Sunday, January 30, 2011

R.I.P. David Frye, Impressionist for Turbulent Times, and Charlie Callas, All-Around Funny Guy

Definitely too bad to hear about the passing last Monday of 77 year-old impressionist David Frye, 1934 - 2011. Frye plyed his trade smack in the middle of one the most notorious political eras in U.S. history, and fortunately for an impressionist, the world gave him Richard Nixon to work with. His dead-on and satirically-tinged portrayals in the voice and style of Nixon were both funny and frightening, capturing the absurdity as well as the amorality of the then-President's behavior.

Far from a one-note wonder, Frye also turned his talented observational powers and gift for precise mimicry, along with a keen sense of humor -- he once remarked that Gerald Ford looked " the guy in a science fiction movie who is the first one to see The Creature" -- on other political figures of the day and history, as well as the usual gamut of Hollywood stars.

Not very long ago David Frye set up a YouTube channel where he posted a wonderful selection of his own appearances. It's sad to consider that he is gone now but let's hope that someone maintains his site and keeps his talented memory going strong.

Frye was a mainstay on television during his heyday, making frequent appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, with the Smothers Brothers on their savvy variety hour, Ed Sullivan on his decidedly more mainstream iconic weekly hour, and many others. Unlike another talented impressionist of the day Frank Gorshin, Frye never migrated his talent for mimicry into acting as himself, instead building up a longtime career as a stage performer and nightclub headliner but naturally finding his fortunes wax and wane as the contemporary political scene changed and TV variety faded out.

The torchbearers for Frye's brand of mimicry today would be the cast of Saturday Night Live. Over the years they've skewered current political figures to much merriment and often with the help of skilled make-up (except for Tina Fey's generally unadorned Sarah Palin), but Frye was up there alone, with nothing but his plastic face and savage wit, to take on the big guys.

Show biz lost another comic last week, too. Charlie Callas, (left), memorable for his self-created panoply of crazy sounds and also for his set of classic impressions, died Thursday in Las Vegas at the age of 83. One of those "comedians' comedians" -- one of a select group of laughsters who were able to consistently able to crack up fellow comics -- Callas was a frequent guest at celebrity roasts and on three decades of variety shows from the 1960s onward. He was an antic performer, emphasizing idiosyncracies and adopting comedic twitches, as he created a unique performance style that was in great demand.

Callas branched out into more-or-less straight acting roles on many TV series during the 1960s, and especially during his three year stint on producer Glen Larson's lighthearted TV detective series Switch co-starring Eddie Albert, Robert Wagner and Sharon Gless. Callas' character of Argo was kind of an Artemus Gordon man-of-many-faces ex-con man, and the show gave the multi-talented comedian a chance to shine in a more conventional venue.

What's most poignant about the passing of Charlie Callas and David Frye is that it continues the gradual ending of an era, as older comedians, born into a different show business tradition, raised before our eyes on TV and in nightclubs, reach the end of their lives. We may not even necessarily find their comic styles "funny" anymore -- there's little detached irony but instead plenty of possibly quaint and exaggerated physical transformations in their comic creations -- but these were the guys who inspired the current crop of middle-aged comedians and possibly even some of the younger ones out there. They were the Old Masters of Comedy, and we salute them.

(For more information on the subject, definitely check out the embedded links above to learn more about Frye and Callas, and also seek out more video of their performances on YouTube and elsewhere.)


Suzi said...

I did not know that Frye passed on in addition to Callas. I remember him well. I hate to sound like an old fogie but I miss the variety shows of the '60s and '70s and the talk shows like Carson and Griffin, where you could see comedians like this ply their trade.

Jane said...

An instant blast back to my 70's past. I wasn't as familiar with Callas, but David Frye was a huge television presence when I was growing up. Frankly, when I remember Nixon, I think first of Frye's impression and then of Nixon himself saying "Sock it to Me?" on Laugh-In. Frye was such a talent, may he rest in peace.