Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Edie Adams was more than a Deep Fried Twinkie

By Steve Crum

Originally published Sept. 15, 2004, the following interview with the vibrant and chatty Edie Adams is a high point of my life. I called Edie at her home in Los Angeles, and immediately found her to be friendly, funny, and talkative. It was 30 minutes into our conversation before I finally got a question in. One question I asked that did not make the final cut was, "Do you think if Ernie had lived, he would have co-starred with you in 'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World'?" Her answer was brief without conjecture: "I don't know." I met her in person a week or so later at the Buster Keaton Celebration in Iola, Ks., where Edie was special guest in honor of her late husband, Ernie Kovacs. She chuckled throughout the surprise finale: a live performance in full gorilla mask costumes by The Nairobi Trio [made famous by Ernie on numerous TV shows]. Edie died almost exactly four years later on Oct. 15, 2008 at age 81 from complications of cancer and pneumonia.

When Edie Adams talks about Ernie Kovacs her stories are so fresh, so today. Yet they are past tense, some 42 years after the legendary comedian's death. Edie realizes decades have gone by. "Forty-two years?" She politely corrects me. "It's been longer than that." It must seem so to Edie, but the numbers stand. It was on Jan. 13, 1962 when Ernie, driving alone, wrapped his Corvair around a utility pole.

During a 90-minute phone interview last week, Edie spoke of life with and without Ernie. However, her sole focus will be her late husband when she shares film clips and anecdotes on Sept. 25 at the Buster Keaton Celebration in Iola, Ks. Ernie will have top billing with Buster this year. Keaton and Kovacs have a lot more in common than one might think.

Edie will introduce a TV pilot Kovacs and Keaton completed hours before Ernie's death. Called The Medicine Man, the rarity has never been publicly shown. In fact, until recently it was considered lost. Edie had one heck of a time getting a copy of it. "I knew it was somewhere in the New York Museum of Broadcasting archives," she says. "After writing and calling repeatedly, I finally got through to them that The Medicine Man was actually stored there." The powers that be then found it, but did not want to hand it over. After a threat of lawsuit regarding Edie's rights to Ernie's TV work, Edie received The Medicine Man via special delivery the next day. "And it's wonderful," she gushes. "Ernie and Buster were very similar, like yin and yang, in their comedy genius."

Dogs bark in the background, two of them. "They're my corgis, my children." Edie is obviously smiling and looking at them. "They guard the neighborhood, at least they think they are." She calls them her "two nuts," and they get Edie's attention, demanding it. Edie's human kids are grown. Her 77 years have included three marriages, the two since Ernie ending in divorce.

"I married the same man three times," she says. "Each one had similar personalities, similar problems. And I wanted to help each of them." She alludes to Ernie's later years when gambling and drinking became major problems. The public was never aware. "He started drinking on the set, during rehearsals," she says, "which is something he had never done. I tried to help him."

Edie had been Ernie's literal and figurative helper and sidekick since those 1951 TV days on Ernie's live, two-hour CBS morning show. After their 1954 marriage, the two appeared together pretty regularly on TV. Ernie would make a half dozen movies during the following years, Operation Madball and Our Man in Havana among them. "Ernie's best work is Bell, Book and Candle (1957)," Edie says. "What you see in that film is the essence of Ernie."

Edie's film career was a bit more prolific with over 20 titles including: Lover Come Back, The Apartment, Call Me Bwana ("Bob Hope's worst movie," recalls Edie), Under the Yum Yum Tree, and Made in Paris. Her role as Sid Caesar's wife in 1963's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is her most high profile. "It was a gift," she says, referring to working in the film soon after Ernie's death. Though grieving, it helped to be surrounded by the biggest names in comedy. "I love to be around funny men," Edie's voice perks up. "Sid Caesar and Ernie were very similar in their comedy. Both would veer off to ad lib now and then, and I was there to bring them back on course." Calling Ernie's comedy mind "stream of whatever," she grew to understand his humor. "But when I first met Ernie," Edie says, "I didn't know what was coming out of this guy's head."

Edie fondly talks--and frequently chuckles--about her Mad World co-stars Phil Silvers pulling pranks on a scene-stealing Milton Berle, and Jonathan Winters. "Ethel Merman was intimidated by Jonathan," Edie recalls. "This loud, blustery Broadway legend was totally soft spoken around Jonathan (off camera), and would leave the area when Jonathan was coming near."

For example, she explained that Jonathan Winters seldom sat around with other cast members outside in the heat when they were taking a break in filming on location in the desert near Palm Springs. Instead, he stayed in his air conditioned trailer. Edie and several other actors, including Ethel Merman, would wait between scenes in their chairs. One day they set Ethel up by excitedly telling her, “Here comes Jonathan!” Ethel literally got up and scurried away. Jonathan was still in his trailer, and everyone had a good laugh at Ethel’s expense. By that time, Merman was long gone in hiding. Edie said Ethel did not understand Winters’ humor, and thought him deranged. 

The shy Pennsylvania girl raised by "strict Hessian parents" hit big time in show business, despite a controlling mother who advised her daughter to seek nothing more than to "sing a pretty song and wear a pretty dress." Of course her mother never intended that after graduating from the proper Juilliard School of Music and the Columbia School of Drama that Edie would carry that adage to Broadway in Wonderful Town (1953) and Li'l Abner (1956). Or that she would marry a mad Hungarian named Kovacs and become a household name performing comedy impressions of Marilyn Monroe and singing.

A liberated woman decades before the movement, the multi-talented Edie Adams is truly Ms. Survivor. Witness her single-handedly repaying the IRS a half million dollars in back taxes after Ernie's death. That tapped into her years of selling Muriel Cigars in TV commercials. There was her Emmy nominated Here's Edie TV variety show too. And Vegas bookings. She eventually settled the debt. She also successfully raised three girls and a boy. Two girls were from Ernie's first marriage. The daughter she had with Ernie died in a car accident 20 years after her dad's.

Today she still talks about Ernie at festivals and tributes held around the world. In between she enjoys the obviously Kovacs-influenced comedy of Saturday Night Live and Conan O'Brien. Edie is also writing a somewhat sequel to her 1990 autobiography, Sing a Pretty Song.

"I'm calling it Confessions of a Deep Fried Twinkie." Edie laughs.
Edie and Ernie parody it up in this opera take-off: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rarkvZ4Cc0A

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