Friday, July 31, 2015

Larry Blyden

[This little project started when I thought to make a recommendation at The Blackboard, where old television is often a topic of discussion.]

There is a memorable two-part version of Budd Schulberg's ultra-cynical Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run?, directed by Delbert Mann and starring the Broadway-seasoned Larry Blyden as Sammy Glick, that was shown on NBC Sunday Showcase in 1958. Blyden positively scorches the screen in this one, and co-stars John Forsythe, Barbara Rush, and Dina Merrill are darn good too. Great stuff, and readily available on DVD. Treat yourself.

What Makes Sammy Run (DVD Verdict)

What Makes Sammy Run (DVD Talk)

Blyden died under mysterious circumstances in Morocco in 1975, aged 49.

[In a subsequent post, I started to go deeper.]

I basically knew Blyden as the host of What's My Line? in the post-John Charles Daly era. He had a lot of interesting theater credits:

The lead in the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song (1958), in "yellowface," opposite Pat Suzuki, Miyoshi Umeki, and Keye Luke, directed by Gene Kelly; Blyden was Tony-nominated (Lead Actor in a Musical).

Co-starring with Bert Lahr in an unsuccessful David Merrick musical, Foxy (1964), which transposed Ben Jonson's Volpone to the Yukon during the Gold Rush (seriously).

The Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick three-vignette musical The Apple Tree (1966), with Alan Alda, Barbara Harris, and Robert Klein (Ken Kercheval was a standby).

A revival of Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1972), for which Blyden won a Tony as Best Featured Actor in a Musical; Phil Silvers played the lead of Pseudolus made famous by Zero Mostel.

The Broadway premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular (1974), with Sandy Dennis, Richard Kiley, Geraldine Page, Tony Roberts, and Carole Shelley; Blyden was Tony-nominated (Featured Actor in a Play).

The premiere of Sondheim's The Frogs (1974), also starring Carmen de Lavallade, staged by the Yale Repertory Theatre in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, with Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep in the chorus (ironically, Blyden had played a small role in the first Broadway musical to feature a swimming pool on stage, Wish You Were Here in 1952).

'Frogs' They Would A-Swimming Go

Foxy, by the way, was an interesting failure in several respects. It was mounted for Lahr, who did win a Tony for it despite the show only reaching 72 performances. No cast album was issued, although RCA held the rights. Most bizarrely, the tryouts were held in the Yukon itself! - at the Palace Grand Theatre in Dawson City for seven weeks in the summer of 1962, with the Canadian government as co-investor, and playing to nearly empty houses night after night. I'm not sure if Blyden was in that cast. The Broadway premiere was delayed by Lahr's starring in S.J. Perelman's The Beauty Part, a magnificent comic play and another show with a fascinating history, its relative failure (85 performances) due more to its opening (and closing) within the 114-day New York newspaper strike of 1962-1963 than to any deficiency in the script or production. In fact, its run has become something of a legend.

Blyden was a fairly regular replacement cast performer in shows such as Mister Roberts (as Ensign Pulver) and Murray Schisgal's Luv.

He tried directing for Broadway twice, neither time successfully. Harold, a play by Herman Raucher (Summer of '42) with Anthony Perkins and Don Adams in the leads, ran for only 20 performances in 1962. Then Blyden had the dreaded one-night flop with The Mother Lover in 1969, a play by Jerome Weisman with Blyden himself, Valerie French, and Eileen Heckart as the three-person cast. The Mother Lover was produced in association with AVCO Embassy Pictures which clearly had movie hopes for it, not to be realized.

[Then I just kept on researching. I love doing credits crawls.]

Larry Blyden got to make just three feature films. He had small parts in support of Cary Grant and Jayne Mansfield in Kiss Them for Me (1957), and of Barbra Streisand and Yves Montand in Vincente Minnelli’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) (along with Bob Newhart and Jack Nicholson). I recall seeing On a Clear Day chopped up, cut, and panned-and-scanned on commercial TV many years ago – it did not strike me as much of a movie, and its reputation does not contradict that. (However, the original cast album of the Broadway show with Barbara Harris and John Cullum is terrific, and the Lerner & Lane title song is great for singing in the shower.)

Blyden’s best film credit is as a member of Paddy Chayefsky’s The Bachelor Party (1957) under his What Makes Sammy Run? director Delbert Mann. Blyden’s co-stars in the party are Don Murray, Jack Warden, E.G. Marshall, and Philip Abbott.

Blyden was very active in Golden Age television from his New York base in the Fifties and early Sixties, as so many Broadway actors were, and he continued going strong in episodic television until the early Seventies. He also headlined two series of his own. Harry’s Girls, a sitcom which ran for 15 episodes on NBC in 1963-1964, sounds offbeat. The only IMDB comment is worth quoting:

Watching Les Girls a couple of days ago put me in mind of a short lived series that seemed to have borrowed liberally from that Gene Kelly film in the creation. The series is Harry's Girls and like Les Girls it starred three shapely young ladies Susan Silo, Denise Nickerson, and Diahn Willliams. They are the girls and their problems and the morale of the troupe at large are of concern to Harry, played by Larry Blyden.

Take a look at the continental cast list of Harry's Girls. Appearing in some of the episodes are such players as Dennis Price and Claude Dauphin whom you would not be normally seeing except on the small screen. The series only ran for [15] episodes and the expense of shooting in Europe outran the ratings. Sadly the show did not catch on. A pity because I do remember the wonderful location photography of the series.

Blyden had an earlier sitcom on CBS in 1956, Joe & Mabel, described thus:

Joe's a big city cab driver, and Mabel is his steady gal. Joe plans on marrying Mabel "someday", but Mabel is looking for something a little sooner. Mabel and her mother spend their time thinking of schemes to trick Joe into walking down the aisle.

This was a television version of an old 1941-1942 radio property; Blyden’s co-stars were Nita Talbot, Shirl Conway, and Norman Fell. The Television Obscurities website ran a piece on the show’s interesting production history, which involved completed episodes being discarded, the planned September 1955 premiere being postponed at the last minute, and the entire series being “burned off” during the summer of 1956:

Joe and Mabel (Television Obscurities)

Episodes of this show are apparently available on the gray market.

Among Blyden’s other interesting television credits:

A turn as Bugsy Siegel in a 1960 episode of The Witness – this could have some of that Sammy Glick energy.

An adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s horror novel Conjure Wife for the anthology series Moment of Fear (1960), co-starring Janice Rule – sounds intriguing, but at a half-hour length, it can’t have had much room to breathe.

The premiere entry in The Chevy Mystery Show of 1960, “The Machine Calls It Murder.” Another IMDB comment worth sharing:

The idea behind "The Machine Calls it Murder" is very interesting. A computer expert who does actuarial work for an insurance company has noticed a statistical impossibility. A bunch of young and healthy young women have died--all by accidents. However, the more he digs, the more he sees so many similarities that the cases MUST be connected. In other words, some evil guy marries them, heavily insures them and then arranges 'accidents'--and there is a definite pattern to it.

When it comes to what happens next, it occasionally made little sense--but the show was still interesting. Despite having VERY compelling evidence, his boss and the authorities don't seem very concerned(??). And so, he goes to one of the women who he thinks will be next and begins to investigate himself. This doesn't make any sense, though fortunately for the plot eventually he gets a cop to notice (Everett Sloane). What happens next? Well, it is pretty exciting BUT the production values are so low that it really doesn't work as well as it could. Worth seeing but clearly flawed.

Two classic Twilight Zone episodes, “A Nice Place to Visit”and “Showdown with Rance McGrew” (Blyden also did episodes of Thriller and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour).

A 1965 Kraft Suspense Theatre episode, “Twixt the Cup and the Lip,” with Charles McGraw, and Ethel Merman in a serious role.

An original hour-long musical for ABC Stage 67, Olympus 7-000, which appears to have been sort of a football version of Damn Yankees by the same creative team (Richard Adler and Jerry Ross), with Donald O’Connor, Fred Clark, Lou Jacobi, Eddie Foy Jr., Phyllis Newman, and Joe Namath! A soundtrack album was issued on the Command label.

A 1974 entry in ABC’s late-night anthology series The Wide World of Mystery, The Satan Murders, with Salome Jens and Susan Sarandon (“A woman enters into a pact with the devil to murder her husband”).

Other Larry Blyden facts:

He married Carol Haney, who became famous for dancing for Bob Fosse in The Pajama Game (another Adler and Ross musical), on Broadway (where she won a Tony) and on film. Developing a severe tendency toward stage fright, she never made another film, and only appeared in one more, non-musical Broadway show, William Inge’s A Loss of Roses in 1959, directed by that other Mann, Daniel, and co-starring Betty Field, Warren Beatty, Robert Webber, and – wait for it – Michael J. Pollard. One suspects that the joint participation of Beatty and Pollard in Bonnie and Clyde had its pre-history here. This play was not a success on Broadway, reaching only 25 performances, but was later filmed as The Stripper (1963), with Joanne Woodward in the Haney role. (A few years later, Inge would have the same bad luck as S.J. Perelman did with The Beauty Part, when his play Natural Affection, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Kim Stanley, opened and closed during the 62-63 newspaper strike.)

Haney went on to a second career as a multiply Tony-nominated Broadway choreographer, for Flower Drum Song, Bravo Giovanni (1962), She Loves Me (1963, with Barbara Cook, based on the same Hungarian source play as the James Stewart-Margaret Sullavan movie The Shop Around the Corner), and Funny Girl (1964). Could Blyden have come into his lead role in Flower Drum Song through Haney? – he replaced Larry Storch in out-of-town try-outs, so it is more than possible. They had a tempestuous seven-year marriage ending in divorce in 1962, and Haney died just two years later at age 39, six weeks after Funny Girl opened, of “pneumonia, complicated by diabetes and alcoholism,” leaving two young children for Blyden to raise on his own.

During their marriage, Blyden and Haney lived in a historic 1757 house in Saddle River, New Jersey, which was rumored (by them!) to be haunted. It burned down in 2004.

I mentioned Gig Young’s murder-suicide in a [Blackboard] post the other day; as it happens, Blyden and Young acted together in Edward Chodorov’s hit play Oh, Men! Oh, Women! on Broadway in 1953 (with Franchot Tone and Anne Jackson). This became a Ginger Rogers-Dan Dailey film in 1957.

Blyden grew up in Texas as Ivan Lawrence Blieden (pronounced blee-den). He was a boyhood buddy of Rip Torn, six years his junior. They were jokingly called Torn and Bleedin’, in unwitting macabre anticipation of the infamous final scene of Norman Mailer’s 1970 film Maidstone, in which Torn assaults Mailer with a hammer to the noggin (for real) and Mailer bites off part of one of Torn’s earlobes (for real). The Sixties were something else, weren’t they?

Blyden was an enthusiastic collector of antiquities and traveled widely in pursuit of them. That was apparently what brought him to Morocco in 1975. Depending on who’s doing the telling, he (a) died in an auto accident, or (b) was carjacked and killed (the theory believed by co-stars Dina Merrill, Barbara Rush, and Robert Klein). In either case, his body lacked identification when it was discovered, and his death was not known to friends and family for some days.

It must have been brutally sad for the son and daughter, around 18 and 15 at the time, to have been orphaned so young. Joshua Blyden died tragically young himself, at age 42 in 2000, apparently after being beaten by a street gang and losing his eyesight. Ellen Blyden is still alive.

POSTSCRIPT: This is interesting. When this piece first appeared in November 2012 at my earlier blog, Patrick Murtha's Diary (where it turned out to be one of the most popular posts), I had a couple of angry comments from a person who claims (and I have no reason to doubt it) to have been a friend of Joshua Blyden. This commenter informs me that "Josh [Blyden]'s mugging and death were weeks apart and unrelated." Well, it is good to have more accurate information, and I am happy to pass it along. However, when the same commenter goes on to say that "the tragedies of his family are not something to sensationalize and fictionalize to make your blog more interesting," I have to reply, frankly, fiddlesticks. I was doing nothing of the kind. I took what sketchy information I could find - the website flatly lists "Beating" as the "Cause of Death" for Joshua Blyden, and the loss of eyesight was referred to in an online forum - and flagged it with the adverb "apparently," which indicates a level of uncertainty as to the ultimate accuracy of the details. I never used the word "because," so what the sentence expresses is a possible but unconfirmed connection between the discrete bits of information that it contains. In other words, the sentence is not misleading as stated, if read with the same care that it was written.

Believe me, I get that it is painful to be reminded of the death of a friend, and the closing sentences about Larry Blyden's offspring are of minor import within the entire piece - but not of no interest whatsoever. In writing a biographical/career sketch of a public figure, the subject's personal life and family connections are fair game. The whole point of writing this sort of biographical "first draft" (which is bound to have a few inaccuracies, because sources are often inaccurate) was to draw attention to Larry Blyden's versatility and his underrated career. I won't apologize for that.


  1. I think you wrote a very thoughtful post about Larry Blyden and his family. I knew him as a child, my father was friends with him, and he was a lovely man.

  2. You certainly have researched Larry Blyden & his family quite thoroughly,

  3. ( cont'd) ...& you have a light, easy-to-follow,
    personable style & flair for writing, Patrick.
    Larry Blyden was multi-talented & had a gift for comedy & singing. We lost both him & his
    former wife, Carol Haney, too soon.
    Perhaps we will never know the exact details of Larry's death, or if foul play were involved, but we do have a treasure chest of his performances. They are to be as savored as Larry Blyden is to be lovingly remembered.
    Please keep up with your writing!
    Your pets are so proud, lol!