Harvey Orkin was a writer for the Emmy Award winning Sergeant Bilko show, the sitcom of choice in the 1950’s. (If one described it as the MASH of its day, which one considered doing, even that reference would now be greeted with bewilderment by the younger generation who, at least in the area of entertainment, reign supreme among the peoples of the world.) Later, he became an agent for Creative Management Associates (CMA) which evolved into the monolithic ICM. During that period, we moved to London where David Frost and other rising stars of satire such as Peter Cook and Dudley Moore started a Saturday night talk show called Not So Much a Program; More a Way of Life. With its sketches and wry commentary, it functioned as the Jon Stewart of its day. When commentator Bert Shevalov was unavailable, (with MASH’s Larry Gelbart, he had written for Bob Hope, Red Buttons and that God of comedy, Sid Caesar, also working with Steve Sondheim on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,) he recommended Harvey as his replacement. The rest is a footnote to a blip of TV history.
Not So Much a Program was yanked off the air when theater critic Kenneth Tynan said, “Fuck,” only to reappear several weeks later under a new name: BBC 3. (At that time, the Beeb had only two actual stations.) A set change, new theme song and a few other bits of window dressing completed the disguise. And now, at last, I get to clarify that in recounting this incident in Harvey’s online bio, I did not use the phrase, “The F- word,” this demure locution having been provided by some God-and-internet-censor-fearing webmaster at IMDB.
Harvey was born January 12, 1918, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. What little I heard about his father is that he had started out as a street vendor of pins and needles, a job he performed successfully enough to open his own shop which grew into a department store on 34th Street. He married Rose Raphael, a buyer at the store, who used to describe watching from her office window as the Empire State building went up. She’d come a long way, this girl from Sioux City, Iowa, where photographs of her childhood home showed her neighbors’ tepees in the background.
Jacob was a juvenile diabetic who had had a leg amputated. In what was surely the watershed experience of Harvey’s life, before Jacob was to lose an arm as well, he hanged himself in the basement of the house, where he was found by his 21-year-old daughter, Theresa. Harvey was sixteen. (I was once told by a journalist at an ultra-right-wing publication, who was looking for dirt on me to publish in an exposee on 9/11 activists, that Jacob had not only lost a fortune in the Depression; he and Rose had also racked up enormous debts.)
Harvey’s uncle Charlie came to Harvey’s school saying, “I’m sorry to tell you that your father has died.”
Harvey replied, “He killed himself, didn’t he?”
Charlie, a charming scoundrel who made a living cheating unwitting marks at poker on ocean liners, then took Harvey under his wing. (Please note that this sequence of events is pieced together from family lore, a notoriously unreliable source, at least in our family, but all we have to go on.) Perhaps this sowed the seeds of Harvey’s life-long gambling habit as well as of his friendships with guys who skirted the law. (People used to refer to Harvey and another social charmer, Columbia Pictures President David Begelman, as “the Corsican brothers.” Begelman met his undoing, – after Harvey’s death – forging Cliff Robertson’s name on a check, and would also succumb to suicide.) More obviously, it provided the source for Scuffler, Harvey’s picaresque comic novel published, with exquisitely torturous timing, as his inoperable brain tumor rendered him unable to reap any pleasure from the occasion. (To write a comic novel, without regard for the commercial exigencies of the studio, had been his lifelong dream.)
Most deeply, I believe it was his father’s suicide, followed by Charlie’s influence, that determined Harvey’s career as a comedy writer, theatrical agent and TV personality. For he was almost compulsively funny, as though to slow down and be real was to court the void.
People who live with professional comics will tell you how exhausting that can be. The comic is always trying out material on you. What’s more, he may consider ordinary conversation a form of failure.
Never once did I hear my father ask someone, “How are you?” It always had to be, “Top o’ the mornin’ to ya,” in an Irish brogue or he’d do some shtick which would reveal the persona he’d donned for the moment to be a pompous fool.
In his twenties, he entered the army, serving as an administrator of a hospital in one of the Dakotas. This surely provided material for the Sergeant Bilko show. I thought I recognized his imprint in the scene where Bilko announces self-importantly, “I’ll follow with two feet on the ground.” A private calls, “Hey, ‘Two Feet on the Ground!'” “What?” “Your shoes.” Cut to a shot of Bilko’s toes wiggling inside his stockinged feet. Harvey had a recurrent dream of going to a party decked out in a black tie and tux, but barefoot.
When he was thirty-four, he married Gisella Svetlik, who had left school at fourteen to dance on Broadway. Cole Porter told her, “You sing well, for a dancer,” before casting her as Venus in Out of This World. They had two kids, me and my brother Anthony.
It was a marriage not without conflict as described in this memoir of my mother’s last years, which suggests that Gisella’s Alzheimer’s or dementia may have sprung from her need, decades earlier, not to see Harvey’s numerous “indiscretions” and to forget those she’d been compelled to confront (one of which had resulted in a third bundle of joy in Harvey’s life, if not hers.)
In May, 1974, Harvey was diagnosed, as mentioned above, with an inoperable brain tumor. His doctors asked my mother whether or not to tell him and she said No. My brother was too young to be trusted with such a secret so for a while, only she, his sister’s family and I knew the whole truth.
When he came home from the hospital, Harvey said exultantly, “I don’t have to have an operation!”
“That’s wonderful, darling,” my mother replied wanly.
“You don’t understand – I thought I was going to have to have brain surgery!”
“Good, darling,” said my mother.
Harvey didn’t say anything, perhaps realizing the true nature of the situation from her weak response.
Periodically in the months that followed, he would say, “I wonder what’s wrong with me,” and my mother would repeat a mantra about high blood pressure and cholesterol.
At some point, on one of his hospital stays, the surgeon who had opted not to operate stopped by his room and told him to get his affairs in order.
He did, but his fate was never mentioned between us and in a letter to CMA agent Boaty Boatwright Baker, he asks her not to mention his illness to me because I didn’t know anything about it.
Although my mother and I discussed chucking my plans to go to Oxford, we decided to maintain the status quo so as not to give Harvey a sense of imminent death. For the same reason, my mother, who’d finally gotten a GED, also stayed the course at her own college, Hunter.
However, it’s clear from his letters written after his diagnosis in May, 1974, that at some point Harvey had become fully aware of what was happening, although his references to it are circumspect and limited. An uncharacteristic somberness creeps in as he recognizes that each letter may be his last to that correspondent. He closes with more fulsome expressions of love and even phrases like, “God bless you,” although the only time he’d ever mentioned religion before, as John Cleese quoted in a profile in the New Yorker, had been to point out what a lousy subject it made for comedy. (The Life of Brian would soon put the lie to that, however.)
Later in the correspondence, there’s also increasing awkwardness with phraseology as his speech grew more halting and incomprehensible, finally ceasing altogether.