Mark Hamill speaks with MeTV, Part Two
Going on to more sci-fi stuff, like Batman: do you have a favorite episode or a favorite Batman villain? Perhaps Caesar Romero?
I must have been 12 when Batman came on, and I realized very early on that it’s a comedy. It’s not meant to be serious. But I was borderline; I took it seriously but my older brothers and sisters would be laughing at it, and I’d be like, “Shut up, you guys!” And then I kind of realized, okay, they’re clearly sending it up.
I would say my favorite villain, though, comes from the very first episode—The Riddler. I’d never seen Frank Gorshin before, and that laugh of his! I just thought he was tremendous. I mean, Burgess Meredith is brilliant as The Penguin, but if you really pushed me to make a single choice, I’d have to say Frank Gorshin as The Riddler, and probably that very first episode with Jill St. John disguising herself as Robin. I loved that, because when she takes the mask off, she’s got the curvaceous female body, and then when she gets into the disguise it’s obviously played by Burt Ward with her dubbing the voice.
I have comic book fans who just can’t stand that Batman; they like it all dark and so forth. But I say, to be fair, when you look at the comic books of the time, it’s quite accurate in depicting the silliness of the comics. So I think it’s perfectly legitimate in its own way, and now they have various Batmans to choose from; they’ve got Adam West or Christian Bale, Michael Keaton or Val Kilmer. George Clooney! Choose your Batman. And now it’s going to be Ben Affleck.
The Joker laugh that you do, it seems to be based more on Frank Gorshin’s than Caesar. Did that have any influence on you?
Probably, not overtly, though. When I started doing the animated Batman, I had just gotten off a year of Broadway doing Amadeus. And one of the characteristics of Mozart is that he writes this heavenly music, but he has this donkey bray-like laugh! And that shocks Solieri because he can’t figure out how such beautiful music can come from someone so uncouth. So during the week of doing the show, you can’t change the dialogue, but you can tweak the laugh a little bit. I was playing around with that laugh all the time. I was like, I think I’ll do an Oliver Hardy laugh; I think I’ll do a Peter Lorre laugh, I’ll do Renfield (the lunatic from Dracula). So after doing Batman for a bit, I finally asked them what it was that got me the part, and they told me it was the laugh! I try not to do it in any one specific way. I like it to be like a musical instrument, where it reflects his mood. It can be dark and menacing, or it can be high pitched and giggling and over the top.
And one of my favorite things that’s surprised and delighted me has been watching Svengoolie and hearing him use my Joker laugh as sound bites. That’s how I got in touch with Rich: I sent him an email with the subject line “My vocal cameo”! I think I took him by surprise because he thought I was going to ask for royalties! And I believe he used it again last week when he showed The Invisible Man.
Rich Koz: I think it was in there, Mark!
And then also the line, “Yes, well this is all tremendously boring”! He likes to throw that in when he starts getting into the minutia, which I find fascinating, but after about seven or eight facts, he likes to use that audio drop. One thing that really thrilled me is when he showed the Adam West Batman movie, he used my laugh instead of Caesar Romero’s laugh, so I was very proud of that. Actually I got to meet Caesar—we were at some event, I can’t remember what it was, but at the table next to us was just the golden age of Hollywood. You know, Donald O’Connor, Caesar Romero, Dorothy Lamour; it was amazing. And I know I mentioned that I don’t like to bother people, but I did go up to Caesar Romero and introduce myself and he had no idea who I was!
But I love his Joker; he has great energy. The only thing that bothers me is that he didn’t feel committed enough to shave his mustache! Come on, guy, it’ll grow back!
A lot of comedians point out how great Sgt. Bilko was, and how influential a show it is. Do you have any thoughts on that?
First of all, I think it’s the meeting of two comedic geniuses, Phil Silvers and Nat Hiken. You read about the genesis of the show, and that they were trying to figure out a way to best use Phil Silvers’ con man, fast-talking shyster character. And when they came upon the idea of putting him in the Army, and having him running his own private little fiefdom, it was perfect. Because it was post World War II, there weren’t any major confrontations going on in the world. Nat Hiken had an ability to write farce.
One of the things I love about the show so much is that it was done in New York, and so the supporting cast and some of the guest stars are some of the best character actors in the New York theater, on and off Broadway. And that was carried over, you see a lot of the same actors repeat in Car 54. Not only Fred Gwynne, who did several guest appearances on Bilko, but Joe E. Ross, who played Sgt. Ritzik on Bilko, and Toody on Car 54. And the actor who played his wife, Lucille, on Car 54, Beatrice Pons, she was from the Yiddish Theater in New York, and she’s just a comic dynamo. When she goes to the window and screams, “I’m married to a nut! I’m married to a nut!” Just incredible! And Alice Ghostley and Al Lewis.
And in some ways I am blurring Bilko and Car 54, but they’re both these gang comedies; one set in the Army, one set in the police force. But they both have this great contrast of rigid, orderly behavior with this out of control, chaotic comedic behavior, and nobody did it better than Nat Hiken.
There’s that episode of Sgt. Bilko called The Court Martial, where they’re trying to streamline inductions into the Army and they accidentally induct a chimpanzee! It’s one of the greatest half hours of comedy I’ve ever seen. When people come over and they haven’t seen Sgt. Bilko, that’s the one I’ll put on. And if you watch that and don’t laugh, well, we have nothing further to discuss!
In the courtroom scene, the monkey gets up out of the chair, goes upstage and picks up a phone receiver, and without missing a beat, God bless Phil Silvers for having that vaudeville and stage experience, and says (Here Mark does a spot-on Phil Silvers impression), “Just hold it a minute. He’s consulting another lawyer!” You see the other actors, all these great dramatic actors, Paul Ford, Barnard Hughes, just these people who were rocks of dramatic live television like Playhouse 90 and Alcoa Theater—and that’s what’s so important in farce; these dramatic actors playing the truth that’s written into these characters—but you see all these guys strain not to break! They put their hands to their mouths, and it’s just astonishing to see how quickly Phil Silvers comes up with that ad lib.
Another one of my favorite episodes is A Mess Sergeant Just Can’t Win, and I think you guys aired that last Saturday night. It’s where Bilko feels bad that he’s taken advantage of Ritzik to such a degree that Ritzik is broke, and he’s gonna leave the Army to get away from Bilko. So Bilko endeavors to make a bet with Ritzik that Ritzik can’t lose, but he keeps winning. Ritzik is born in Cincinnati, but Bilko bets him that he was born in Singapore! And like any great farce, it just keeps on escalating and piling on quickly.
Mark, it’s been so great to talk with you, and we really appreciate you taking the time. Is there anything you’re working on now that you can tell our readers about?
Well, you know, there’s a couple of things that I am working on, but in this day and age, it’s all non-disclosure! It’s bad timing, because I can’t really talk about it at this point in time. My main reason for talking with you guys is selfish, really. Because I’m not being disingenuous when I say that without question, you’re my favorite network on television. Just for the fact that you run so many of the shows I love, but also so many shows that I’ve never seen: The Rifleman. Incredible writing, I love that show! I love the anthology shows like Route 66, Wagon Train and The Fugitive, where the cast changes from week to week.
I love the film noir theme that you do, it’s just wonderful. And there are the shows that capture a much more innocent time in our history, like The Donna Reed Show, Make Room For Daddy, Leave It To Beaver, just unbelievably timeless, and perfect family friendly television. The shows you just can’t get anywhere else. Only on Me-TV!