigger hit, the comedy “Never Too Late”, which would go on to play for 1,007 performances. After appearing in the flop comedy “I Was Dancing” in November 1964, Bean made his last Broadway appearance in the musical “Illya Darling” in 1967 with Melina Mercouri, directed by fellow blacklister Jules Dassin; it played 320 performances. He also toured in the Neil Simon-Burt Bacharach musical “Promises, Promises”.
Bean made an impression as the Army psychiatrist in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959). But it was as a television personality that he made his biggest inroads into the popular consciousness, as well as the popular culture. He appeared in numerous quiz and talk shows, becoming a familiar face in homes as a regular panelist on To Tell the Truth (1956). He also appeared on Norman Lear’s cult favorite Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976) and its sequel, Forever Fernwood (1977), as “Reverend Brim”, and as store owner “Loren Bray” on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993). Much of his role as 105-year-old “Dr. Lester” in the cult film Being John Malkovich (1999) wound up the cutting room floor, but audiences and critics welcomed back his familiar presence.
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