Orson Bean, the witty actor and comedian, was hit and killed by a car in Los Angeles, authorities said. He was 91. The Los Angeles County coroner’s office confirmed Bean’s Friday night death, saying it was being investigated as a “traffic-related” fatality. The coroner’s office provided the location where Bean was found, which matched reports from local news outlets.
A man was walking in the Venice neighbourhood when he was clipped by a vehicle and fell, Los Angeles Police Department Captain Brian Wendling initially told local stations. A second driver then struck him in what police say was the fatal collision. Both drivers remained on the scene. Police were investigating and didn’t identify the pedestrian to local outlets, which named Bean based on eyewitness accounts.
Bean enlivened such TV game shows as To Tell the Truth and played a crotchety merchant on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.
“Mr. Bean’s face comes wrapped with a sly grin, somewhat like the expression of a child when sneaking his hand into the cookie jar,” The New York Times noted in a review of his 1954 variety show, The Blue Angel. It said he showed “a quality of being likeable even when his jokes fall flat.”
‘Because it sounded funny’
Born in Burlington, Vermont, in 1928 as Dallas Frederick Burrows, he never lost the Yankee accent that proved a perfect complement to the dry, laconic storytelling that established him as popular humorist. He had picked the stage name Orson Bean “because it sounded funny.”
In a 1983 New York Times interview, he recalled his early career in small clubs where the show consisted of “me — master of ceremonies, comedian and magician — maybe a dog act, and a stripper.” It was a piano player in one such club, he said, who suggested replacing Dallas Burrows with some funny name like “Roger Duck” or Orson Bean. His quick wit and warm personality made him a favourite panellist for six years on To Tell the Truth.
The game required the panellists to quiz three contestants to figure out which one was a real notable and which two were impostors. The dramatic outcome inspired a catchphrase as the host turned to the three and said- “Will the real (notable’s name) please stand up?”
Bean’s style appealed to both Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, and he appeared on The Tonight Show more than 200 times. But his early career was hobbled for a time when he found himself on the Hollywood blacklist in the early years of the Cold War. “Basically I was blacklisted because I had a cute communist girlfriend,” he explained in a 2001 interview. “I stopped working on TV for a year.”
The blacklist didn’t stop him in the theatre. Bean starred on Broadway as a timid fan magazine writer in George Axelrod’s 1955 Hollywood spoof Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? alongside Jayne Mansfield and Walter Matthau. He also starred on Broadway with Maureen O’Sullivan in Never Too Late and with Melina Mercouri in Illya Darling, based on her hit film Never on Sunday.
Bean took a break from his career for a time in the 1970s when he dropped out and moved to Australia, where he lived a hippie lifestyle. But he returned to the U.S., and after a period as a self-described “house-husband”, resumed his career. “I got sick of contemplating my navel and staring up at the sky and telling myself how wonderful it was not to be doing anything,” he explained in a 1983 interview with The New York Times.
In the 1990s, he played the shopkeeper Loren Bray on the long-running drama Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. He remained active on the screen in recent years with guest shots in such shows as Desperate Housewives, How I Met Your Mother and Modern Family.
Meanwhile, his politics turned more conservative. He became related to a leading right-wing commentator, Andrew Breitbart, when his daughter, Susannah, married him. Breitbart died in 2012 and Steve Bannon, later a top adviser to Donald Trump, took over Breitbart’s eponymous website, for which Bean had penned occasional columns.
Bean wrote a memoir called Too Much Is Not Enough and a book about a non-traditional therapy called Me and the Orgone. “I said to myself, we have to start with the children. Why not start a school?” he told The New York Times.
That same year, he co-founded the Sons of the Desert, an organization dedicated to comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, with chapters around the world. More recently, income from Dr. Quinn and other voice and acting work allowed Bean to finance the Pacific Resident Theatre Ensemble in Venice, where he appeared with his third wife, actress Alley Mills.