The faces of these three actors were familiar to Baby Boomers raised on TV situation comedies. Their private lives were not. In a way, though, they helped to blaze trails for which they were never given credit.
by Burt Kearns & Jeff Abraham
With this year’s Gay Pride Month marking the fiftieth anniversary of the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, the accomplishments of LGBT heroes of the past fifty years have been widely celebrated. But along with political activists and social revolutionaries, there were a number of entertainers who, in the decades surrounding the rebellion, brought a clear, if often exaggerated, gay presence into American homes.
Most did not “come out” officially, but there was no need. Even kids planted in front of the television sets in the 1960s knew there was something “funny” about Uncle Arthur and Claymore Gregg. And these funny men were welcome. They made us laugh. They, along with other favorite sitcom characters, were influences on American punk culture and today are looked upon as pioneers.
What follows are the stories of three of them, actors whose roles were well-defined and brilliant in their simplicity, but whose personal lives were more complicated, full of compromising relationships, situations and positions.
THE STRAIGHT MAN
Richard Deacon was the straight man.
“As a straight man, I’m hired for my buttoned-down quality,” he told author Boze Hadleigh. “I’m nearly always an executive of some sort, in suit and tie, and somebody always pricks my bubble of dignity. I’ve been called every adjective — smug, lugubrious, unctuous, bland, you name it. My character always represents the Establishment. I’m never an individualist. Not at all flamboyant.”
Deacon had a long career in television and films by the time a generation of kids got to know him as Fred Rutherford, Lumpy’s father on Leave It To Beaver. The series premiered on CBS on October 4, 1957, and switched over to ABC in its second season, where it remained until its final episode aired on June 20, 1963. Fred was an annoyance to his neighbor and co-worker, Beaver’s dad Ward Cleaver. Tall, balding, wearing glasses and usually a suit and tie, he was not at all flamboyant, but a suburban Dave Berg character come to life.
Deacon was still in the Beaver cast when he stepped into his career-defining role on The Dick Van Dyke Show in October 1961. Van Dyke played Rob Petrie, head writer of a comedy-variety series called The Alan Brady Show. Richard Deacon was Mel Cooley, Brady’s brother-in-law and the show’s pompous, prissy—“unctuous”—producer. Mel Cooley kissed Alan Brady’s ass, while serving as the constant butt of jokes and insults by gag writer Buddy Sorrell (played by Morey Amsterdam). Mel Cooley was the perfect straight man.
Richard Deacon was not. Off camera, offstage, he was not a straight man. He was a gay man. It wasn’t something he talked about. He kept his personal life private. No one asked. He didn’t tell. In Hollywood in the 1960s, life was played out in the shadows for Deacon and other gay actors who often played heterosexual husbands and fathers on television and movies. That was the case with buttoned-down types like Hayden Rorke (Dr. Bellows on I Dream of Jeannie) and Dick Sargent (the “second Darren” on Bewitched), but also flamboyantly camp performers like Charles Nelson Reilly and Paul Lynde (Jim Nabors of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. was in a class of his own). To the public, they were simply “confirmed bachelors.” (Lynde’s sexuality wasn’t even made an issue when in July 1965, after a night of drunken revelry, a young actor fell to his death from the window of Lynde’s eighth-floor room at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco. The papers described the pair as “friends.”)
“I’m nearly the opposite of Paul Lynde,” Deacon told Boze Hadleigh in that interview in the late 1970s for the book, Hollywood Gays. “Paul only has to look at someone and he’s funny. He can ridicule somebody just by looking at them. His body language is funny. It’s a gift few have… I learned the only way I could get laughs was through a situation. I do nothing. The star or other character does it. For instance, if a female character finds me sexy and chases me, it’s funny because I’m no sex symbol at all. If I get spray-painted, like on Lucy, it’s funny as long as I don’t act as if I think it’s funny.”
When Hadleigh asked if he thought any of the public assumed he was gay, Deacon shook his head. “Not even gays. Most would be surprised. Only because what you see on TV — a serious guy in a suit, unsmiling– isn’t how anyone thinks of gay males.”
“Have you ever been cast as gay?” Hadleigh asked.
“No,” Deacon replied. “Asexual, often. Heterosexual, now and then — if the part’s bigger than usual.”
“Do you think within the industry it’s known you’re gay?”
Hadleigh wrote that Deacon gave a little shrug. “No idea.”
THE RENAISSANCE MAN MEETS SEÑOR NAUGLES
After producer Carl Reiner folded the tent on the Van Dyke show in 1966 (he wanted to go out on top), Deacon was cast as the bombastic husband of Kaye Ballard in the second season of the NBC sitcom, The Mothers-In-Law. Deacon replaced Roger C. Carmel in the role. Carmel had been ousted by producer Desi Arnaz, officially over a salary dispute, but more likely because his drug use was causing costly production delays.
Roger C. Carmel also was gay. He appeared on many 1960s sitcoms, dramas and on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, and was well-known to a certain audience as Harry Mudd from two classic episodes of Star Trek. Carmel’s career suffered after The Mothers-In-Law whispers, but he did find television acting and voiceover work throughout the 1970s (including a spot on the short-lived Paul Lynde Show, in which Lynde portrayed a married lawyer with two daughters). By the mid-1980s, the six-foot-three, 260-pound actor was still hanging on. He was the voice of Smokey Bear in public service spots and portrayed the south-of-the-borderline racist character “Señor Naugles” in television commercials for the Naugles Mexican restaurant chain.
On November 11, 1986, Roger C. Carmel was found dead in his sixth-floor condominium at 7135 Hollywood Boulevard. His 54-year-old body was discovered by the building manager after friends said they hadn’t seen Carmel for days. Though there would later be rumors he’d committed suicide by aspirin, police said he died of a narcotics overdose. Cocaine residue and narcotics paraphernalia were found near his body. The young male prostitutes Carmel was known to cavort with were not.
Carmel (who fittingly was buried in Mount Carmel cemetery in Queens, N.Y.), outlived Richard Deacon by two years, but Deacon’s life was longer, far less fraught and much fuller. He worked constantly on television and in films, and became something of a Renaissance Man. He collected art and rocks, was a gourmet chef and wrote a microwave oven cookbook that sold more than 1.7 million copies. He was also active on the social scene. “Dickie Deacon” could be seen at gay bars in West Hollywood with friends like Paul Lynde and Nancy Walker, and at parties at houses like Rock Hudson’s. According to the liner notes for pianist Michael Feinstein’s first album, Deacon was so taken by the young musician and song revivalist that he “had designed and had built Feinstein a superb miniature drawing room with grand piano and antique memorabilia to match.”
Deacon had perhaps first seen Feinstein perform at Studio One’s Backlot, a gay nightclub in West Hollywood, when Feinstein was accompanying the female impersonator Charles Pierce. Pierce, who referred to himself not as a drag artist but a “male actress,” was one of the most brilliant and biting comics of his time, with hilarious impersonations of iconic actresses including Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Joan Collins. All future female impersonator “drag” performances sprang from Charles Pierce. (Lynde and Reilly were fans and friends of Pierce, who appeared in a 1980 episode of Laverne & Shirley — along with Roger C. Carmel). One of the last circulated photos of Richard Deacon appears to be in Pierce’s dressing room. Deacon is clowning, covering his bald pate with a short blonde wig.
In the summer of 1984, Richard Deacon’s plate was full. He’d recently revived his role as Fred Rutherford in a CBS TV movie, Still The Beaver, and thanks to its success, was invited to join the cast of the Disney channel television series, The New Leave It To Beaver, in the fall. He was also hosting a microwave cooking television show that was syndicated in Canada, while preparing to shoot home video and US syndicated versions.
Those plans came to an abrupt halt on the evening of Wednesday, August 8, 1984, when paramedics were called to Deacon’s home on Dalegrove Drive in Beverly Hills’ Coldwater Canyon. The actor had suffered a heart attack. He was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center where, at 11:07 p.m., he was declared dead. He was 63.
Richard Deacon had requested that there be no funeral. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered at sea.
Joe Flynn often felt scattered at sea in his most popular television role. A former ventriloquist and Republican state senate candidate from Youngstown, Ohio, we all knew Flynn as the bespectacled, fussy, Captain Wallace Binghamton — aka “Old Leadbottom” (due to a bullet wound in his rear end) — on ABC’s wacky World War II comedy, McHale’s Navy.
In June 1964, two years into McHale’s Navy‘s success, Flynn “complained” to TV Graphic magazine about the amount of time he was forced to spend in the water. “The show’s writers are a lawless breed in general, but they do have their code,” he said. “It’s very simple: ‘Drown Binghamton!’ Why, in this series I’ve wrung more water out of my shirt than Ernie (Borgnine) and Tim (Conway) and the rest of the guys have sailed over. I’ve been tripped, struck, sideswiped, flung and shoved in the drink, and dropped from a balloon. I’ve landed in a parachute. I’ve gone in head-on, backward, feet first, spread-eagle, and belly-flop. I’ve been deep-sixed clutching a bottle of champagne, a camera, even a pair of nylons.”
Flynn added that the “drowning” scenes always seemed to be filmed when the weather was cold and windy. “I’ve lowered myself to plead to the producer, ‘Why not use a stock shot — one of my previous dunkings? Some of them are quite lovely.’ But he always has excuses. ‘Sorry, Joe. This time you go in wearing Eskimo mukluks. There just aren’t any stock photos of you drowning in an Eskimo suit. Happy landings!'”
The writer noted that Flynn’s “tragic plight” did not elicit sympathy from the actor’s five-year-old son, Tony. “Every time he sees me take a header on the show, he complains about it: ‘Dad, you always go swimming. Why don’t we have a pool?'” Flynn said. “What the little guy doesn’t know is that his old man is not as stupid as he looks. I shopped for my house very carefully. I had to search all over Beverly Hills, but finally found one without a pool.”
Ten years after that interview, Joe Flynn and his family were living in neighboring Bel Air, California, in a house with a pool.
McHale’s Navy had been off the air since 1966, but Flynn worked regularly on television dramas and comedies (including an episode of Jeannie in which he plays a psychiatrist brought into replace Dr. Bellows), in movies (many for Walt Disney Productions), and as a guest on talk and game shows. He’d recently wrapped two projects for Disney: filming The Strongest Man in the World, and voicing the role of Mr. Snoops in the animated film, The Rescuers.
On July 13, 1974, he taped an episode as a guest on The Merv Griffin Show. The episode was set to air the following Friday, July 19.
In the early hours of that Friday, Joe Flynn’s nude body was found at the bottom of his swimming pool. His son Tony was the one who made the discovery. The five-year-old who’d complained about not having a swimming pool was now sixteen. He and his kid brother, thirteen-year-old Kenny, hauled their father’s naked carcass out of the water. The fire department rescue squad showed up, but far too late. Old Leadbottom had been drowned for the last time. Joe Flynn was 49.
SECRETS & SUSPICIONS
Police said that Flynn had apparently suffered a heart attack that led to him drowning during a late-night swim, but there were circumstances that aroused suspicion that Joe Flynn may have been the victim of foul play. For one, though it was not reported, his body was not completely nude when it sank to the bottom of the swimming pool. Flynn had a heavy cast on one leg. At the time, most doctors would instruct a patient with a broken limb to keep the cast dry. Another issue concerned his appearances on the Merv Griffin Show. Flynn had been active in Hollywood politics and as a member of the Screen Actors Guild, led a fight for fair residuals from the studios. He’d apparently told Merv that he was holding bombshell information about the way the industry conducted business.
Then there was the blackmail.
The incident was not mentioned in Joe Flynn’s obituary. Eighteen months before his death, Flynn had been the target of an extortion plot. It began in January 1973, with a phone call to his home. A male voice on the other end of the line said he was in possession of “revealing photos” of the actor. He offered Flynn the opportunity to buy them.
Joe Flynn went to the Los Angeles Police Department and reported the extortion attempt. He agreed to pay the man seven thousand dollars and delivered the money to an agreed-upon pickup point. The police tailed the suspect from there. They arrested a 29-year-old “unemployed salesman” named Clark Worthey after phone records showed the extortion calls to Flynn’s home came from his home.
A spokesman for the Los Angeles District Attorney said the photos, which allegedly showed Joe Flynn “in compromising positions with a woman,” did not actually exist.
This leads to the question: if Joe Flynn were to be caught in “compromising positions,” would those positions have been with a woman? An intriguing answer brings us back to Charles Pierce, the “male actress” known for his Bette Davis and Joan Crawford impersonations, and social connections to Richard Deacon, Roger C. Carmel, Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly, and other 1960s television stars caught in the lavender closet.
In the Pierce biography, From Drags to Riches, John Wallraff writes that Deacon was among the celebrities who came out to watch Pierce perform at the Gilded Cage gay nightclub on Ellis Street in San Francisco. Among the others was “Joe Flynn of McHale’s Navy, who appeared with a sexy young muscle man in a white t-shirt. Flynn, a Hollywood actor, was being very open about his ‘gayness.'”
(Paul Lynde’s nude body was found in his bed in his home in Beverly Hills on January 11, 1982. Though there were rumors of the circumstances surrounding his death and traces of the sex stimulant butyl nitrate in his system, the Los Angeles coroner ruled out foul play and attributed his death at 55 to a heart attack. Charles Nelson Reilly died of pneumonia in the same city on March 25, 2007. He was 76, openly gay and had earned a reputation as an acclaimed stage director. Jim Nabors moved from neighboring Bel Air, to Maui, Hawaii, in 1976, where he lived in privacy with his partner. He underwent a liver transplant in 1994 after contracting hepatitis C, and “came out” in 2013, when he married his partner of 38 years. Nabors died on November 30, 2017, having lived to the ripe age of 87.)
BURT KEARNS & JEFF ABRAHAM wrote the book, The Show Won’t Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre, and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage, which will be published September 3 by Chicago Review Press, and can be pre-ordered at TheShowWontGoOn.com and DiedOnstage.com.