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STAGE & SCREEN by Tom Provenzano

Opportunity Knocks From Jiminy Cricket to Jack Benny, television to stage, Eddie Carroll lets any opening be his guide.

Actor/writer/producer Eddie Carroll related this anecdote in a recent interview: "Peter O'Toole was once asked, 'You just came off a wonderful film, so why take a part on television?' He said, 'I am an actor and that's an acting part. When a plumber gets a call to fix a pipe, he doesn't ask what part of town the house is in. You fix the goddamned pipe!'"

This simple creed has guided Carroll through a long and eclectic career. Carroll believes an actor who will take advantage of every legitimate opportunity that comes his way is much more likely to have a full life in the craft. In nearly four decades, Eddie Carroll has made a mini-industry of himself by exploiting his myriad talents to create many overlapping careers. His television credits are phenomenal, including almost every sitcom of the 1960s. He was a successful producer and writer for syndication, and now he is the official voice for Disney's Jiminy Cricket. But through the last 15 years he has been most fulfilled through the role of Jack Benny in a one-man stage tribute that has taken him around the world many times.

The Benny gig first came his way while he was filming a television movie and the tension on the set was becoming unbearable. When a crew member dropped a prop, ruining a take, the director was about to blow up. Ever the peacemaker, Carroll piped up with an imitation of Jack Benny that he barely knew he could do, "'Oh, for heaven's sake, Rochester, every time I get ready for my big scene you do something to screw me up.' I was just doing shtick like we all do. It got a big laugh, so the director came over to me and said, 'Son of a bitch, I know what you did.' I said, 'I am not an impressionist; it's just something I did to be silly.' He said, 'It's spooky, because there is a producer in NYC who has a one-man show of Jack Benny and can't find the right person to do it. He's almost ready to give it up. He doesn't want to use Rich Little or someone who does it like stage shtick.'"

Carroll had no intention of going to New York, so he forgot about the conversation, until a producer contacted him for an audition that would be held in Hollywood. Suddenly Carroll was interested and began to study Benny's videos and recordings. He found that if he pulled his hair back and wore horn-rimmed glasses he looked very much like the late comedian. He went to the audition dressed as Benny and waited until the many other actors were finished, he then hid himself at the end of a dark corridor, waiting for the producer Ted Snowden to emerge from his office.

"From the end of the hallway in the darkness I said in Benny's voice, 'Oh, Ted, listen, I heard you are going to be doing my life and I got permission to come down here because nobody is going to do me but me,'" he recalled. "I walked into his light and it was wonderful. I just carried on and had fun. I started to read some of the script and he said, 'Forget it. You don't have to read any more, you've got it.'"

That was in 1983. Since then, the play has gone through massive revisions. The original play didn't have the necessary spark, so Carroll brought in many of Benny's actual writers to help. This ultimately caused a split with the playwright, and Carroll ended up creating his own show, one which has kept him touring for many years. Now he is working on a new play that will incorporate several other actors. Said Carroll, "One of Benny's biggest strengths was his ability to react to what happens to him."

A few years ago, Carroll's brilliant Benny found its way into a strange but popular theatrical event. He was called in by a regional theatre in Kansas City to star as Felix Unger in The Odd Couple, but the catch was, he was to be Jack Benny playing the role. He was to be paired with an actor who would be Groucho Marx playing Oscar Madison--and there is one actor in America who is Groucho Marx, Frank Ferrante, whose illustrious stage career began with a USC student production of Groucho when he was 22, which got the attention, and eventually the approval, of Marx's family.

The idea of Groucho and Benny in The Odd Couple sounds like a cheap gimmick, but the audience reaction was amazing. A week into the run it was sold out for six months. Both Los Angeles and New York producers began a bidding war for the show, but Neil Simon (ever protective of his most perfect comedy) quashed the idea.

Carroll was disappointed, of course, but always the self-motivator, he continued in several other career paths. He has never stopped working as an actor or producer since he, a Canadian, was drafted into the American army in the early '60s. Even there, he worked in armed forces radio, television, and film. Upon his release, he became one of the busiest commercial actors in the industry. Of course, this was a time when a commercial audition meant he was called in with about 10 other actors, seen by the producer and director, and told whether he had the part before he left the office.

Klinger's Conscience

He was a very familiar face on sitcoms and variety shows. In an acting class, he met another struggling young actor named Jamie Farr. They were totally opposite types, but they worked well together and began writing comedies. Their Farr-Carroll productions began to take off. Then Farr was called in for a bit part in M*A*S*H as a soldier who dresses in drag to get out of the army.

"Jamie came back to the office so angry," Carroll remembered. " 'I've studied Shakespeare and theatre arts, and I have to come in wearing hooped earrings and a turban and high heels!' he said. I replied, 'You are an actor--it's called a costume!' He did it, but was so upset when they called him back again, he didn't want to do it." Carroll urged his pal to return to M*A*S*H, which set the rest of Farr's career in motion but brought the pair's production company to a halt.

Company or no company, Carroll didn't miss a beat. He has never been without work and never expects to be. Of course, there are those special jobs that make everything else possible. As Carroll enters his later years he is very happy with what he calls his "annuity." That is Jiminy Cricket. The happy-voiced cricket who first appeared in Disney's Pinocchio with the voice of Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards, is Disney's voice of choice whenever they have serious teaching to do. Since every other Disney character seems to have a wacky speech impediment, it is up to Jiminy to be the font of reason. But Disney couldn't find anyone to carry on after Edwards' death.

When approached to audition for the voice, Carroll did some research and discovered the problem with most people's imitation of Edwards was that they were listening to later recordings of him as the cricket--in short films, industrials, commercials, and other miscellaneous Disney product--rather than the original quavering voice from the 1940 animated film. So Carroll went into his then three-year-old son's record collection and found an old Pinocchio album and copied that version of the Cricket conscience's voice. Now every month there is some recording session in which he portrays the cricket, and the income keeps him and his family comfortable while he continues to tour with his stage show.

Said the actor, "I am enjoying the ride a lot, but my ambition and goals are still as strong and bright as ever. When you really love the business and truly have the bug, even with all the bullshit, you never lose the drive." BS

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