Nicknamed “Mr. Radio” because of his versatility and practically daily employment as an actor, director, producer, and writer, Elliott Lewis’s heart is deeper in directing, writing, and producing, than it’s ever been in acting. “I never enjoyed acting,” he’ll say many years later. “I was able to do it, because it’s a trick, and it’s a trick that somehow I knew how to do, without any training.”
But when he lands the role of wastrel guitarist Frank Remley on The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, Lewis finds both the role of a lifetime and a potential albatross.
The role of a lifetime involves bringing forth Lewis’s latent comic abilities, playing a kind of deadpan Ed Norton prototype with slightly more brains and a greater genius (some say eagerness) at dedicating his very existence to making best bud/boss Phil Harris’s life a near-unmitigatable disaster. (“I know a guy” was even more ominous a remark than Lucille Ball’s eventual “Ethel, I have an idea!”) Over half the show’s draw is Lewis’s Remley and how unlikely the vain, self-deluded Harris is to squirm out of one after another mess, before or after his tartly loving wife Alice Faye can extract him.
The albatross could be that Remley—formerly a rarely-if-ever-heard reference point alone, when Harris was a Jack Benny mainstay and Benny or Harris (or both) zinged Remley—becomes so overwhelming a second banana that he threatens to overshadow almost everything else Lewis did before and does after he’s played the role for the entire life of the Harris-Faye exercise.
Lewis’s role is forced into a single alteration come 1953: he’s forced to use his own name in character. The jack-of-all-trades himself will remember “some kind of beef” with the real Frank Remley, who played himself on his rare Benny appearances and has appeared in some of the Ma and Pa Kettle films. Though the Harris-Faye show will endure until June 1954, Lewis will remember his character losing something with the name change.
“Elliott Lewis,” he says, “just isn’t as funny as Frank Remley.”
It will be a telling remark, considering Lewis’s self-assessment as an actor. The irony: it was the real Frank Remley, failing an audition for the Harris-Faye role, who recommended Lewis in his place.
The character may have lost something with the name change, but the man won’t. Lewis will continue his distinguished radio career (even as he’s a Harris-Faye hit, he’s directing and producing some of the meatiest entries in Suspense‘s long life, among other works) until nearly the bitter end of the old-time radio era. Then, after a few turns in and around television over the decade to come, sometimes with his second wife (fellow radio veteran Mary Jane Croft), Lewis will return to radio by way of two 1970s bids to revive classic radio, Mutual’s The Zero Hour and CBS’s The Sears Radio Theater, which moves to become The Mutual Radio Theater.
He must have done something right, though. By the time the Harris-Faye show is in full swing, Harris would introduce his cast with elaborate introductions . . . except Lewis. By then, he needed nothing more than to mention Lewis’s name to send the studio audience into wild applause.
“Keeping Regular Office Hours”—That’s sponsor Scott’s (Gale Gordon) demand of the man (Phil Harris) least likely to adapt successfully to such a routine, no matter what Alice (Faye) does to steer him that way. Remley: Elliott Lewis. Little Alice: Jeanine Roos. Phyllis: Anne Whitfield. Willie: Robert North. Julius: Walter Tetley. Announcer: Bill Forman. Music: Walter Scharf, Phil Harris Orchestra. Director: Paul Phillips. Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat.
“The Courtship of Elliott Lewis” (Season premiere)—Back from vacation, and with Alice (Faye) exhausted from having Elliott (Lewis) along with Phil (Harris), the couple decides to try showing him the best of married life and convinces him to find a wife of his own—Julius’s (Walter Tetley) sultry (and wealthy) visiting aunt (Jacqueline Fontaine). Little Alice: Jeanine Roos. Phyllis: Anne Whitfield. Willie: John Hubbard. Announcer: Bill Forman Music: Walter Scharf, Phil Harris Orchestra, the Sports Men. Director: Paul Phillips. Writers: Ed James, Phil Shukin.
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
The Great Gildersleeve: Leila Engaged (NBC, 1946)—Eve (Bea Benaderet) talks reluctant Gildersleeve (Harold Peary) into a PTA singing appearance, but Leila (Shirley Mitchell) wants to talk him into letting Hooker (Earle Ross) take his place—she has something to tell her former fiancee, assuming she can get his mind out of a romantic reverie. Peavey: Richard LeGrand. Leroy: Walter Tetley. Marjorie: Louise Erickson. Birdie: Lillian Randolph. Announcer: John Laing. Music: Jack Meakin Orchestra. Director: Leonard L. Levinson. Writers: John Whedon, Sam Moore.
Our Miss Brooks: Taking the Rap for Mr. Boynton; or, Conklin Causes a Fight (CBS, 1949)—When Walter (Richard Crenna) rhapsodises about getting closer to Harriet (Gloria McMillan) after he takes the fall for her scratching her father’s car, he suggests Connie (Eve Arden) try something similar to get closer to Boynton (Jeff Chandler)—which promptly backfires, as usual. Mrs. Davis: Jane Morgan. Conklin: Gale Gordon. Announcer: Bob LaMond. Music: Wilbur Hatch. Writer/director: Al Lewis.
Father Knows Best: Should Women Work? (NBC, 1952)—One half-hypothetical order from Jim (Robert Young) while Margaret (Jean Vander Pyl) reads a book on careers for married women to prepare for a club debate, and it’s a challenge Margaret can’t resist and Jim misinterprets in his inimitable fashion. Before the sap begins to strangle, try to imagine the coming television Andersons tackling even this kind of mild absurdism. Betty: Rhoda Williams. Bud: Ted Donaldson. Kathy: Norma Jean Nilsson. Announcer: Bill Forman. Director: Ken Burton. Writer: Paul West, Dina Fields.
Nightbeat: A Case of Butter (NBC, 1950)—A highway crash past a popular long-haul trucker’s diner launches Stone (Frank Lovejoy) into a wild story involving a truck hijacking and a Canadian butter theft—butter contaminated with typhoid that may have come to Chicago before a crate from the hijacked truck fell out. Harry: Don Diamond. Mrs. Barr: Jane Morgan. Additional cast: Joan Banks, Nestor Pyba, Peter Leeds, Anne Whitfield, Tudor Owen. Music: Frank Worth. Director: Warren Lewis. Writers: Lew Russoff, Russell Bender.
The Clock: Deadlier Than the Male (ABC, 1947)—An ex-con (Joseph DeSantis) who gives a shifty woman (Jean Ellen) with an ancient name a lift to Tijuana learns to regret it after he identifies her as a murderer, relocates to Chicago, marries, and finds himself having to run when she bolts death row. The Clock: Hart McGuire. Announcer: Unknown. Music: Len Arthur. Director: Clark Andrews. Writer: Lawrence Klee.