Venice remembers Orson Bean, 1928-2020

By Joe Piasecki

Orson Bean knew how to tell a joke. Keep it short, and always present-tense: “An old guy goes for a checkup. The doctor says ‘Mr. Mendelson, we’ll need a sample of your urine, your feces and your sperm.’ The man says ‘Here, take my shorts.’”

Bean, who died Friday night after being struck by two cars on Venice Boulevard near his beloved Pacific Resident Theatre, also had a way of making whomever he was speaking to — a fellow actor, a local news reporter, a stranger who recognized him in the checkout line at the Ralphs on Lincoln Boulevard — feel like the most important person in the room. Local arts impresario Gerry Fialka describes him as “the epitome of a famous person you could meet on the street any day in Venice and share laughs.”

To most of the world, Bean, born Dallas Burrows 91 years ago, is remembered as a television actor (from Mr. Bevis in a 1960 episode of “The Twilight Zone” to a cameo in the current season of “Grace and Frankie”), a regular on classic game shows (especially “What’s My Line?” and “To Tell the Truth”), and as Johnny Carson’s fill-in host for “The Tonight Show” more than 100 times.

But television is what he did for money. Anyone who spent time with Bean will tell you his true passion — second to actress Alley Mills, his wife of 27 years and from whom he was inseparable — was to perform live theater.

Most Decembers, Bean would stage a free abridged version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” for local kids, relishing the role of Scrooge. For decades he and Mills have been the most active boosters for Pacific Resident Theater, where Bean premiered two stage adaptations of his memoirs: “Safe at Home,” about working through the childhood blow of his mother’s suicide, and “Alright Then,” about meeting and falling in love with Mills.

“Orson almost never said ‘no’ to anything you offered him to do. There was no ego about it. Even though he’s a big star, he just loved to perform, simply for the beauty of doing it. It was so pure, and his spirit was beyond generous,” recalls PRT Artistic Director Marilyn Fox.

Twenty-five years ago, Bean and Mills helped bring the theater’s mainstage into being through funding and volunteer work. “When we finally finished [renovations] and raised a glass of champagne,” Bean said five years ago, “the door opened and a man came in and said, ‘I’m the toilet ceiling fan inspector.’ Our hearts sank. … Luckily it worked.”

On the night that he died, Bean was heading to volunteer at the theater with Mills, who had been tapped to fill in as a volunteer ticket-taker for that night’s performance. According to witnesses and police, Bean was clipped by a passing vehicle as he stepped out between two cars and was knocked into the path of an oncoming car.

Five years ago, Bean tapped Alex Fernandez (who also goes by Guillermo Cienfuegos) to direct “Safe at Home” after seeing Fernandez’s PRT adaptation of “Henry V,” which Bean leveraged his star power to promote.

“What jumps out right now as I’m trying to process [Bean’s death] is how much of a marvel he was,” Fernandez says. “He was 91, but if you know him you’d know that’s too soon. The energy, the vitality, the pure generosity of spirit — you never considered his age,” says Fernandez. “It was a 90-minute solo show, and he would start with a whole standup set of jokes — this is the story of his life’s tragedies — and end with a big song.

“If there’s one word that describes the feeling I had around Orson and that he seemed to have about life, it would be ‘gratitude.’ His show was a nightly expression of it.”

“A moth goes into a chiropractor’s office. He says ‘Doc, my life has hit rock-bottom. My wife is having an affair. My kid has run off with a hooker and taken most of the money…’ The chiropractor interrupts the moth. He says ‘Excuse me, but shouldn’t you be seeing a psychiatrist or something? Why did you come in here?’ He says ‘The light was on.’” — Orson Bean in “Safe at Home”

Generosity is the word many use to describe Bean. Fernandez in terms of the praise and encouragement Bean offered, Fox for his support of the theater, and mononymous Venice cultural fixture Maryjane for the help Bean and Mills would discretely provide others.

“They just make sure things happen. They’re names aren’t on it, people don’t know who funded it, but their generosity is nonstop,” Maryjane says. “They enabled, quite often anonymously, a number of children from this area to attend higher education or some kind of special educational experience around the world. They’ve housed many people from the street off and on through the decades and all their friends throughout the world who come here to do work or for family emergencies.”

Bean moved to Venice from Pacific Palisades 40 years ago, buying a small wooden cottage on the Venice Canals (for a mere $113,000) that remains a rustic contrast to the hyper-contemporary architecture around it. He later purchased a larger home next door hidden behind vines and shrubs, and another cottage that became a connected guest house — “a compound, like the Kennedys,” Bean would joke. It was rare for family or friends not to be staying there.

“We are incredibly moved by the outpouring of love and shared memories of our dad by so many members of the Venice and Marina del Rey communities and beyond,” reads a statement by Bean’s eldest daughter Michele (born to Bean’s first wife, actress Jacqueline de Sibour) and his three children by his second wife, actress Carolyn Maxwell: Max, Susie (the widow of conservative news website founder Andrew Breitbart)
and Zeke.

“He made his home here on the Venice Canals back in the 1970s and contributed with his neighbors to their beautiful restoration. Ever since then, he has been sitting on his front porch hollering, ‘Watch out for the rapids!’ to the amusement of neighbors in row boats and canoes. It was not uncommon for one of us to stop by and find ‘new friends’ on the porch or in the living room because a casual exchange led to an invitation into the home he has shared with his beloved wife, Alley, for almost 30 years. Orson would often joke that Alley had one character flaw: ‘She likes people,’ he would say. But he liked people too … from all walks of life, all ages and backgrounds. 

“It’s impossible to think that our Papa, who was the most loving, eccentric, energetic, spiritual, hilarious and brilliant human being, is not just in the other room taking a nap or out riding his bike around Venice. It saddens us to think we’ll again never hear ‘I ran into your dad at Ralphs.’

“Even though he was 91, it feels like his life was cut short. He still had so much to share with us and with everyone he happened to cross paths with, and we will miss him more than we can say. He was the best father and grandfather, always receiving us with open arms and wildly inappropriate jokes. 

“We will be looking for signs from our Papa and, knowing him, they’ll be larger than life.”

“The owner of a Chinese restaurant shakes his wife awake at 3 a.m. He says ‘I want 69! I want 69!’ She says ‘You want beef and broccoli at this hour of the night?!’” — Orson Bean, “The Art of Joke Telling 8” (on YouTube)

When Bean wasn’t at home or the theatre, he often held court at popular Venice hangout James’ Beach. Founder James Evans was a teenage busboy when he met Bean in the 1970s. In 1996, it was Bean who put up the initial investment to found the restaurant.

In a 2014 profile of Bean for The Argonaut, Evans recalled how Bean would relish entertaining customers: “He does these little acts for people he meets in the restaurant — a two-minute joke with a buildup and a payoff, always spontaneous — that are so charming, but also have a connection to a more civil time when people laughed and talked with each other,” Evans said.

Many of the rapid-fire jokes that Bean would work into private conversations would be considered off-color or even untouchable in this politically correct millennium, but there was always a spark of joy behind them that communicated quite the opposite of hate. He just loved to make people laugh.

Bean’s final stage role was late last year with Mills in the world premiere of the comedy “Bad Habits” at The Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica. Bean played a rowdy bishop to Mills’ Mother Superior leading a convent full of nuns who curse and smoke.

Briefly blacklisted as a communist in 1950 — “I was hot for a communist girl who dragged me to a couple of meetings,” he explained — Bean identified as conservative in the 1990s and 2000s, though isn’t remembered for talking politics.

Bean frequently spent time with son-in-law Breitbart’s father before and especially after Breitbart’s death in 2012, taking him out of a retirement home for frequent lunches, according to friend Ken Frese, who was a minister at First Lutheran Church in Venice when Bean was attending services there in the late 2000s.

“Orson was just there for him,” Frese recalled six years ago. “He’s always ready to respond to somebody who has something going on with them. … He knew a number of people in the church who fell on tough financial times and contributed several thousand dollars to those families but would never say a thing about it.”

When it comes to stories of his generosity, Bean was never the one to tell them.

“In general, if you give it, it comes back to you,” Bean had explained. “The selfish thing to do is be generous.”

This story draws on archival material from past reporting for The Argonaut by David Laurell and Christina Campodonico.