When my wife and I moved to Los Angeles in 1983, and began to attend events around town, we had to pinch ourselves to realize that we were chatting with people whose work we’d admired for most of our lives. Two of them left our midst in December, and I haven’t had a chance to write about them until now.
Hal Kanter, who lived to be 92, was one of the deans of comedy writers in Hollywood, a man with a résumé as long as it was diverse. He devised scripts for Crosby and Hope and Martin and Lewis. He helped write Bing Crosby’s radio show, created and produced TV series for George Gobel and Diahann Carroll (the ground-breaking Julia). He directed a handful of feature films including Elvis Presley’s Loving You, collaborated with Tennessee Williams on the screenplay of The Rose Tattoo, and was a fixture on the writing staff of the Academy Awards show for more than thirty years, from its heyday with Bob Hope as m.c. through recent years and a variety of hosts.
Those are facts that you can read almost anywhere. But if you lived in L.A. you came to know Hal Kanter as a naturally witty man who often served as a guest speaker at luncheons and dinners, invariably earning big laughs. At one function I attended, he thanked the master of ceremonies “for the apparent sincerity of that introduction.”
When members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began receiving videocassettes of nominated films, it meant they no longer had
to go out to special screenings. One night Hal said he and his wife watched a movie so bad they walked out of their own house!
I never, ever saw Hal fail to connect with his audience. He was consistently funny and up-to-the-minute. On a more personal note, he was very kind to me and generous with his time, whenever I had a question or wanted to interview him at length, as I did on numerous occasions. He paid me the highest compliment when he appeared on the dais for a tribute to me given by the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters in 2007. At the end of a highly flattering speech he said, “I could talk for another half-hour or so about Leonard but that’s what he’s gonna do and it’s time for my afternoon nap. So Leonard, wake me when you get up here, would you?”
I’m sure I’m not the only one who will miss his familiar presence at Hollywood events—and his unfailing ability to generate laughter.
At that same PPB event I got to say hello to another gentleman I always enjoyed seeing, though I only knew him on a casual basis: Robert Easton, who died just before Christmas at the age of 81. If you grew up in the 1950s and 60s he was seemingly omnipresent, playing mostly hillbillies and hicks in a staggering number of movies (from The Red Badge of Courage to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country) and TV shows (The Adventures of Superman, The Jack Benny Program, Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, The Beverly Hillbillies, Rawhide, The Andy Griffith Show, Lost in Space, Get Smart, etc.) One of his greatest moments occurs in The High and the Mighty, in which he plays a flight clerk who says to sober-faced pilot Robert Stack, “I said it to Orville, I said it to Wilbur: that thing’ll never get off the ground.”
Every time I ran into him we would chat for a few minutes. One time I remarked that I’d just seen him in O. Henry’s Full House, with Fred Allen and Oscar Levant, playing one of his trademark hayseeds. He smiled and told me, with great pride, that some years earlier he’d gotten to work on Fred Allen’s radio show.
Easton established a formidable second career for himself as a dialect coach who worked with hundreds of actors over the years. A serious student of speech, culture, and vernacular, he built an enormous library of books that filled his home to overflowing. His students ranged from Charlton Heston to John Travolta, from coaching Forest Whitaker to sound like Idi Amin to helping Robert Duvall capture the cadences of Robert E. Lee. Duvall told the Los Angeles Times that other cast members sought him out, as well. “They said, ‘We want Virginia accents.’ Bob said, ‘Which one? There are 12 distinct accents, from the Piedmont to the ocean.’ He knew them all. He was a wonderful man, a very unique personality, and a master of his craft.”
Standing 6 feet 4 inches tall, he was immediately recognizable as a young man on screen, but over the past few decades his waistline spread and he let his hair and beard grow as well. He looked quite different from the young hick he played so often, but he was still distinctive. I remember him most, in this mode, as the big boss who figures in the climax of Working Girl with Melanie Griffith. But he continued working to the end of his life, coaching performers, providing voices for video games, and appearing on camera as well.
He is another longtime presence in Hollywood that I will miss. I realize that time moves on and we all have to make adjustments, but going to industry events will seem just a bit duller without people like Hal Kanter and Robert Easton, who spent their entire lives in show business, to brighten them up.