Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Frank Gorshin has passed away at the age of 72.

And that's why I just want to take a moment to praise John Astin.

It had to take major cujones to step into a role that had been so identified with another actor. And yet that's what Astin did in February of 1967 when he assayed the role of The Riddler on 'Batman', replacing Frank Gorshin for two episodes ("Batman's Anniversary"/"Riddling Controversy").

I don't think there's any question mark about Gorshin's impact upon this series and on how much he brought to the character to bring it fully to life. When Jack Nicholson appeared as the Joker in the 1989 movie version of 'Batman', he made the character fully his own without ever being overwhelmed by the shadow of Cesar Romero's performance in the series.

But even the manic talents of Jim Carrey in one of the sequels wasn't enough to erase the memories of Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. He was the first and he is the best.

And he literally was the first when it came to the live-action villains of 'Batman' in Toobworld. And I think the argument could be made that it was his performance as "Special Guest Villain" in those first episodes that truly made the show popular, not those two derring-do do-gooders.

There was always something cartoonish about the villains on the show; indeed, about the whole show in general. And as the series raced on, it only became more so as everybody in Hollywood scrambled for a guest shot as a campy villain. But even though The Riddler was no exception to those great leaps over the top, he never lost that underlying sense of menace. You knew this was not a guy to bleep around with.

And that was due to the hard-edged portrayal by Frank Gorshin. This guy was crazy, and you knew he could be deadly! Even in a comedy film like "Sail A Crooked Ship" with fellow TV legends Robert Wagner and Ernie Kovacs, it was Gorshin's George Wilson that gave this filmic fluff its potential for danger.

I think that when people look back on the original 'Star Trek', as far as its ham-handed allegories for the issues of the time, the first episode that comes to mind must be "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield". You know the one - two last survivors from Chiron who hate each other because of their skin color. One is all black on the left side and all white on the right hand side, while the other is just the opposite. Quel horrors!

It seems so dopey today. Just seeing characters made up like that in an episode of 'Futurama' is enough to make me laugh out loud today.

But I remember being so blown away by the idea that I couldn't help but give a complete play-by-play of the whole episode to my long-suffering Dad. (I give him so much credit for accepting my tele-mania, even though he couldn't understand how his oldest and his namesake could be such a nutjob.)

And I think my main reason why I enjoyed that episode so much had to do with Gorshin as Commissioner Bele.

Normally, one would expect to empathize with the underdog in such a conflict, but Gorshin's Bele had such a force of personality and will that I hoped that he would triumph over Lou Antonio's Lokai. (And that's even though Antonio had the better character name as far as this neocognomina maniac is concerned.)

Of his other characters, I know he played a homeless man in one of the soap operas my Mother watches; I'm thinkingi it must be 'The Bold & The Beautiful'. Eventually the character died, but he lived on as a guardian angel for one of the main characters.

Which probably wasn't the fate in store for his last star turn as a TV super-villain. Gorshin portrayed Ben Tickerman, a wrongly convicted felon who went mad counting down the seconds until he was released from prison. As the villain Clockwise, it was his intent to exact revenge upon those who put him away by depriving them of the same amount of life with an accelerated aging device.

Luckily, the 'Black Scorpion' was able to defeat him.

Frank Gorshin was also known for his celebrity impressions and just a few years back he did a very successful one-man show on Broadway as George Burns. I always thought it might have been fun if he did a guest turn on 'Joan Of Arcadia' as the weekly incarnation of God, appearing as Burns. Unless it gets written up someday in a 'Joan Of Arcadia' fanfic site, it will always be just a pleasant "what-if?", and even then it wouldn't really have anything to do with Gorshin anymore.

My last, most powerful memory of him is in the movie "12 Monkeys". I've always said that the film is just so grim and unrelenting in its darkness that there are only two images that stand out - the cab ride through Pittsburgh when giraffes run wild on the highway, and Frank Gorshin as a slightly crazed doctor.

Obviously as I grow older, I have to expect that all of the great actors who gave me such a rich gallery of memorable TV characters will eventually pass beyond the screen. Still, it never fails to sadden me when such a passing occurs.
And today is one of those days.

Rest in peace, Frank Gorshin.


PS -
You have a chance to see Frank Gorshin in one of his last performances tomorrow (Thursday 5/19/05) in the two-hour season finale for 'C.S.I.' on CBS. This is the episode that's been highly touted for a story by Quentin Tarantino who is also directing the show.

Gorshin and Tony Curtis both have cameo appearances, probably playing themselves.

I know it'll get high ratings anyway, but I'd like to think Gorshin was a major factor in that as well.

"Adios, Amigos! See you in... Court!"
- The Riddler

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