Larger than life, Laughtonesque, and with an eloquent, king-sized appetite for maniacal merriment, a good portion of the work of actor Victor Buono was squandered on hokey villainy on both film and television. Ostensibly perceived as bizarre or demented, seldom did Hollywood give this cultivated cut-up the opportunity to rise above the deliciously hammy arrogance that flowed through so many of his cartoonish characters. He loved to make people laugh and while he could have approached his career with more serious attention, the real money was in his madness. In the end, the actor’s chronic weight and accompanying health problems took their toll — a fatal heart attack at the untimely age of 43 — and a wonderful actor/writer/poet/chef had exited way before his time.
Born on February 3, 1938 in San Diego, California, the son of Victor Francis Buono and Myrtle Belle (née Keller), his interest in entertainment was originally encouraged by his grandmother, Myrtle Glied (1886-1969), who had once been a vaudevillian on the Orpheum Circuit. It was she who taught Victor how to sing and recite in front of company. His initial choice of career was somewhere in the direction of medicine but the pure joy he experienced from several high school performances (playing everything from Aladdin’s evil genie to Hamlet himself) led him to dismiss such sensible thinking and take on the bohemian life style of an actor.
The already hefty-framed hopeful started appearing on local radio and television stations in San Diego. At age 18, he became a member of the Globe Theater Players where he was cast in Shakespeare and the classics (“Volpone”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “Knight of the Burning Pestle”, “The Man Who Came to Dinner”, “Witness for the Prosecution”, “Henry IV, Part I (as Falstaff)”, “As You Like It”, “Hamlet” (as Claudius)).
In 1959, a Warner Bros. agent happened to scope out the talent at the Globe Theatre and caught Victor’s wonderfully robust portrayal of Falstaff (a role he would return to now and then) and gave him a screen test. Looking older than he was, the studio set upon using Victor in weird and wacky ways, such as his bearded poet Bongo Benny in an episode of 77 Sunset Strip (1958). His wry and witty demeanor, fixed stare, huge girth and goateed mug was guaranteed to put him in nearly every television crime story needing an off-the-wall character or outlandish villain.
Following an unbilled appearance in a 1960 biblical film, Victor was intriguingly cast by director Robert Aldrich to play Edwin Flagg, the creepy musical accompanist and opportunist who tries to use one-time child celebrity Bette Davis for his own piggy bank in the gothic horror classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). He held his own beautifully opposite the scenery-chewing Davis and was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for his efforts. This role also set the tone for the increasingly deranged characters he would go on to play.
Cast as the title menace in The Strangler (1964), Victor delved wholeheartedly into the sick mind of a mother-obsessed murderer and offered a startling, tense portrayal of a child-like monster who gives new meaning to the art of “necking” with women. Director Aldrich used Victor again (albeit too briefly) for his Southern-baked “Grand Guignol” horror Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) this time as Ms. Davis’ crazed father. Victor also showed up in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) starring Max von Sydow where he flamboyantly took on the High Priest Sorak role in this epic but criticized retelling of Jesus.
He enhanced a number of lightweight 1960s movies including 4 for Texas (1963), Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), The Silencers (1966) and Who’s Minding the Mint? (1967) with his clever banter and gleeful menace. The lurid title said it all when Victor gamely took on the horror movie The Mad Butcher (1971) [aka The Strangler of Vienna] wherein he played a former mental patient preying on women again. This deranged low-budget German/Italian co-production added a “Sweeney Todd” meatpie tie in.
Victor’s hearty, scene-stealing antics dominated late 1960s television series. Recurring madmen included his Count Carlos Manzeppi on The Wild Wild West (1965) and King Tut who habitually wreaked havoc on Gotham City on Batman (1966). One could always find his unsympathetic presence somewhere on a prime-time channel (Perry Mason (1957), Get Smart (1965), I Spy (1965)) but his roles ended up more campy than challenging. However, one heartfelt, serious portrayal was his portrayal of President William Howard Taft in the epic miniseries Backstairs at the White House (1979). Elsewhere, he recorded a self-effacing comedy album (“Victor Buono: Heavy!”) and even wrote comic poetry (“Victor Buono: It Could Be Verse”. He was indeed a sought-after raconteur on daytime and nighttime talk shows.
Continuing with the theatre but on a more infrequent basis, his one-man stage shows included “Just We Three”, “Remembrance of Things Past” and “This Would I Keep”. He also appeared as Pellinore opposite Robert Goulet and Carol Lawrence in a 1975 performance of “Camelot” and earned minor cult status for his memorable performance in the play “Last of the Marx Brothers’ Writers” in a return to the Old Globe Theatre in 1977.
The never-married actor felt compelled to conceal his homosexuality. A well-regarded gourmet chef and an expert on Shakespeare, he died of a massive heart attack at his ranch in Apple Valley, California on January 1, 1982. Before his death was announced, Buono had just been cast in the Broadway-bound play “Whodunnit?” by Anthony Shaffer. The show finally arrived in New York without him and almost a year to his death (December 30, 1982).
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