(Update below: 05-04)
No one in the world is funnier than a great straight man. No one. And he was simply the best. whether as George Utley on "Newhart," or one of dozens of characters over the years.
For Christ's sake, Tom Poston was Everyman, a Man on the Street on the Steve Allen Show, along with Wally Cox and Don Knots! He would get so befuddled he couldn't remember his name! That routine alone would have ensured him comedic immortality. He won an Emmy for the work in 1959.
As a little kid, I sat next to my father and laughed like a loon at this guy looking like he was the world's biggest sad sack. Me, I just wish I could stop crying!
What a great career he had. Here is the biography page from his website. What a wonderful, funny, funny man. Please read about him, and celebrate his life.
He made people laugh over generations, mostly without cracking a smile. Try that some time!
The New York Times carries a nice obituary today outlining his career in show business. You want a good laugh? Read about his audition for a part in “Committed,” which was broadcast on NBC in 2005. But the obituary unfortunately pays short shrift to an extraordinary early chapter in his long life, a child of the Depression who once even aspired to be a boxer.
So, here is something you may not know, the details of which you apparently won't get from the Times.
Before his career in show business, Tom was a war hero, in World War II. Among the many moments of action he saw, Tom Poston participated in D-Day as a pilot of a C-47 troop transport plane, dropping paratroopers early that morning. That took courage for all those fellas, far beyond what most of us can ever imagine.
Tom described that action on D-Day in Gerald Astor's book, The Greatest War. You should buy it and read the whole thing. The full title is: The Greatest War, Volume II: D-Day and the Assault on Europe (Mass Market Paperback). Here's the part quoting Tom Poston, which can be found at pages 247-48.
Tom Poston piloted a C-47 packed with paratroopers. “D-day, it was black, pitch black. I think it was 1 A.M. when we crossed the coast of Normandy. The moon was bright through the clouds, it was gorgeous. We came in, drifting down through the clouds, plane after plane after plane after plane, down through this pitch-black dark and then there’s a flaming 'Tee' there that those brave guys that go ahead of the drops set out there and that’s the target for the paratroopers. But, oh, my God, they were dropping paratroopers from hell to breakfast because the formations were so spread out. Pilots don’t like to fight prop wash too much [the air eddies created from the propellers of nearby aircraft].
“The ideal thing is to come in at 400--500 feet, drop the paratroopers. They just go bustling out, the chute opens, slows them, and they hit the ground. That’s ideal because nobody can pick them off. But the guys [pilots] behind them don’t want to go in at 400—500 feet because they’re fighting the stick like crazy, trying to fly in formation, flying in the prop wash. So they stack and the next group comes in twenty feet higher than the first group. By the time the last groups are dropping, those guys are coming in at 1,000, 1,500 feet in the air, hanging there.
“I don’t know what the Germans could see from the ground but we couldn’t see anything. It was pitch black when we went in. But when we left it was a sea of flame. Everybody woke up down there and went, ‘What the hey!’ Boom! Boom! Boom! Antiaircraft and machine-gun fire, tracers all over the sky, every which way. The tracers look like they’re coming right at you. You’d see a flare coming right at your nose and then it trailed off to the side.”
What a guy!
Grantland Rice, a famous sportswriter from the early to mid 20th century, once wrote a book called The Tumult and the Shouting - My Life in Sport, ( the first phrase borrowed from Rudyard Kipling), and in it is a photo of Lou Gehrig with the simple inscription underneath,
"No caption needed here. They come no finer -- ever."
Rice is also famous for having said,
"For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, He writes - not that you won or lost - but how you played the Game. "
So, with Granny Rice, we can all tip our hats to a funny man and hero like Tom Poston.
They surely come no finer -- ever.
(Update: 05-04): I found a delightful obit of Tom in the LA Times, by staff writer by Dennis Mclellan. It carried the following comment, a compliment that reinforces the focus on his connection as a funny man across the generations.
Peter Scolari, a fellow "Newhart" cast member, said that "as a comedian, Tom was truly unique."
"Here's a guy who worked on Broadway with Bert Lahr [in a Burlesque revue] and Jose Ferrer," Scolari told The Times. "On 'Newhart,' he was by then about 70 and as fresh and feeling a comedic actor as you'd ever want to work with. There was an unbridled joy in Tom."
McLellan also tells the story -- one I had never heard before -- of how his most famous bit (to me anyway) from the Steve Allen Show was actually born.
Poston had appeared in Broadway comedies such as "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" in the 1950s. But it was his work as host of "Entertainment," a local daily comedy-variety show in New York, that caught the attention of two writers for "The Steve Allen Show," whose comedic stock company included Don Knotts and Louis Nye.
In Allen's famous man-in-the-street sketches, Poston was the man who could never remember his name.
When Allen was auditioning actors for the sketch, Poston recalled in a 1982 interview with the Newhouse News Service, "I was, naturally, scared to death."
"He asked me my name and darned if my mind didn't go blank. I sat there like a big dope and held my head. Steve thought I was kidding. He said, 'Hey, that's great! We'll use it.' From then on, I was a regular."
I also searched YouTube for an old clip of his man on the street routine from the Steve Allen Show, but was unable to find one. I did, however, find these two bits from the show in the 1950's, where Poston played the "straight" intro for the "way out" jazz group, the Unidentified Flying Objects, first here and then here. Poston had trained as a tumbler early in his life and frequently did routines where he would take a prat fall, as you'll see he did in both of these.
And here was the funny scene from Newhart, where he played bumbling handyman George Utley, called George's dream.