He was that hysterical comedian from The Carol Burnett Show and Mel Brooks movies; an amazing second banana who had a great flair for broad, comic characterizations. Harvey Korman was a very, funny actor and he had four Emmy awards to prove it.
The night I saw him in 1976 he was touring with the Broadway play Norman, Is That You? The show debuted on the New Your stage in 1970 but was not a hit – possibly due to the subject matter being a little too uncomfortable for the times: a Jewish father discovers that his son is gay and goes about trying to change him.
The playwrights got to work on fixing the show, made it more contemporary and a few years later it became a hit on the Los Angeles stage. Soon after, it was a movie starring Red Foxx, Pearl Bailey and Michael Warren, a former UCLA basketball star, as Norman.
But when the multi-talented Mr. Korman got his hands on the ‘Norman vehicle that night more than 40 years ago, he made a meal of it. His performance seemed to be impromptu, as he raced around the stage at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts seemingly making up laugh lines as he played off the supporting characters.
Early in the show, Korman is alone on stage and facing a sold out crowd. The theater was dark and the spotlight shone on the Korman character as he tries to wrestle with the knowledge that his son is gay; a soliloquy that the comic maestro played for great laughs.
KORMAN IN DEEP THOUGHT: “They say one of every six men has had a homosexual experience.” Then he ponders some more. “Maybe the name is a giveaway.”
At that point Harvey Korman turns to the audience says “Let me try something.” Suddenly the lanky actor is off stage, the spotlight staying with him as he roams thru the crowd conducting extemporaneous interviews with men in the audience.
“What’s your name, sir?” The answer comes back as ‘Frank.’ And Korman remarks, “ No doubt there.”
The next Korman interviewee answers as Melvin, and the audience goes into an uproar. Even the star breaks up when he hears the name. And so on for the next ten minutes as the fabled comedian continues a terrific comedic routine. Scripted or not, Mr. Korman pulled it off to perfection; and the audience ate it up.
Harvey Korman turned in some memorable performances during a 42-year career that started on TV with The Danny Kaye Show. Later, his stellar TV work on the Burnett show earned him big parts in the Brooks’ hit films from the 1970’s, Blazing Saddles and High Anxiety.
In the western spoof made in 1974, Korman plays the attorney general of a western state during the building of the transcontinental railroad. Korman’s name in the movie is Hedley Lamarr. In case you’ve forgotten, Hedy Lamarr—not Hedley—was an Austrian-born beauty who usually played the temptress in films. She had been out of the limelight for a number of years when Blazing Saddles was released.
No one in the movie can get Hedley Lamarr’s name right. They are always calling him “Hedy,” Every scene with Korman ends up with someone addressing him as “Hedy,” and Korman correcting them.
Early in the movie the governor character played by Mel Brooks makes the same mistake. And, the Korman character once again tells him that his name is “Hedley. Hedley Lamarr.”
The Brooks character had a ready answer: “What are you worried about? It’s 1870. You can sue her.”
Well, Hedy Lamar – the real one – took the governor’s advice. She sued Brooks after the film came out. They settled out of court and Brooks paid a sum of what was believed to be several thousand dollars.
Chalk it up to life imitating art imitating life.