Orson Bean, the witty actor, and comedian was hit and killed by a car in Los Angeles, authorities said. He was 91.
Orson Bean is best known as a TV game show panelist mainstay, a frequent guest of Johnny Carson and actor in The Twilight Zone, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and Being John Malkovich. Bean made frequent appearances on TV sit-coms, such as Will & Grace, How I Met Your Mother, Superstore, he played John Goodman’s father on the Fox sitcom, Normal Ohio, and his most recent role was on a 2020 episode of Grace and Frankie.
While walking near Venice Boulevard and Shell Avenue in the Venice section of Los Angeles, Bean was struck by two drivers, with the second vehicle striking him fatally. “The car which was traveling westbound did not see him and clipped him and he went down,” said Los Angeles Police Department Captain Brian Wendling. “A second vehicle’s driver was distracted by people trying to slow him down: when the driver looked ahead a second traffic collision occurred and it caused the death of Bean.”
Orson Bean was born Dallas Frederick Burrows on July 22, 1928 in Burlington, Vermont, the son of Marian Ainsworth (née Pollard) and George Frederick Burrows. His father was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a fund-raiser for the Scottsboro Boys’ defense, and a 20-year member of the campus police of Harvard College. Among his other relatives was his third cousin twice removed, Calvin Coolidge, who was President of the United States when Bean was born. Bean graduated from the Cambridge High and Latin in 1946, he then joined the US Army and was stationed in Japan for a year.
Bean became one of the first “neocelebrities” in television – someone who was “famous for being famous,” a veteran film, television, and stage actor, and a comedian, writer, and producer. He was a game show and talk show host, and a “mainstay of Los Angeles’s small theater scene.” He appeared frequently on several televised game shows from the 1960s through the 1980s and was a long-time panelist on the television game show To Tell the Truth. “A storyteller par excellence”, he was a favorite of Johnny Carson, appearing on The Tonight Show 128 times, with 91 of the appearances during Carson’s tenure as host.
Following his military service, Bean began working in small venues as a stage magician before transitioning in the early 1950s to stand-up comedy. He studied theatre at HB Studio. It was during that time when he stopped using his birth name professionally and adopted the stage name Orson Bean. In an interview on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1974, Bean recounted the source of his new name. He credited its origin to a piano player named Val at “Hurley’s Log Cabin”, a restaurant and nightclub in Boston, Massachusetts, where he had once performed. According to Bean, every evening before he went on stage at the nightclub, Val would suggest to him a silly name to use when introducing himself to the audience. One night, for example, the piano player suggested “Roger Duck”, but the young comedian got very few laughs after using that name in his performance. On another night, however, the musician suggested “Orson Bean”, and the comedian received a great response from the audience, a reaction so favorable that it resulted in a job offer that same evening from a local theatrical booking agent. Given his success on that occasion, Bean decided to keep using the odd-sounding but memorable name. Bean claimed that his name was a blend of the pompous and the amusing. He recalled that Orson Welles once called him over to a table, said “you stole my name”, and dismissed him with a wave.
In 1952, Bean made a guest appearance on NBC Radio’s weekly hot-jazz series The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, which was his first big break. His vocal mannerisms were ideal for the mock-serious tone of the show, and he became the show’s master of ceremonies (“Dr. Orson Bean”) for its final season. Bean was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show (with both Jack Paar and Johnny Carson), and appeared on game shows originating from New York. He was a regular panelist on To Tell the Truth in versions from the late 1950s through 1991. On July 5, 1965, his father appeared as a subject of the panel and he had to disqualify himself from participating. He appeared on Super Password and Match Game, among other game shows. He hosted a pilot for a revamped version of Concentration in 1985, which was picked up later on in 1987 as Classic Concentration with Alex Trebek. An appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was canceled due to his being on the “black list,” and he was rendered persona non grata there for years because of it. Sullivan eventually relented and rebooked him, opining that he was the master of his own show, not “Campbell’s Soup.”
Although Bean was placed on the Hollywood blacklist for attending Communist Party meetings while dating a member, he continued to work through the 1950s and 60s. He played the title character in the Twilight Zone episode “Mr. Bevis” (1960). For the CBS anthology series The DuPont Show with June Allyson, he starred as John Monroe in “The Secret Life of James Thurber” (1961), based on the works of the American humorist James Thurber.
For ten years, he was the house comic at New York’s Blue Angel comedy club. In 1954, The New York Times noted in a review of The Blue Angel, Bean’s delivery was always well played, even if a joke fell flat. He once hosted a television show “Blue Angel” on CBS.
He “maintained a steady career since the 1950s and cut his teeth on and off Broadway before becoming a live television staple.”
On Broadway he starred in the original cast of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? with Walter Matthau and Jayne Mansfield. Then, in 1961, he was featured in Subways Are for Sleeping with Sydney Chaplin, for which he received a Tony Award nomination as Best Featured Actor in a Musical, He performed in Never Too Late the following year.
In 1964, he produced the Off-Off-Broadway musical Home Movies — which won an Obie Award. And the same year appeared in the Broadway production I Was Dancing. He starred in the musical “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac”. He also voiced and sang the role of Charlie Brown on MGM’s original 1966 concept album of the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and starred in Illya Darling, the 1967 musical adaptation of the film Never on Sunday.
Doing stand up comedy, magic tricks and passing on wit and wisdom, he became a regular on I’ve Got a Secret, What’s My Line? and To Tell the Truth. He guest starred on television talk and variety shows, e.g., The Ed Sullivan Show, The Mike Douglas Show, and The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Among dozens of appearances, he starred in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and Desperate Housewives while tallying guest appearance credits, e.g., The Closer. Bean was a regular in both Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and its spin-off Fernwood 2Nite. He also portrayed the shrewd businessman and storekeeper Loren Bray on the television series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman throughout its six-year run on CBS in the 1990s. He played John Goodman’s homophobic father on the sitcom Normal, Ohio. He played the main characters Bilbo and Frodo Baggins in the 1977 and 1980 Rankin/Bass animated adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and The Return of the King. He also played Dr. Lester in Spike Jonze’s 1999 film, Being John Malkovich.
Bean appeared as a patient in the final two episodes of 7th Heaven‘s seventh season in 2003. In 2005, Bean appeared in the sitcom Two and a Half Men in an episode titled “Does This Smell Funny to You?”, playing a former playboy whose conquests included actresses Tuesday Weld and Anne Francis. He appeared in the 2007 How I Met Your Mother episode “Slapsgiving” as Robin Scherbatsky’s 41-year-old boyfriend, Bob. In 2009 he was cast in the recurring role of Roy Bender, a steak salesman, who is Karen McCluskey’s love interest on the ABC series Desperate Housewives.
At the age of 87, Bean in 2016 appeared in “Playdates”, an episode of the American TV sitcom Modern Family. He appeared in a 2017 episode of Teachers (TV Land, season 2, episode 11, “Dosey Don’t”). He appeared as the elderly Holocaust survivor in the 2018 film The Equalizer 2.
In later life, “his politics turned more conservative.” His daughter married Andrew Breitbart, and Bean authored intermittent columns for Breitbart News. He ventured the thought that being a conservative in 21st-century Hollywood was a lot like being a suspected Communist back in the 1950s.
For much of his career and to his death, he was represented by the Artists & Representatives agency. In its brief statement after his death, they noted he was an assiduous nurturer of rising talent.
An admirer of Laurel and Hardy, Bean, in 1964, served as a founding member of The Sons of the Desert, the international organization devoted to sharing information about the lives of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and studying and enjoying their films.
In 1966 he helped found the 15th Street School in New York City, a primary school using the radical democratic free school, Summerhill, as a model. Bean wrote an autobiographical account about his life-changing experience with the orgone therapy developed by Austrian-born psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Published in 1971, the account is titled Me and the Orgone: The True Story of One Man’s Sexual Awakening.
Bean was married three times. His first marriage was in 1956 to actress Jacqueline de Sibour, whose stage name was Rain Winslow and who was the daughter of the French nobleman and pilot Vicomte Jacques de Sibour and his wife, Violette B. Selfridge (daughter of American-born British department-store magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge). Before their divorce in 1962, Bean and Jacqueline had one child, Michele.
In 1965, he married actress and fashion designer Carolyn Maxwell with whom he had three children: Max, Susannah, and Ezekiel. The couple divorced in 1981. Their daughter Susannah married journalist Andrew Breitbart (died 2012) in 1997. Bean’s third wife was actress and Dr. Quinn co-star Alley Mills, 23 years his junior. They married in 1993, and lived in Los Angeles until his death in 2020.
He was a “distant cousin” of President Calvin Coolidge and father-in-law to Andrew Breitbart.