Orson Bean, the American actor, TV personality and author, was born Dallas Frederick Burroughs on July 22, 1928 in Burlington, Vermont to George Burroughs, a policeman who later went on to become the chief of campus police at Harvard University, and the former Marian Pollard.
The newborn Dallas Burroughs was a second cousin to Calvin Coolidge, who was President of the United States at the time of his birth. The young Dallas, an amateur magician with a taste for the limelight, graduated from Boston’s prestigious Latin School in 1946. Too young to see military service during World War Two, the future Orson Bean did a hitch in the Army (1946-47) in occupied Japan.
After the war, Orson Bean launched himself onto the nightclub circuit with his new moniker, the “Orson” borrowed from reigning enfant terrible Orson Welles. His comedy act premiered at New York City’s Blue Angel nightclub, and the momentum from his act launched him into the orbit of the legitimate theater. He made his Broadway debut in April 1954 in Richard Condon’s play, Men of Distinction, along with Robert Preston and Martin Ritt. The play flopped and ran only four appearances. (Condon never again had a play he’d written produced on The Great White Way.)
The following year was to prove kinder to Orson Bean: he hosted a summer-replacement television series produced at the Blue Angel, and won a Theatre World Award for his work in the 1954 music revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, which co-starred Harry Belafonte, Polly Bergen, Hermione Gingold and Carleton Carpenter. It was a hit that ran for 229 performances.
Bean followed this up with an even bigger hit, the leading role in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Next up was a success d’estime as the leading man in Herman Wouk’s comic play Nature’s Way, which co-starred Beatrice Arthur, Sorrell Booke and Godfrey Cambridge. Though the play lasted but 67 performances, Orson Bean had established himself on the Broadway stage, which was good as he had been blacklisted by Hollywood for his outspokenly liberal political views.
Orson Bean enjoyed his greatest personal success on Broadway in the 1961-62 season, in the Betty Comden and Adolph Green musical Subways Are for Sleeping, which was directed and choreographed by Michael Kidd and featured music by Jule Styne. Bean received a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical (his co-star Phyllis Newman won a Tony as Best Featured Actress in a Musical).
The following season, Bean was in a bigger hit, the comedy Never Too Late, which would go on to play for 1,007 performances. After appearing in the flop comedy I Was Dancing in November (1964), Bean made his last Broadway appearance in the musical Illya Darling in 1967 with Melina Mercouri, directed by fellow blacklistee Jules Dassin; it played 320 performances. He also toured in the Neil Simon-Burt Bacharach musical Promises, Promises.
Big Screen & Small Screen
Orson Bean managed to shake-off the blacklist and made an impression in as the Army psychiatrist in Otto Preminger’s classic courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder (1959). However, it was as a TV personality that he made his biggest inroads into the popular consciousness, as well as the popular culture.
Bean appeared in numerous quiz and talk shows, becoming a familiar face in homes as a regular panelist on To Tell the Truth. He also appeared on Norman Lear’s cult favorite Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976) and its sequel, Forever Fernword (1978), as the Reverend Brim, and as store owner Loren Bray on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Women (1993).
Much of his role Orson Bean’s performance as the 105-year-old Dr. Lester in the 1999 cult film Being John Malkovich (1999) wound up the cutting room floor, but audiences and critics welcomed back his familiar presence. The octogenarian continues to appear in movies and television.