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