Television and movie comedian Ernie Kovacs is remembered by TCM

All-night tribute on his 100th birthday includes TV episodes and movies

Actor-comedian Ernie Kovacs, shown with Joy Shelton (left) and Hy Hazell in the film “Five Golden Hours,” is saluted Wednesday on Turner Classic Movies.

He was ahead of his time, but in his time, Ernie Kovacs was one of comedy’s most unique talents.

With his work commemorated by several home-video collections over the past several years – including the recent “Ernie Kovacs: The Centennial Edition” – the iconoclastic and innovative Kovacs is remembered by Turner Classic Movies with a full night of his late-1950s and early-1960s television programs and feature films Wednesday, Jan. 23, the exact 100th anniversary of his birth.

The lineup includes three episodes of “The Ernie Kovacs Show” first broadcast by ABC, plus the movies “Operation Mad Ball” (with Kovacs as a military-hospital officer in a rivalry with fellow soldier Jack Lemmon), “Wake Me When It’s Over” (as another officer privy to a scheme by draftee Dick Shawn), “Bell Book and Candle” (a witchcraft comedy reteaming Kovacs with Lemmon, and also starring James Stewart and Kim Novak) and “Five Golden Hours” (with con man Kovacs’ game called by savvy baroness Cyd Charisse).

Kovacs reveled in doing the unexpected, making it remarkable that writers and directors could rein him in enough to follow pre-written movie scripts. That yen dated back to his early work for a radio station in Trenton, N.J., where he tried to capture the feeling of being hit by a train – getting off the tracks just in time – among his segments. Several years in local Philadelphia television, where Kovacs interacted with created characters as well as actual viewers, prepped him to go to New York in the early 1950s. A CBS job turned out to be brief, but he stayed in the game by continuing to do TV for various outlets (encompassing a literal game, ABC’s “Take a Good Look”).

A fill-in host for Steve Allen on NBC’s original incarnation of “The Tonight Show,” Kovacs is cited by many as having really come into his own with the series of monthly ABC specials collectively known as “The Ernie Kovacs Show.” Those programs crystallized everything Kovacs liked to do, experimenting with sound, music, editing and special effects … and even having total control over the commercials he did for his sponsor, Dutch Masters cigars.

Kovacs won an Emmy Award for the series, but tragically, what his additional output might have been was curtailed by his death in a 1962 car accident after he attended a baby shower for showbiz icon Milton Berle and his wife. (Kovacs’ wife, singer-actress Edie Adams, had taken a separate vehicle.) Lemmon, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and movie director Billy Wilder were among the pallbearers, attesting to the level to which Ernie Kovacs had risen in the entertainment field – and that TCM will acknowledge on what would have been his 100th birthday.

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin has decades of experience covering the television and movie businesses, winning Tribune Media Services’ Crown Jewel Award in 2008 for his performance in the company. Over those many years of interviewing and writing, he has spoken with everyone from Robert De Niro and John Travolta to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett … from Meryl Streep and Julie Andrews to Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

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Tom Degan
Tom Degan

He’s gone and he’s not coming back.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for the likes of Ernie Kovacs to pass this way again.

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