CrankyCritic ® is a Registered Trademark of and this article is Copyright © 1999 Chuck Schwartz, CrankyCritic.com. All Rights Reserved. Permission granted.
Cranky Critic® Startalk
In Being John Malkovich, Orson Bean plays Dr. Lester, a 105-year old man who knows the secret of how to get into another person's body, in this case, actor John Malkovich. At a Century Plus, certain thing don't quite work anymore, so Lester can only pine for his severly hearing impaired secretary Floris (Mary Kay Place). Floris isn't deaf, mind you, she just doesn't hear straight. That disability puts an entirely different twist on the notion of sexual harassment, but you'll have to see the flick for that, 'cuz in this First Part, we were busy reacquainting ourselves with two great friends from our faces plastered-to- the-television younger days, beginning with Mr. Bean...
CrankyCritic: We've got to say what a pleasure it was to see your face on the big screen again
Orson Bean: People come up to me and say "are you still alive?!"
CrankyCritic: Yeah, we'll admit. We thought you were dead . . .
Orson Bean: [laughing] First of all, I hid successfully for six years on a program called "Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman." It was a big hit in Texas and Minneapolis, but people on the coasts didn't even know it was on. They picked me for this film because they read every old guy in the business and couldn't cast this part. I happened to be on a late night talk show with Tom Snyder and one of the producers said "get him in.” As I'm concerned, God cast me in this part. Fate cast me in this part. I know that if I had come in earlier and had been one of those two hundred guys who read, they would have said "he isn't any good either." But when the producers had given up, suddenly it was like 2:30 in the morning at the White Rose Bar and the dame at the next stool looks pretty good. [big grin on his face]
CrankyCritic: Care to get retrospective and tell us what people remember?Orson Bean: Well, if they're old enough, they remember me from the game shows and the talk shows. I was a Broadway actor for twenty years, but most people in America didn't know that. They saw me on "Match Game;" I was on "To Tell The Truth" for seven years. It was fun. It was better than heavy lifting, to get paid for playing a game! In those days, the talk shows and the game shows were pretty witty and clever. Today it's a bunch of scripted, smutty jokes. I like dirty jokes the same as the next man, but these are not dirty. They're smutty and there's a difference.
CrankyCritic: How so?
Orson Bean: In those days you had to "get around" things. I used to watch "Hollywood Squares" – I could never be on "Hollywood Squares" because I worked for Goodson-Todman, the competition – and center square Paul Lynde was asked the question was "What is a pullet?" He said "A little show of affection." Now that's funny. It's clever and it's weird. [and we'll point out Bean does a dead on Lynde imitation; that a pullet is a chicken and that Lynde, a regular on "Bewitched," was notorious for answering every question with double entendre – cs]
CrankyCritic: We can joke about not being seen on the coasts, but you did get whacked by the infamous Hollywood Black List, too.
Orson Bean: I was never bitter. I was horny for a Communist girl and she dragged me to some meetings and that's why I got blacklisted. Everybody in those days wanted to end the black list. I ran on a slate of AFTRA and was elected first VP of the New York Local. For my pains, they dug up this stuff about me and, I went from being the hot comic on the Ed Sullivan Show to not working for a year. However, I got a Broadway show. At the end of that year Ed Sullivan called me up, as he promised he would, and said "I think things have softened up enough that I can book you again" and he did. That kind of broke it.
CrankyCritic: Is there any kind of satisfaction seeing, in the last couple of years, McCarthy and Cohn being totally exposed for what they were?
Orson Bean: It's always scary in a Democracy to see that stuff. I think Pat Buchanan is truly frightening. The man is a fascist and an anti-Semite. If he's willing to say as much in public as he says, imagine what he says in a room full of his friends whom he trusts. I really admire John McCain for saying that [Buchanan] shouldn't be in the Republican party while George W. is saying "well, we need all the votes we can get..." You've got to watch out for stuff like that. It's an easy target. I made a movie with old Joe Welch, who was the wonderful lawyer who said "at long last Senator McCarthy, have you no sense of decency?" Otto Preminger had the brilliant idea of casting him as the judge in Anatomy of a Murder. I had a part in that. At night we would sit in a bar up in Michigan. Welch told us that he was brought in to represent the Army by Tom Dewey, who was the head of the Republican party, who said "This son of a bitch McCarthy is crazy and he's going to drag the party down with him." So it's interesting to see that when things go far enough there are moderates, even moderate conservatives like McCain, who start seeing how dangerous Buchanan is. I trust America. I've lived long enough to see the pendulum swing back and forth, to see that Democracy really wins out in the end. I read an interesting thing the other day. There has never been a famine in a democracy, including India. Some people get hungry but not real Famine. Famines are only caused by extreme governments.
Orson Bean and Mary Kay Place, in Being John Malkovich
Part 2: In which we turn our sights on Mary Kay Place, who first burst out as the country western singer Loretta on "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." Place had already made a mark as a writer for teevee's "M*A*S*H," cut three record albums as Loretta and, in addition to a continuing acting career, has directed episodes of HBO's "Dream On," "Arli$$," and NBC's "Friends."
Bean, by the way, has a theater near his home in Venice, California and trods the boards with wife, Ally Mills (of "The Wonder Years") and, yes, we'll finally get around to talking about Being John Malkovich...
CrankyCritic: As long as we're getting nostalgic. Mary Kay, your turn. Do you still get remembered for "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman?"
Mary Kay Place: Oh, yes.
CrankyCritic: Do you still sing?
Mary Kay Place: In my bathtub constantly.
CrankyCritic: OK then, let's talk movies. Buried deep beneath all the fun stuff in Being John Malkovich is a story about the ability to live forever. Would you want to?
Mary Kay Place: No. I don't know. Reincarnation sounds interesting, but then you don't have a memory, apparently. If you could take the life lessons that you've learned and apply them at an earlier age, when you have that kind of energy...
CrankyCritic: Would you rather make the short term jump into someone else's body?
Mary Kay Place: Yeah! Who wouldn't want to do it? If I were going into the body of a heroin addict, that would be an unpleasant situation – maybe not during the rush – but as long as you knew you could come back out, who wouldn't? What an adventure! The idea of walking in another person's moccasins, so to speak, just to see what it feels like to come from a totally different place would be food for all of us. We might have more compassion for each other. I think as human beings we need to look at each other without judgment. You have no idea what it would be like to come from that situation.
CrankyCritic: Malkovich likened it to acting, "jumping" into another character.
Mary Kay Place: When you're playing characters and they seem unsympathetic on the page, you can't play that. You have to care for these people when you embody them. If you're judging them, they're not fully human when you play them. Something is missing and it doesn't ring true. Not to get too hideous here, but it is part of our culture. This whole idea of celebrity and people feeling alienated. It's us segmenting off into these little groups and not respecting each other.
Orson Bean: Celebrity is very seductive and very tricky. The stuff of the limo coming for you and the flashbulbs going off and riding in first class. We went to this big party last night, which was a freeloaders convention. Everybody is eating the food and they're looking at you and pointing and, for us, we have to remember that it's all bull. You just have to enjoy it. It doesn't mean anything. It made me nervous last night. I wanted my own autograph [laughs]
CrankyCritic: Mary, you're directing now. Was that born from not getting interesting acting offers or was it always intended?
Mary Kay Place: It's been the intention since I first started writing. It's fascinating. I like the rhythm of it and, obviously, I have a long ways to go but it's really fun. And I also love acting so, directing is really challenging to me.