Actor and humorist Orson Bean takes being a good neighbor to the next level
By David Laurell and Joe Piasecki
Asked to define the word “raconteur,” most kids growing up in the late 1950s, ‘60s or early ‘70s would have been as clueless as to its meaning as they were to exactly what it was those who regularly appeared on television under that moniker actually did for a living. While most were actors, directors, writers, comedians, musicians or entertainers of some sort, they were really best-known for being guests on the talk- and game-show circuits of the era.
Every baby boomer grew up with storytellers, bon vivants, wits, pundits and humorists such as Jack Douglas, Oscar Levant, Alexander King, Bennett Cerf, Fred Allen, Wally Cox, Charles Nelson Reilly, Tony Randall, Victor Borge, George Gobel, Truman Capote and so many other characters whose personas ranged from that of an eccentric relative or grouchy neighbor to a friendly local shopkeeper or erudite family friend.
One of the most popular of these personalities was Orson Bean — a cool, wisecracking charmer who was like a hip uncle, who, when your parents weren’t looking, would slip you a copy of Playboy, let you take a slug of his beer and tell you a dirty joke.
At 85, Bean’s gift for the art of conversation, abiding generosity with money and time and commitment to cultivating neighborhood connectedness have won him celebration as a community pillar of the Venice canals, where he has lived for more than 30 years.
Bean and his wife, actress Alley Mills, have frequently opened their home for community gatherings and to people down on their luck and in need of a place to stay, organized opposition to unpopular development proposals and events such as the Venice Canals Holiday Boat Parade, helped fund and booster the nonprofit Pacific Resident Theatre as well as local schools, and even floated loans to jumpstart local businesses.
Each December, the couple produces and he stars in a local production of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” that is free to all, especially children whose families couldn’t otherwise afford to attend live theater.
Bean, who has published four books, currently appears through June 29 in “Death of the Author,” a new play receiving rave reviews at the Geffen Playhouse.
But it is offstage that Bean has a way of making everyone he meets feel special, said restaurateur James Evans.
Evans first encountered Bean while a teenager working as a busboy at Robert’s restaurant in the 1970s. In 1996, Bean put up the initial investment to help Evans found James’ Beach and has been one of its regulars ever since.
“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 looked and laughed and talked with each other,” Evans said. “He represents an old era but he’s so of the now, just a vital part of Venice.”
“They just make you feel welcome. I think that’s the important thing,” said longtime neighbor Sharon Kleinman, recalling open-door boat parade after-parties and frequent occasions when Bean and Mills would invite passersby to enjoy a coffee or glass of wine on their porch.
‘The selfish thing to do’
Bean moved to Venice from Pacific Palisades in the early 1980s, buying a small wooden cottage on the canals that is one of few rustic mid-century homes remaining among rows of taller, hyper-contemporary homes.
“When I paid $113,000 for it all the locals scoffed and said ‘You’ve waited too long; it’s peaked,’” he said. Bean 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,” he joked.
Bean discussed Venice’s origin as a resort town planned by developer Abbot Kinney as intrinsic to the community’s lasting draw in the same breath that he expressed concern about an influx of high-end development potentially spoiling its appeal.
“Venice is one of the few places that was founded just for fun. That feeling has stayed, though now of course it’s undergoing this tremendous change. Fancy people have discovered it, and I just hope enough of the old Venice remains that the fancy people don’t get sick of what they’ve ruined and move on,” Bean said.
“The so-called creative folk are putting up these fine big buildings, but when I first moved here you could get stoned just walking around, the aroma wafting out of every cottage, naked children racing around, guitars being played,” he continued.
Bean credits Mills, currently a star of “The Bold and The Beautiful” and known best for her role as the mother on “The Wonder Years,” as taking the lead in efforts to soften what they see as destructive impacts of intensified growth and development. Most recently the couple organized neighborhood response that halted a multi-story development proposed for the Kim’s Food Corner parcel on Ocean Boulevard, which they felt would threaten the neighborhood’s village feel. They aren’t trying to stop change, Bean said, “just temper it a little bit.”
“The canals have definitely gentrified, but the spirit of Venice lingers. We hang tight in this neighborhood,” Mills said.
A father of four adult children and nine grandchildren to two previous marriages, Bean has kept much of his family close to him in or around the canals: a son lives nearby; his daughter Mimi and designer son-in-law Mark Atlan previously lived in the Bean-Mills compound; and daughter Susie Breitbart, widow of the late conservative media maverick Andrew Breitbart, also has lived there.
Bean frequently spent time with Breitbart’s father before and especially after Breitbart’s death in 2012, taking him out of a retirement home for frequent lunches, said friend Ken Frese, who was a minister at First Lutheran Church in Venice when Bean was attending services there in 2008.
“Orson was just there for him,” said Frese, now retired.
Bean, who discussed his mother’s suicide and strained relationship with his father in his 2013 memoir “Safe at Home,” has also taken time to mentor troubled teens.
“He’s always ready to respond to somebody who has something going on with them. If it’s a worthy cause — it was saving the ducks on the canals eight or nine years ago — Orson will send a check for a couple hundred dollars. 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,” Frese said.
Maryjane, a Venice community activist and volunteer coordinator with Pacific Resident Theatre, said Bean and Mills don’t only cut checks but get hands-on in keeping productions afloat.
“They loan props, costumes, help with all kinds of production details. Orson is going to teach me card tricks because I need to know them for “The Cherry Orchard,” she said.
He may have also pulled some strings to get reviewers to see an ongoing production of an abbreviated “Henry V” — “the best-directed Shakespeare I’ve ever seen,” said Bean.
But when it comes to stories of his generosity, Bean is never the one to tell them.
“In general, if you give it, it comes back to you. The selfish thing to do is be generous,” he said.
Stealing jokes from Johnny
Born Dallas Frederick Burrows, Bean’s career in show business stemmed from a childhood interest in magic and making people laugh. Following a two-year stint with the U.S. Army serving in post-World War II occupied Japan, Bean took his comedic magic act to the stages of service clubs and small nightclubs throughout Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
Dropping the magic from his act, Bean began performing standup at New York’s storied Blue Angel nightclub where he went on to serve as the house comic from 1950 to 1960. During this time, he also made a guest appearance on an NBC Radio program, “The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street,” as “Dr. Orson Bean.” Bean was named the show’s emcee soon after his debut performance and the character’s name, sans the doctorate, stuck.
In the wake of the 1947 House Un-American Activities Committee hearings that trumped up a communist infiltration of the entertainment industry, 1950 saw Bean suspected of having ties to communism. He was blacklisted and refused employment, mostly on television and radio, for about a year. When the blacklist began to subside, Bean, having established himself as a wit who could also act, became a regular guest on talk and variety programs while appearing in comedic and dramatic roles on television and Broadway.
These days a self-identified political conservative who supported Sen. John McCain’s bid for the presidency, Bean contends that his views have changed much less over the years since the Eisenhower administration than the political parties have.
“When I was blacklisted in the 1950s, we were all lefties, but I was never a communist. That all came about because I was hot for a communist girl who dragged me to a couple of meetings with her,” Bean said. “Luckily for me I was working on Broadway, and so while my television work dried up, the blacklist never affected Broadway because it was all backed by the television and film sponsors. It was the big companies and corporations that did the blacklisting, not the networks. The blacklist was a great inconvenience and expense for the networks. It was basically a protection racket, and the networks were being charged $50 a head to clear the actors and writers.”
A recurring panelist on “To Tell the Truth” in its various incarnations from the 1950s through the early 1990s, Bean also appeared as a celebrity guest on game shows such as “Password,” “Match Game” and “Concentration.” A favorite of talk show hosts Mike Douglas and Johnny Carson, Bean appeared on “The Tonight Show” more than 200 times and, throughout the 1970s, was tapped as a substitute host for Carson for more than 100 episodes.
“When I began the show it was an hour and three-quarters long. You prayed for guests who wouldn’t answer monosyllabically: ‘I understand you recently went on a date with a chicken?’ ‘Umhmm …’”
Later, “When I would substitute host for a week they’d let me sit at Johnny Carson’s desk and I would rifle through it looking for jokes because the writers, I felt, were holding back the better jokes for when the boss came back,” Bean said, suddenly recalling one that went: “It was so hot I saw a dog chasing a cat and both were walking.”
In the 1990s he co-starred on TV’s “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” while also doing roles in feature films and working consistently in theater. More recent television appearances have included guest spots on “Two and a Half Men,” and “How I Met Your Mother,” and a recurring role on “Desperate Housewives.”
As Bean strolled through the lobby of the Geffen one afternoon in May, he unabashedly flirted with the theater’s receptionist, went into an impromptu rapid-fire performance of some old (and off-color) jokes, and then spent an hour going from one subject to the next with the same frenetic pace.
Brushing off a compliment on how great he looks in his 80s, Bean rolled his eyes.
“As opposed to what?” he snapped back with a laugh.
“I feel good, except for my knees, which are giving out on me. But I’m holding my own pretty well,” he said. “Every day my name is not in the obit page I get up and go about my business. I keep waiting for the time to come when I’m supposed to sit in a rocking chair and whittle, but so far that time has never come. I keep getting offered parts or cast in shows, so, although I have the rocking chair and a jackknife, I don’t know if I’m ever going to get around to using them.”
An obligation to be happy
Not having embraced religious teachings or a belief in God as a young man, Bean experienced a late-in-life epiphany while attending a 12-step program that led him to Christianity.
“Looking back, I don’t know if I was an alcoholic, but I was clearly drinking too much because of a painful divorce,” Bean said. “I was going to these meetings and listening to all the talk about a higher power. Then, at one meeting, this guy got up and spoke and it was just mesmerizing. He had done hard time in the pen. This was a tough-looking character, but he had such love in his heart. After the meeting, I grabbed him on the sidewalk and told him that I had a hard time believing in a higher power and in God and asked him what I should do. He told me to get down on my knees every night and say ‘If there’s somebody there, I want to thank you for my day.’ And then, when you get up in the morning, get back on your knees and say ‘If there’s anybody listening, I want to thank you for my night’s sleep.’ I listened and asked him why I had to get on my knees and he said ‘Because He likes it.’ That’s all he said. We stood there looking at one another and then he walked away.”
Bean decided it couldn’t hurt to try.
“I did it for weeks and felt like a fool,” said Bean. “I hoped my kids would never catch me and wonder what new and crazy thing I was into now. But, little by little, I felt as if my prayer — if that’s what it was — was staring to be heard. And then, as more time went by, I started to feel that whomever it was that was listening loved me.”
That’s when Bean would up meeting Frese at First Lutheran of Venice, which at the time was rebuilding after a fire.
“In two Sundays, there he was making coffee and serving bagels after church,” Frese said.
The churchgoing impulse didn’t last long, but a personal sense of Christian spirituality has stuck.
“I like to leave the middle man out and deal directly with the Maker,” Bean said. To me, my relationship with God is evident everywhere I am. When I see a hot babe walk by and my wife says ‘What are you looking at?’ I say ‘Call me a religious zealot, but when I see God’s handiwork in the form of those legs, I can’t help but to worship.’”
Embracing life and being happy is a duty, Bean said.
“When my kids were little and I would see them splashing around in a bubble bath and laughing their heads off uproariously, it just filled my heart like nothing else. If you believe there is a heavenly father up there, what would fill his heart more than seeing us happy and loving one another?”
A version of this story first appeared in Life After 50 magazine, an Argonaut sister publication.