Max: “Simon the Likeable? Who’s he?”
Chief: “He’s KAOS’ most irresistible agent. A man so unassuming, so modest, so sweet and warm that you take one look at him, and you like him.”
Chief: “That man is the most ruthless, cunning, evil and treacherous KAOS agent in the entire world. And a heck of a nice guy.”
Waitress: “I get off at three o’ clock.”
Simon: “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m busy this afternoon. Maybe some other time.”
Waitress: “There won’t be another time, I’m gonna kill myself.”
Simon: “Don’t do that.”
Waitress: “Ok, whatever you say.”
The car business is changing for the better. Proof positive, I can’t remember how long — it’s been a long, long time — since I worked with any Sneaky Petes or Slick Willies. The men and women who’ve remained, persevered and succeeded (at least the ones who work with me) are the Simon the Likeables.
Jack Gilford was Simon the Likeable. And Simon the Likeable was Jack Gilford.
First stop, Wikipedia.org:
Gilford was born Jacob Aaron Gellman on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His parents were Romanian-born Jewish immigrants Sophie “Susksa” (née Jackness), who owned a restaurant, and Aaron Gellman, a furrier. Gilford was the second of three sons, with an older brother Murray (“Moisha”) and a younger brother Nathaniel (“Natie”).
Gilford was discovered working in a pharmacy by his mentor Milton Berle. While working in amateur theater, he competed with other talented youngsters, including a young Jackie Gleason. He started doing imitations and impersonations. His first appearance on film was a short entitled Midnight Melodies where he did his imitations of George Jessel, Rudy Vallee and Harry Langdon. He developed some unique impressions that became his trademarks — most notably, one of “split pea soup coming to a furious boil” using only his face. Other unusual impressions he created were a fluorescent light going on in a dark room, John D. Rockefeller Sr. imitating Jimmy Durante, and impressions of animals.
One of Gilford’s specialties was pantomime, and this talent was put to good use by director George Abbott when he cast Gilford as the silent King Sextimus in Once upon a Mattress (Off-Broadway, 1959). Gilford shared the stage with a young Carol Burnett in this production, and reprised his performance with her in two separate televised versions of the show, in 1964 and in 1972.
Gilford’s career was derailed for a time during the 1950s and McCarthyism. He was an activist who campaigned for social change, integration and labor unions. He was quite active both socially and politically in left wing causes, as was his wife, Madeline Lee. The couple were implicated[clarification needed] for their alleged Communist sympathies by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Gilford and Madeline were specifically named by choreographer Jerome Robbins in his testimony to the HUAC.
Gilford and his wife were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953. The couple had difficulty finding work during much of the rest of the 1950s due to theHollywood blacklist. The couple often had to borrow money from friends to make ends meet. He found work towards the end of the 1950s and during the early 1960s with the end of the McCarthy era. He made his comeback as Hysterium in the 1962 Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He co-starred in the play with his close friend, Zero Mostel. Ironically, this particular production was also choreographed by Jerome Robbins, who had previously testified before HUAC in 1953.
Gilford became successful mostly through roles on the Broadway stage, such as Drink To Me Only, Romanoff and Juliet, and The Diary of Anne Frank. He later enjoyed success in film and television, as well as a series of nationwide television commercials for Cracker Jack.
Growing up, it became commonplace for my mom to name-check the people on tv as her friends and acquaintances, whether it was McHale’s Navy (Jane Dulo and Billy Sands), All in the Family (Bea Arthur) or Get Smart, such as “that’s Jack Gilford. He is really the nicest person you could ever meet. I met him and his wife. She was just as nice as he was.”
Each of these links provide a window on the experiences my mom had with the Dramatic Workshop and the Tamiment Playhouse, a who’s who of mid-century American acting and comedic talent:
There’s a book on the shelf my mom kept, gift of Rod Steiger, when they were classmates along with Tony Curtis, Harry Belafonte and many other recognizable name and faces. And a production script for All The Kings Men, which I still haven’t read but can’t wait to start. I remember hearing that Harry Belafonte had more talent in his little finger than all the others put together. And Tony Curtis was pestering someone to get off the phone so he could use it.
What sticks with me most was something she was most impressed with, that the most talented had the least ego. They were the nicest, kindest and most generous with their time. And Jack Gilford, I take it, was so nice, the Simon character was likely invented just for him. (And in subtext, there is a real tribute to a real man who endured and kept true to himself and his gifts.)
I want to be Jack Gilford nice, Jack Gilford kind. To have all the powers of enchantment, like Simon the Likeable, but use them for good, CONTROL rather than KAOS.
Get Smart, created by Mel Brooks with Buck Henry, screen shots from “And Baby Makes Four”