He made us laugh. He was brilliant.
Richard, we miss your sarcastic wit!

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The book, "Hollywood Gays" by Boze Hadleigh has a really interesting interview with Richard Deacon from the late seventies. Deacon would die about five years later. I reprint the interview below for the true Deacon fan who is curious to know what his personality was like. Before I do, here is an email I received that casts doubt on the interview from somebody who knew Deacon. I'm glad he contacted me.


I just saw your site. What a great thing to do, Richard was a great man and a better friend was not to be found. I do beg to differ with your including the interview portion from some character's book on Hollywood Gays. Richard didn't talk like that, he wouldn't have dished other actors, especially gay actors to a stranger, and it just doesn't ring true. I met Richard in 1982 and was friendly with him through the end of his life. He gave fantastic parties, lived rather well in the house on Dalegrove, and as far as driving an "old" white Cadillac-no. He was friendly with quite a bit of old Hollywood, and was supportive of many young and upcoming entertainers. He took me to see Michael Feinstein at The Toy Tiger in Silverlake, and would have him to parties at the house to play. He deserves better than the dishy writing in that interview, and I would like for you to include a rebuttal to that. I never read the book-was unaware that it existed, frankly-and it seems like a rip-off of Mr. Anger's books on Hollywood, Babylon. The writing isn't even very good. I knew RD, and found it hard to be interested in the pap that character wrote.
Thank you

Hadleigh writes:

Richard Deacon was always the straight man, comedically speaking. He appeared in hundreds of TV shows and films and is best remembered as the dour, bespectacled Mel Cooley of The Dick Van Dyke Show. But let him describe himself:

"I was born in Philadelphia, a good place to begin a career in comedy, don't ask me why. I acted in college and began in Hollywood in the early 1950s. I did  a lot of uncredited appearances, my roles have been small, and nearly everything I've done reflects the physical me. I'm tall, I'm bald, I wear glasses, I'm seen as either dignified or pompous. But I'm not threatening enough to be a villain, so I often get cast as supercilious types. Like on Dick Van Dyke.

  "I've done over 50 movies. The Sold Gold Cadillac with Judy Holliday, Lover; Come Back with Rock Hudson, Touch of Mink with Cary Grant, Hitchcock's The Birds, Critic's Choice with Luicille Ball - I also did her program; I was Tallulah Bankhead's butler in one of them - and Walt Disney things like That Darn Cat, movies with Shirley MacLaine, and so on.

  "Loads of television, to the point where I couldn't count it all. I've done everything from Leave It To Beaver to The Mothers-in-Law, which Desi Arnaz produced. I replaced Roger C. Carmel on that, as Kaye Ballard's husband. Roger wanted more money, Arnaz wouldn't pay it, so I came aboard when Roger left. On Broadway, I was in Hello, Dolly with Phyllis Diller.

  "I'm a great cook, cooking's my hobby and the only thing I'm allowed to brag about. I'm a cookbook author; I also collect rocks, and love art, mostly painting and sculpture. I'm pretty private, but not a hermit. I have a few friends, mostly women. Don't talk about my personal life, even if I'm asked. They never do. Same with Mel on Dick Van Dyke - people guessed his personal life was as dull as he was, so no one inquired. It was stated he had a wife, and that was that."

  Unlike Cooley, Deacon hadn't a wife.

  I met him at Pioneer Chicken one night on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, in the late '70s. I was in town on business, and after a movie stopped off for some drumsticks. I recognized Deacon as soon as he stepped out of his old white Cadillac. An elderly man was also staring at him, probably trying to assign the familiar face a sitcom's name.

  We placed our orders, Deacon, then me, and as we waited, I sidled up to him. He looked glum, and might have been intimidating, if one didn't know that's how he always appeared. I told him how much I'd enjoyed his work, and that a month or so ago I'd seen him (in a fleeting performance) in John Goldfarb, Please Come Home.

  "Did you like it?" he asked with little enthusiasm and no smile as yet.

  "You were good in it." He stared. "It's a funny movie." I paused. "Shirley MacLaine's great in it."

  A semi-smile. "I liked her too." He was that rara avis, a performer who declined praise under false circumstances. Sadly, Deacon rarely got a chance to shine. As Paul Lynde put it, "Richard has the kind of career nobody plans on. It just turned out that way."

  It was a balmy night. We ate on an outdoor table. "You can call me Richard" eventually thawed, from frostily polite to politely chummy, smiles occasionally indicated at the corners of his thin mouth or in his beady eyes.

  It struck me as funny-odd that this man, associated solely with comedy, had so little funny-ha-ha about him. Rather, he existed on big and little screens only to contrast with funnier personalities, e.g., Lucy, Tallulah, Dick, Carl Reiner....

  "As a straight man," he later explained, "I'm hired for my buttoned-down quality. I'm nearly always an executive of some sort, in suit and tie, and somebody always pricks my bubble of dignity. I've been called every adjective - smug, lugubrious, unctuous, bland, you name it.

  "My character always represents the Establishment. I'm never an individualist. Not at all flamboyant...", the only time I ever heard anyone say it with regret. It was a key to his personality. Paul Lynde later said, "Richard's a nice enough person. Bit on the dry side, not overly exciting as a performer. Or anything else."

  One got the impression he was somewhat uncomfortable among heterosexual men, yet not quite at home - because of his stolid rigidity? - among gay men. Particularly among gay comedians of a certain age, like Lynde - or Flowers or Billy De Wolfe, etc.- given to camping it up on screen and especially off.

  That first night, it was Deacon who made the comparison: "I'm nearly the exact opposite of a Paul Lynde."

  When I noted I was a fan of Lynde and hoped to meet him, Richard offered, "I know him. I can introduce you, if it's a matter of an interview. We're not close, socially - he's very private." In an atypical tone mixing envy and disapproval, he added, "Of course, he has a lot to be private about..."

  I imagined he referred to Lynde's well-known drinking and possibly his reported penchant for young Orientals and Mexicans. I wondered what Richard's private life was like. "Do you live with someone?" He answered readily, "No, I'm a loner. But I do like company." At last, a smile. "Would you care to be my guest for bruncheon tomorrow?"

  I hesitated because I was surprised and pleased but didn't want to say yes too quickly. During my silence, his eyes went from hopeful to hurt, and he stated in a compensatory way which embarrassed me and probably him, "I'm quite good in the kitchen."

  I invented a white lie. "To have brunch with Richard Deacon, I'll gladly cancel my prior engagement. You're on!" The seldom-smile returned. He had nice teeth-large and pearly, like Paul Lynde's - but rarely seen.

  I drove the few miles to Richard's modest but cozy and artistic apartment. He prepared wondrously light and zesty eggs Florentine, "in case you're sick of eggs Benedict."

  At his glass table, I asked what he really thought of Paul Lynde. "I'm jealous of his gift for being funny, regardless. He doesn't even have to try. In comedy, if you try, you're dead. When I was young, I tried. I fell flat on my face - that's how it got this way." He said this minus the grin that would have looked alien on his face during a funny moment; Deacon during a laugh was always dead-serious.

  "Then I learned the only way I could get laughs was through a situation. I do nothing. The star or other character does it. For instance, if a female character finds me sexy and chases me, it's funny because I'm no sex symbol at all. If I get spray-painted, like on Lucy, it's funny as long as I don't act as if I think it's funny.

  "But Paul only has to look at someone, and he's funny. He can ridicule somebody just by looking at them. His body language is funny. It's a gift few have. Jack Benny had it. Also, Danny Kaye, and certainly Franklin Pangborn."

  I interjected, "Do you realize all the men you've named are either gay or rumored?"

  He half-smiled. "It's a sound theory. Gay is funny. It just is. If a man is innately funny, he can't be a sex symbol. Don't ask me why I'm neither. But any man that funny is bound to cause rumors. Like Benny. Of course, he was married..."

  "So are most Hollywood gays. Tell me, do you think Lynde didn't get as far as Benny or Kaye because his image is less hetero? Because he's not married?"

  "The only way Paul could have gotten further would be in a hit series, which is a matter of luck. I think people suppose Paul's a regular bachelor, don't you?"

  "At least. Do you think people suppose that of you?"

  "With minor actors, it doesn't even enter their heads. As far as they're concerned, we're sexless."

  "Or vaguely 'straight'? Do you imagine any segment of the public guesses Richard Deacon is gay?"

  He shook his head. "Not even gays. Most would be surprised. Only because what you see on TV - a serious guy in a suit, unsmiling - isn't how anyone thinks of gay males."

  "Are gay comedians more outrageous than hetero ones?"

  "I think so. With a few exceptions. Like [Milton] Berle - and he got his biggest laughs in drag, which is considered gay humor; though I wouldn't do it, unless ordered. But gay comedians are less boring, as a group. Danny Thomas, for one, just standing around joking, isn't very humorous."

  I asked, "What's Paul Lynde like as a private person?"

  "Not the most sincere man on earth. Come into the kitchen, and I'll tell you. Before the egg stains stick to the plates..."

  "Several years ago, Paul convinced me he'd taken a sincere interest in my work. 'I want to take your career to a new level', he said. He said he hadn't done any writing since his early days in nightclubs in New York, but for me he was going to write a 'hilarious' nightclub act. He'd use his connections and see about getting me a gig in Vegas, and he planned to be at a ringside table each night and coach me afterwards.

  "The idea appealed to me, although stand-up is something I fear, something I don't think I've done well, when I've ventured to do it at all. At any rate, Paul convinced me of his sincerity, and one evening, here, in front of me and his associate Wayland Flowers, he did a nightclub routine - short but very funny. Sort of what I was suppose to do, and he was so good at it, he convinced me.

  "Then, for several months, we lost touch - separate ways, separate gigs - and when I saw him again at a party over at Rock Hudson's house, I asked him - in an undemanding way, of course - how the written act was coming along. He looked at me like he had no idea what I was talking about, and at first I thought he'd been drinking. Which he had, but everyone knows that... and when I inquired further, Paul said, 'Oh, Richard! Ya don't mean you took me seriously? It was an act'. For Paul Lynde, my act was an act. An acting exercise for him."

  "That pretty much killed the relationship?"

  "No, it only soured it. Anyone in a relationship with Paul has to be prepared for the worst. It's the down side of his ability to entertain."

  "What about the saying that inside every comedian is a tragedian crying to get out?"

  "Not me. I've done a couple of dramatic things. Always with a light touch, of course. But I don't see myself invading Shakespeare's domain. Nor that of Buddy Hackett - who looks funny, so right there he has a head start."

  "Professionally, who if anyone do you think you resemble?"

  "I've been asked that before. Once. The interviewer wasn't happy with my answer. It was in the 60's, during Dick Van Dyke, when I got interviews... I told him I sympathized with Bud Abbott, who was forever the straight man to Lou Costello. Of course, Abbott spoke much more than I ever get to, but he was always there to show off the funny man, and that means being personally underrated.

  "By another token, he was half of an incredibly popular comedy team, so Abbott probably didn't complain as much as I did to that interviewer."

  "Is the fat person, like the evidently gay man, always funny?"

  "Again, our society perceives gay to be funny, and fat also. Look at Abbott's Costello, or Laurel and Hardy. Except, with Laurel and Hardy - who were the best of them all - both were funny. Sublimely funny and in my opinion geniuses.

  "But there's one other comedian, or comic actor, I've drawn a parallel with. Do you know Richard Haydn?"

  Haydn, a spinsterish British "bachelor", played supporting roles in films like Ball of Fire, And Then There Were None, Please Don't Eat the Daises, and The Sound of Music. He essayed priggish professors, officious clerks, and generally waspish types. In Sitting Pretty, he was the mama's boy and town snoop who made (fellow gay) Clifton Webb's Mr. Lynn Belvedere - a genius "bachelor" - look macho by comparison. In later years, Haydn, whose fondest pursuit was gardening, became a recluse, seldom leaving his Pacific Palisades home.

  "Haydn was known in the old days as a fish mimic. He imitated fish. A critic once compared me to him, and I can see a similarity, but not much. Haydn's more prissy."

  "Have you ever been cast as gay?"

  "No. Asexual, often. Heterosexual, now and then - if the part's bigger than usual."

  "Do you think within the industry it's known you're gay?"

  Deacon shrugged minimally. "No idea."

  I glanced about in his living room. In the shadier side of the room, on a triangular wood table, sat a bust of Michelangelo's David. Unusual, since the David is usually full-bodied, nudity and all. This was just the beautiful - chaste - head. Had Richard become his own character?

  He continued, "on the debit side, where my brand of deadpan is concerned, Paul's branch of outrageousness is very 'in' now. It's more acceptable than ever, and he works steadier than me - much. He can get away with playing it very nearly gay. That's all he does anymore."

  "Do you think most people perceive him as gay or not?"

  "Straight civilians have to be hit over the head with a mallet to recognize that even Paul Lynde is gay. His character would have to have a boyfriend, before it occurred to them."

  "Have you ever at all wanted to be Paul Lynde?"

  He took no offense. "Yes, as a performer. I admire what he does and the results he gets. I admire his wit and comedy. He still has several good years, which isn't true of most men our age. For instance, the TV people think I'm overexposed... And I'm sure Paul has fun with what he does.

  "But on a personal level, no. I feel sorry for him. He's special, and he knows it. But in show biz, if you're too special, it can lock you out of the success you deserve or think you deserve. Paul is a bitter man, and I can't blame him. He never found that one special vehicle to take him to the top. Hollywood Squares is probably his pinnacle." Richard paused, maybe searching my eyes for prurient interest, before continuing. "He covers it with drink, and he's very difficult to get along with. A prima donna. No wonder he's lonely.

  "I'm alone but not lonely. He's alone and frequently drunk. Paul's big enough to swank, but not big enough to command or buy the cuties he craves. A little Paul goes a long way - in life or on the tube. He's fun in a program, but if he's the star, it's too much Paul Lynde. Like Ethel Merman in movies; she was too big for them and put the men off.

  "I think Paul gets on straight men's nerves....So I don't envy him too much, because if I was as funny as he is, and that effortlessly, I'd be somebody else. Or him. And being me isn't a barrel of monkeys, but from where I sit, it's a lot easier than being Paul Lynde."


"Hollywood Gays", by Boze Hadleigh. 1996: Barricade Books Inc.

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