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Ed Wynn, Jack Palance, and Keenan Wynn in Requiem for a Heavyweight

I recently came across a pencil drawing of Ed Wynn that I did about 50 years ago. Seeing that drawing was a prompt through which I discovered a pair of events in television broadcasting that combine for a unique and moving experience.

I’m old enough to be familiar with Ed Wynn, because he was frequently on television in the early days of the medium, days that coincided with my childhood. He usually appeared in the persona of “the perfect fool,” wearing a goofy outfit and doing a comedy schtick that made him a big star on the stage, in radio and television, and in film. I was also aware that he had appeared in a dramatic role in Requiem for a Heavyweight, which Rod Serling wrote for television.

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ED WYNN

This is the story of a heavyweight boxer, “Mountain” McClintock, played here by Jack Palance, trying to cope with the end of his career in the ring. Ed Wynn’s son Keenan, a successful actor, also appeared in the production in a role closely associated with Ed Wynn’s character—Keenan playing Mache, the boxer’s manager, and Ed playing Army, the boxer’s trainer and cut man. The tension between these two men grows from Army’s conviction that Mache has no sense of Mountain’s humanity and basic decency. That was the first full-length drama broadcast live on television; it appeared on October 11, 1956, when I was 14 years old.

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KEENAN WYNN

I don’t remember if I saw that broadcast, but because it was live, I hadn’t seen the performance since—that is, until now. After I came across that drawing of Ed Wynn, I read about his career. I learned that the rehearsals for Requiem for a Heavyweight were a painful experience for Keenan Wynn, because Ed Wynn couldn’t remember his lines or stage directions, and because he would frequently break into his silly laugh while rehearsing serious lines. The program had been promoted in part as the first joint appearance of the famous father and son, so replacing Ed Wynn in the role was problematic.

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My drawing of Ed Wynn as “The Perfect Fool”

Ed Wynn seemed lost in the production, even in the dress rehearsal, but when the drama was broadcast on live television, his performance was not only flawless, it was so powerful that it led to several other important dramatic roles for him. In fact, he was nominated for an Oscar for his 1959 performance in The Diary of Anne Frank.

The broadcast of Requiem for a Heavyweight has been preserved; you can watch it by clicking HERE. You’ll notice problems with lighting, sound, and camera angles, but if you pay close attention to Ed Wynn, you’ll see the result of six decades of performing—comedy or not.

But wait. I also learned for the first time of a 1960 Desilu production called The Man in the Funny Suit, which was directed by Ralph Nelson, who also directed the television version of Requiem for a Heavyweight and the motion picture adaptation in 1962, in which Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney played the roles originated by Keenan and Ed Wynn.

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Keenan Wynn, Ralph Nelson, and Ed Wynn in The Man in the Funny Suit

The Man in the Funny Suit is a dramatization of the actual events involved in Ed Wynn’s performance in Requiem for a Heavyweight. The story portrays Keenan Wynn’s attempt to convince his father that the era of “the perfect fool” had passed, and the son’s embarrassment and frustration over the elder man’s seeming inability to master his first dramatic role. What’s remarkable about this production is that Ed and Keenan Wynn play themselves, a brave and honest decision that would have been out of the reach of lesser men. Also playing themselves are Rod Serling, former world boxing champion Max Rosenbloom, Ralph Nelson, and—in a straight role—Red Skelton. You can watch this program by clicking HERE.

Viewing these two productions—in their chronological order—is a rare opportunity to see inside the relationship between a famous father and son. I, for one, an grateful for the self-confidence and generosity of heart, on the part of both men, that made this possible.

 

 

HUMPHREY BOGART

Once again the other morning, instead of getting up I clicked on the TV and turned to Turner Classic Movies. Never a good idea. We ended up watching “The Harder They Fall,” a 1956 movie starring Humphrey Bogart, Rod Steiger, and Virginia Mayo. It was Bogart’s last film; he died the following year.

“The Harder They Fall” was ostensibly based on the life of Primo Carnera, and if it was, it wasn’t meant as a compliment to the Italian boxer. The film concerns an Argentine giant who is brought to the United States by an unscrupulous promoter (Steiger) whose angle is to build up the unwitting and incapable kid through a series of fixed bouts and then bet against him when he fights for the heavyweight title. As far as I know there is no proof, but there is a persistent story Carnera was used in just that way.

Jersey Joe Walcott

The cast of “The Harder They Fall” included Jersey Joe Walcott, who won the world heavyweight title in 1951, when he was 37 years old. Walcott — who served as sheriff of Camden County and chairman of the N.J. State Athletic Commission — played a trainer in “The Harder They Fall,” and seemed comfortable in the part.

MAX BAER

Also in this cast was Max Baer, who played the heavyweight champion who beat the Argentine kid and put an end to his career. This appears to have been a none-to-subtle  reference to the fact that Baer took the title from the 275-pound Carnera in 1934. There is also an episode in this film in which the boxer played by Baer gives his opponent such a beating that the man suffers brain damage and dies. That, too, happened in Baer’s career: In 1930, a fighter named Frankie Campbell — brother of Dodger star Dolph Camilli — died after a bout with Max Baer in San Francisco.

BUDDY BAER

Max Baer — father and namesake of the actor-director-producer who played Jethro in “The Beverly Hillbillies” — appeared in a couple of dozen movies and television productions. His brother, Buddy Baer — who was just as hard a puncher  — had a record of 52 wins and 7 losses with 46 knockouts. He never won a title, but he had the distinction of once knocking Joe Louis out of the ring — in a fight that Louis ended up winning on a disqualification call. Baer claimed Louis had hit him and knocked him down after the bell ended the seventh round, and he refused to answer the bell for the eighth. Buddy Baer, too, appeared in numerous movies and television shows after he gave up boxing.

ROCKY GRAZIANO

There were other personable guys who dabbled in entertainment after they were through in the ring, including Rocky Graziano and “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom.

Graziano was a New York street brawler and thief who did time on Riker’s Island and spent lots of time in other sorts of incarceration and under the protection of the Catholic Church. He went AWOL from the Army after punching an officer, and he was suspended from boxing for failing to report an attempted bribe and again for running out on a bout. He was a very good boxer and immortalized himself in the annals of the sport for his three bloody fights with Tony Zale in 1946, 1947, and 1948. The second of those fights made Graziano middleweight champion of the world.

MAXIE ROSENBLOOM

After his fighting career, Graziano — who, like a lot of guys with his background, was a charismatic figure — became a popular entertainer, especially on television comedies and variety shows.

Rosenbloom won the world light heavyweight title in 1932 and held it until 1934. On the one hand, his method of moving around the ring made it hard for opponents to land decisive blows, but that quality also meant that his fights often went the distance, and he took a lot of shots to the head. This eventually affected his physical health. Still, he capitalized on the image of a goofy pug and became a familiar figure on television. Although he wasn’t a serious actor, he played a significant role in Rod Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” the iconic boxing story that starred Jack Palance and Ed and Keenan Wynn and included in its cast Max Baer.

PRIMO CARNERA

In an interesting parallel, Primo Carnera, who was even more unlikely an actor than Rosenbloom, also hit one high note in a limited screen career. Carnera was a giant. When he defended his heavyweight title against Paolino Uzcudun, the two fighters weighed a total of 488 3/4 pounds — the most weight ever in a title match. And when he defended the title against Tommy Laughran, the average weight of the two fighters was 227 pounds, but Laughran weighed only 184. It was the biggest disparity ever in a title bout.

Carnera used his size and generally menacing appearance to his advantage in the 1955 film “A Kid for Two Farthings,” and he won critical approval for his portrayal of villainous wrestler Python Macklin.

Rocky Graziano knocks Tony Zale through the ropes in their 1947 fight.