Eddie Lawrence, R.I.P.
One of my favorite comedians, Eddie Lawrence, died last Tuesday at the age of 95. If you're over the age of 50 and don't know who he was, skip down and watch the video. Yeah, he's that guy. He did other things on records besides his routine, "The Old Philosopher," but that was the classic. I own them all and they all make me laugh.
Eddie was kind of a Renaissance Man. He was an actor, both on-camera and for animation. He appeared in musicals and plays and also wrote them. He also painted, having inherited the studio of his dear friend, Zero Mostel. This obit in the New York Times will tell you a little of what he did.
I first discovered him the way I discovered one of my other heroes in the world of comedy records — on the old Soupy Sales show. Soupy would have his puppets, Pookie and Hippie, mime to records. Sometimes, it was Freberg. Sometimes, it was Lawrence. I loved the work of both men and after I got to know and work with Stan, I set my sights on Eddie. Here's a story I told once before on this blog…
It was a 1994 recording session for the cartoon series, Garfield and Friends. Ordinarily, the series was recorded wholly in Los Angeles with L.A.-based actors but the producer, Lee Mendelson, indulged me an extravagance. He let me go to New York and record a couple of episodes with talent from back there. I was there with the east coast actors while the rest of the cast was in a studio in Hollywood, the entire session connected via digital phone lines. For the day, I hired three actors I'd always wanted to work with — Arnold, Imogene Coca and Eddie "The Old Philosopher" Lawrence — and we booked a Manhattan recording studio. The studio was recommended by our L.A. recording supervisor and by coincidence, it turned out to be one where Arnold and Eddie had, decades before, recorded many Paramount cartoons.
While I was recording with Arnold, Eddie Lawrence arrived. You may not know Eddie's name but he's a wonderful character actor and comedian who did a series of much-quoted records as "The Old Philosopher." His catch-phrase was, "Hey, is that's what bothering you, Bunky?" Anyway, he and Arnold were longtime pals, and when Arnold and I were done with his cartoon and he exited the booth, he and Eddie embraced.
Then Arnold looked him in the eye and sounding as serious as Arnold Stang could possibly sound, he pointed to me and said, "Eddie, don't give this young man any trouble. He's a fine director and you just do everything he says."
Eddie promised he would. That wasn't good enough for Arnold. He added, "If you give him any crap, I'll come back here and kick your ass." Then he handed me his pager number and said, "Remember…if he gets out of line, call me and I'll come back and kick his ass." This wasn't necessary but there was one moment when Eddie was giving me a little problem and I had to threaten, "I'll call Arnold." He immediately apologized and agreed to do it the way I wanted. The power of an Arnold Stang threat.
Actually, Eddie was a dream. A few weeks earlier, I called his agent in New York and said I wanted to hire him to do one or two Garfield cartoons. Here was the deal. I told the agent, "What I really would like to do is write for the Old Philosopher. I know Eddie has always written all his own material so I don't want to offend him. If he doesn't want anyone else writing for that character, I absolutely understand. I'll just write a different kind of Garfield cartoon and have him play a role, just so I can meet him and say I worked with him. If, however, he is willing to trust me, I'll do two cartoons with the Old Philosopher character and we'll pay him twice as much."
The agent said, "I don't know…Eddie is really protective of that character."
I said, "Tell him I know his work backwards and forwards. Tell him I will send him the material in advance…which is something I've never done for anyone else in six years of this show. Tell him I will overwrite the monologues. I'll write them 50% longer and he can cut the jokes he doesn't like or reword them or whatever he wants."
She said she'd check with him. The next day, she called me back and said, "Eddie says he'll do the two episodes with the Philosopher…but I'll warn you. He's going to be really fussy about the material." We verbally "shook" on the deal and a week later, I sent the scripts to her to pass on to Eddie.
I was packing for the New York trip when the phone rang. On the other end was the unquestionable voice of Eddie Lawrence and he said, "Mark, you have been listening to my records." I would love to be able to tell you that he did everything I wrote just as I wrote it but in fact, we spent about a half hour then and another half hour after I got to New York fiddling with the jokes. Which was fine with me. I wrote two Old Philosopher routines for Eddie Lawrence and I am a happy man because of it.
I am not, however, happy that when he invited me to go to lunch with him and see Zero Mostel's studio, I had to decline because I had a plane to catch, nor am I happy that on subsequent visits to Manhattan, I never got around to rescheduling that lunch and tour. But we spoke a few times on the phone later. Some of the stories he told me are in the great interview he did with my pal, Kliph Nesteroff. Here's Eddie at work…