Harvey Korman; 81; his comedy veered from stoic to silly

Harvey Korman and Carol Burnett in a scene from 'The Carol Burnett Show.' Mr. Korman was a mainstay of the variety show for a decade. Harvey Korman and Carol Burnett in a scene from "The Carol Burnett Show." Mr. Korman was a mainstay of the variety show for a decade. (cbs via UPI/file 1971)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bob Thomas
Associated Press / May 30, 2008

LOS ANGELES - Harvey Korman, the tall, versatile comedian who won four Emmys for his outrageously funny contributions to "The Carol Burnett Show" and who played a conniving politician to hilarious effect in "Blazing Saddles," died yesterday. He was 81.

Mr. Korman died at UCLA Medical Center after suffering complications from the rupture of an abdominal aortic aneurysm four months ago, his family said. He had undergone several operations.

"He was a brilliant comedian and a brilliant father," daughter Kate Korman said in a telephone interview. "He had a very good sense of humor in real life. "

A natural second banana, Mr. Korman first gained attention on "The Danny Kaye Show," appearing in skits with the star.

He joined the show in its second season in 1964 and continued until it was canceled in 1967. That same year he became a cast member in the first season of Burnett's show.

His most memorable film role was as the outlandish Hedley Lamarr (who was endlessly exasperated when people called him Hedy) in Mel Brooks's 1974 Western satire, "Blazing Saddles."

"A world without Harvey Korman - it's a more serious world," Brooks said yesterday. "It was very dangerous for me to work with him because if our eyes met we'd crash to floor in comic ecstasy. It was comedy heaven to make Harvey Korman laugh."

On television, Burnett and Mr. Korman developed into an ideal pair with their burlesques of classic movies such as "Gone With the Wind" and such soap operas as "As the World Turns" (their version was called "As the Stomach Turns").

Another recurring skit featured them as "Ed and Eunice," a staid married couple who were constantly at odds with the wife's mother (a young Vicki Lawrence in a gray wig).

In "Old Folks at Home," they were a combative married couple bedeviled by Lawrence as Burnett's troublesome young sister.

Mr. Korman revealed the secret to the long-running show's success in a 2005 interview: "We were an ensemble, and Carol had the most incredible attitude. I've never worked with a star of that magnitude who was willing to give so much away."

Burnett was devastated by Mr. Korman's death, said her assistant, Angie Horejsi.

"She loved Harvey very much," Horejsi said.

After 10 successful seasons, Mr. Korman left Burnett's show in 1977 for his own series. Dick Van Dyke took his place, but the chemistry was lacking and the Burnett show was canceled two years later. "The Harvey Korman Show" also failed, as did other series starring the actor.

"It takes a certain type of person to be a television star," he said in that 2005 interview.

"I didn't have whatever that is. I come across as kind of snobbish and maybe a little too bright. . . . Give me something bizarre to play or put me in a dress and I'm fine."

Brooks tapped Mr. Korman's kinetic comic chops often, including roles in "High Anxiety," "The History of the World Part I," and "Dracula: Dead and Loving It."

"I gave him tongue twisters because I knew he was the only one who could wrap his mouth around them," Brooks said.

"Harvey was such a good solid actor that he could have done Shakespearean drama just as well and easily as he did comedy."

Brooks described Mr. Korman as a "dazzling" comic talent.

"You could get rock-solid comedy out of him. He could lift the material. He always made it real, always made it work, always believed in characters he was doing," he said.

Mr. Korman's other films included two "Pink Panther" movies, "Trail of the Pink Panther" in 1982 and "Curse of the Pink Panther" in 1983; "Gypsy;" "Huckleberry Finn" (as the King); "Herbie Goes Bananas;" and "Bud and Lou" (as legendary straight man Bud Abbott to Buddy Hackett's Lou Costello).

In television, Mr. Korman guest-starred in dozens of series including "The Donna Reed Show," "Dr. Kildare," "Perry Mason," "The Wild Wild West," "The Muppet Show," "The Love Boat," and "Burke's Law."

In the '70s, he and Tim Conway, one of his Burnett show co-stars, toured the country with their show "Tim Conway and Harvey Korman: Together Again." They did 120 shows a year, sometimes as many as six or eight in a weekend.

Mr. Korman was known, too, for his voice-over work, providing the snooty voice of "The Flintstones" character the Great Gazoo, the diminutive, green helmeted alien who referred to Fred and Barney as "dum-dums."

In more recent years he provided voice-overs for the children's TV cartoon series "Hey Arnold!"

Mr. Korman had an operation in late January on a noncancerous brain tumor and pulled through "with flying colors," Kate Korman said.

Less than a day after coming home, he was re-admitted because of the ruptured aneurysm and was given a few hours to live. But he survived for another four months.

"He fought until the very end. He didn't want to die. He fought for months and months," said his daughter.

Harvey Herschel Korman was born Feb. 15, 1927, in Chicago. He left college for service in the Navy, resuming his studies afterward at the Goodman School of Drama at the Chicago Art Institute.

After four years, he decided to try New York.

"For the next 13 years I tried to get on Broadway, on off-Broadway, under or beside Broadway," he told a reporter in 1971.

He had no luck and had to support himself as a restaurant cashier.

Finally, in desperation, he and a friend formed a nightclub comedy act.

"We were fired our first night in a club, between the first and second shows," he recalled.

After returning to Chicago, Mr. Korman decided to try Hollywood, reasoning that "at least I'd feel warm and comfortable while I failed."

For three years he sold cars and worked as a doorman at a movie theater. Then he landed the job with Kaye.

In 1960 Mr. Korman married Donna Elhart and they had two children, Maria and Christopher. They divorced in 1977. He married Deborah Fritz in 1982 and they had two children, Katherine and Laura.

Material from Reuters was used in this obituary.

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