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Orson’s Evolution: From Anatomy to Orgones to Oreos

Ed Rampell: During his almost 90-minute one-man show, the 87-year-old Orson Bean discusses part of his career trajectory, from magician to stand-up comic to Broadway to the little and big screens.

SAFE AT HOME: AN EVENING WITH ORSON BEAN Theatre Review

orson bean

A Stage/Screen Living Legend’s One-Man Show

When I was a boy I was strolling on a cobblestoned hill in Paris with my family when my eagle-eyed father spotted a mountain with a beard heading in our direction. Dad exclaimed: “You’re Orson Welles!!!!” and the great actor/director nonchalantly replied, “I know.” My father said, “Let me shake the hand of the man who made Citizen Kane.”

Dad, my mother and older sister proceeded to shake Welles’ hand. But your humble scribe declined to shake hands with the auteur who’d made 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons, 1958’s Touch of Evil, 1965’s Chimes at Midnight, etc. The filmmaker couldn’t care less and went on his merry way. But my father asked me why I didn’t shake his hand, and this future film historian who’d grow up to write/co-write four movie history books and become a stage and screen critic candidly - if ignorantly - replied:

“I didn’t know if it was Orson Welles or Orson Bean.”

Such was the ubiquitous presence of the latter in the 1960s, which actually dates back to the 1950s and the Golden Age of Television. While when we had bumped into Welles I had probably only seen him on the big screen in 1967’s Casino Royale, I had already watched Bean on TV in countless game and chat shows, such as I’ve Got a Secret, What’s My Line, To Tell the Truth, plus more than 100 appearances as himself and/or guest host on The Tonight Show - with both Jack Paar and Johnny Carson! Indeed, the week Safe At Home: An Evening With Orson Bean opened at the Pacific Resident Theatre, I coincidentally caught Orson’s appearance on a 1967 edition of The Merv Griffin Show featuring Harry Belafonte and Dr. Martin Luther King, which was rerun on MLK Day on the getTV network.

During his almost 90-minute one-man show (without intermission), the 87-year-old (about one minute per every year!) Bean discusses part of his career trajectory, from magician to stand-up comic to Broadway to the little and big screens. He is a Tony-nominated, Obie-award winning theater actor who premiered on the boards in 1955's Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? with co-stars Jayne Mansfield and Walter Matthau. Although primarily known for his TV work, Bean’s first motion picture role was in Otto Preminger’s star-studded 1959 Anatomy of a Murder, opposite James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara and George C. Scott. Bean’s performance in the 1999 movie Being John Malkovich earned him a SAG nom. And yes, the man who was born Dallas Frederick Burroughs at Burlington, Vermont in 1928 admits to stealing Welles’ first name for his stage name.

Although Bean does go into some details about his rather impressive, extensive show biz credentials, Safe At Home - which is based on his autobiography of that name - focuses on Bean’s personal life. At one point, the actor/writer literally tells the audience that he is skipping over 30 years of his lengthy life laden with illustrious accomplishments on stage and screen.

In an interview Bean explained that he did this because “I didn’t want the show to be a show biz memoir. I really wanted the show to be about gratitude, so I wanted it to be all about the ways I’ve fucked up in my life and learned from them, hopefully, and grown. And all of the odd circumstances that happened to me that made me realize that there’s more to life than just winning a Tony or something. So that’s why I decided to leave that stuff out.”

Orson Bean

Be that as it may, this reviewer considers this to be a missed opportunity. First of all, while Bean was a household name during my childhood, I doubt many young people today know much - if anything - about him and his career. Secondly, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Jayne Mansfield, Jack Paar (Safe At Home director Guillermo Cienfuegos told me Bean was actually on the famous show when the quirky talk show host walked off the set and later got into hot water with the network for sticking up for Paar), Otto Preminger (hey, this renowned director was just depicted in 2015’s Trumbo), Spike Jonze, Cameron Diaz, his Desperate Housewives co-stars - not to mention Dr. King!!! - and so on, could enhance and spice up this candid one-man show. After all, we live in a celebrity-obsessed culture wherein - as I was discussing with Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe and Pope John Paul just the other day - name dropping is a national sport.

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Okay, so what would you expect from a TV/film historian? Of course, firsthand accounts of Bean’s onscreen and onstage adventures and of the luminaries he’s known and worked with would interest a reviewer - as well as, one suspects, many potential audience members. Instead, along with one-liners dating back to his stand-up days and magic tricks, Bean regales us with tales of his unhappy childhood and Oedipal angst. At the reception after the opening Cienfuegos (an Ovation Award and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Director) told me that in this iteration of Safe At Home (which was first staged at Pacific resident Theatre late last year), for the first time, Orson opens up and tells the story of his mother's traumatizing, dramatic death when he was only 16, and how it affected this all-too human Bean.

Okay, some may think it admirable that Bean avoids the temptation of dwelling on the glitzier aspects of his show business exploits in order to hone in on and reveal his private life instead. But in this re-telling of his personal saga Bean also omits two of the more interesting aspects of his quite incredible life, including that he underwent “three years of Reichian Orgone therapy, with Wilhelm Reich’s second in command, [Elsworth] Baker.”

Reich was a psychoanalyst and member of the German Communist Party who was notable for his effort to synthesize the world views of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, with a heavy emphasis on sexual liberation. With Hitler’s rise to power Reich fled the Nazis’ thousand-year reich and wrote The Discovery of Orgone, Volume 1: The Function of the Orgasm, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Listen, Little Man! and others.

“Reich was the granddaddy of all of those touchy-feely therapies that come along in the 1960s, like Primal Scream, bioenergetics and Rolfing. I was actually Rolfed by Ida Rolf herself… I had 10 years of classical analysis first… I did rebirthing, I did EST - I was the king of self improvement,” laughed Bean, whose 1972 book, Me and the Orgone, is still in print.

The Orgone is Reich’s theory of the universal life force. Much more could be said about Orgone boxes and Reich, such as on the wild 1971 film WR: Mysteries of the Organism by the avant-garde Yugoslav director Dusan Makavejev. Suffice it to say that this writer’s first lover, Liz, was raised by a Reichian, so he owes a personal debt to good ol’ Wilhelm, who, alas, did not end well, dying behind bars in - where else? - the land of the free in 1957.

Interestingly, that was around the time when Bean ran afoul of the Blacklist. After Bean was elected First Vice President of AFTRA (the actors’ union) on an anti-Blacklisting slate, “Ed Sullivan himself called me up and said ‘the booking on Sunday is out - did you hear about Red Channels [a self-styled anti-Communist directory] attacking you?’ I was never a Communist - I was a little lefty, as you’re supposed to be when you’re in your twenties and thirties. I was horny for a Communist girl, she dragged me to some meetings. That’s what they used against me. Overnight, I went from being CBS television’s fair-haired boy to not working on the tube… I saw actors cross the street when they saw me coming so they wouldn’t be seen talking with me. It was an odd experience.”

Unlike his brethren living on the West Coast, Bean was able to fall back on acting in the Broadway theatre, which was less affected by the Blacklist than movies, TV and radio were. “After a year Ed Sullivan called me up and said, ‘I think the pressure is off and I can book you again.’ True to his word, he said he’d try to help me and he did.”

And here’s another fascinating gem that goes unmentioned in Bean’s one-man show: “I became a great friend of A.S. Neill and founded a school based on [Neill’s progressive] Summerhill school in England and the Fifteenth Street School ran for 17 years... in New York City. It was the only neo-Summerhill school in America A.S. Neill actually put his stamp on. Neill was one of Reich’s closest friends.” Who knew?

Given Bean’s progressive bent and the fact that he was a second cousin once removed to Calvin Coolidge who was president when Orson was born in 1928 at Burlington, Vermont, I asked him about former Burlington mayor and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for president: “I don’t agree with what he says but he’s the only candidate who has real trustworthy character so I would rather have him in the White House than anybody else… He’s an honest, decent man who gets $2,500 for a speech and gives it to charity and he flies coach. He’s the only one I’d trust renting a room to.”

Bean added: “I have nine grandchildren and eight of them live within walking distance of me. If I had known, I would have invested in Oreos - I’d be rich. That’s what I look forward to after the show closes - being grandpa and as a good a husband as possible to my wife,” actress Alley Mills, who is best known for playing Kevin Arnold’s mother on The Wonder Years TV series. (Mill’s onscreen husband in that sitcom, Dan Lauria, also attended Safe’s premier.) Bean explained that after his turbulent childhood, a troubling divorce, et al, Mills provides him with a home where he feels safe - which inspired the title of his memoir and one-man show.

After Safe At Home’s premiere I told Bean about my boyhood encounter with his “namesake” Welles in Paris. And while I might have blown the opportunity to shake Orson Welles’ hand, I at least I got to shake Orson Bean’s.

Safe At Home: An Evening With Orson Bean is being performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m at the Pacific Resident Theatre through March 13 at 703 Venice Blvd., Venice, CA 90201. There is free parking behind the theatre. For more info call (310)822-8392 or see: www.PacificResidentTheatre.com.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell