Today in History (September 4, 1919)

Today would have been the 96th birthday of Howard Morris, born in The Bronx on September 4, 1919. He was a Shakespearean-trained actor, Broadway star, voice artist, director, World War II First Sergeant…and Uncle Goopy!

The above Your Show of Shows sketch, “This Is Your Story,” features Carl Reiner as the host, Caesar as honoree Al Duncey, and Morris as surprise guest Uncle Goopy. It is considered Caesar’s finest by no less an authority than national treasure Mel Brooks, as well as show chronicler David Margolick and legions of fans. (Reiner and Morris first collaborated in a U.S. Army Special Services unit in Honolulu during World War II, entertaining troops in the Pacific.)

Morris also voiced hundreds of cartoon characters over the years, beginning in the early ’60s. (When the Flintstones had a household appliance, Morris usually voiced the long-suffering creature who powered it.) He continued to do voice work through the 1990s, while making the transition to voice directing. (I was thrilled to learn that he did both for one of my favorite underrated cartoon series, 1986’s Galaxy High. Its idea that aliens would consider Earth’s bookworm girls to be homecoming queen material resonated pretty deeply with me.) To top it off, Morris has two claims to fame in the cartoon music world. He voiced Jughead throughout the run of The Archies, and portrayed rock star Jet Screamer on a 1962 Jetsons episode. (Jet Screamer was named #44 on the Bubblegum Top 100 list featured in Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth. The Archies were #1.) The Violent Femmes went on to cover “Eep Opp Ork Ah-Ah,” but Morris sang it first:

For me (and many others), Morris is synonymous with one character: the immortal Ernest T. Bass from The Andy Griffith Show. (I find it hard to believe that the character appeared on just five episodes.) While Bass is possibly the edgiest resident of Mayberry, Morris’s portrayal makes him lovable during his most volatile moments. Morris revealed his process in a post on ernestt.com, the site maintained by his son David. It’s hard to pick a favorite Ernest T. episode (and discussions with my Bass-uberfan mother only complicate matters), but here are two I enjoy.

“My Fair Ernest T. Bass” (original air date: February 3, 1964)

The time-honored “be yourself” lesson is couched in some fantastic physical comedy. Watch Griffith’s expressions during some of his interactions with Morris: he’s having a hard time keeping a straight face!

“The Education of Ernest T. Bass” (original air date: October 12, 1964)

Bass’s psychological backstory injects an indie-movie level of quirkiness into the proceedings, and the back-to-school scenes are pure gold. Ernest T.’s reactions turn on a dime, resulting in another tour de force performance from Morris.

The world is a far duller and less entertaining place since it lost Howard Morris in 2005, but I take comfort in the fact that this Renaissance man will be remembered for generations to come.

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