When he began making the rounds of the theater circuit in his native Hartford, Conn., comedian Louis Nye had his sights set on becoming a serious actor.
But after a string of dramatic roles in theater and radio, it was in the Army that Nye found out just how funny he could be. Soon after, a career that would last more than half a century took off in a new direction.
Nye, who created a national catch phrase when he belted out “Hi Ho, Steverino” on Steve Allen’s groundbreaking 1950s TV show, died Sunday following a long battle with lung cancer. He was 92, according to his son, Peter Nye.
Louis Nye was born on May 1, 1913, in Hartford, Conn., where he began his career in theater before moving to New York City to enter radio.
“I still think of myself as an actor,” he told The Associated Press in 1970. “In the radio days I was busy playing rotten Nazis, rich uncles and emotional juveniles — the whole span — and the only time I tried to be funny was at parties.”
He turned to comedy while in the Army, he said, when he was stationed near a “wild town” in Missouri.
“I was in charge of the recreation hall, and I had to make the entertainment good enough to keep the young soldiers from going into town,” he said. “It was a challenge and I worked hard at it. For the first time, I realized I had the ability to make people laugh.”
Soon he was playing nightclubs from Las Vegas to London.
A master of voices and accents, he could go from being droll one moment to prissy the next. He also could switch effortlessly from comically evil Nazis to bumbling Russians.
His talent was not in telling jokes but in the sounds or faces he could make, longtime friend and fellow comedian Shelley Berman told The Associated Press on Monday.
“When he was sitting with you, would he be witty? No,” Berman said. “But he was very funny because he’d make a face or a sound.
“How do you tell how a man has been funny? How do you do the sound of his voice? The turn of his face?” Berman said. “But I will tell you he was as funny as any man I’ve ever seen.”
On “The Steve Allen Show,” which ran from 1956 to 1961 under various names, Nye quickly endeared himself to audiences as Gordon Hathaway, the effete, country-club snob who would welcome Allen’s arrival with the “Hi, ho, Steverino!” salutation.
Other regulars on the landmark show included comedians Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Bill Dana and Gabriel Dell.
From 'Happy Days' to HBOAfter the show’s run ended, Nye appeared often on TV game shows, in films and as a regular on “The Ann Sothern Show.” He was often cast as the second banana, never the lead.
He had a recurring role in the HBO comedy “Curb Your Enthusiasm” as the father of Jeff Garlin’s character from 2000 to 2002. Berman plays the father of Larry David’s character in the show.
Nye played dentist Delbert Gray during the 1960-61 season of Sothern’s show and appeared as Sonny Drysdale, the prissy son of harried banker Milburn Drysdale, during “The Beverly Hillbillies”’ first season. He once said his character was dropped after one season because a network executive thought he was “too sissified.”
Nonetheless, he was back as Sonny for the 1993 TV movie “The Legend of the Beverly Hillbillies” and appeared in the 2001 documentary “The Beverly Hillbillies: The E True Hollywood Story.”
He teamed with Allen again in 1967, on “The Steve Allen Comedy Hour,” a CBS variety show in which he also portrayed Gordon Hathaway. His cohorts that time included Allen’s wife, Jayne Meadows, Ruth Buzzi and John Byner, among others.
In the summer of 1970 he hosted the variety show “Happy Days” on CBS and three years later co-starred with Norman Fell in the New York garment industry sitcom “Needles and Pins.” He played Kirby Baker in the 1978 TV show “Harper Valley P.T.A.”
In the ’80s and ’90s he provided various voices for the “Inspector Gadget” cartoon show.
His film credits included “Cannonball Run II,” “Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood,” “A Guide for the Married Man,” “Good Neighbor, Sam” and “Sex Kittens Go to College.”
Nye continued to appear regularly in nightclubs and on television until a couple of years ago when his wife’s health began to fail and he retired to spend more time with her, his son said.
He also guest starred in such shows as “St. Elsewhere,” “The Love Boat,” “Laverne & Shirley” and “The Munsters” and appeared frequently as a guest on “The Jackie Gleason Show,” “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and other variety and talk shows.
He is survived by his son and his wife, Anita.