He saw it all in show biz -- except fame
Published 10:05 am, Thursday, August 12, 2010
Who is Lester Colodny?
Most people would be hard pressed to answer that question, so to rectify the situation Colodny, a Westport resident, has written "A Funny Thing Happened," a breezy, episodic autobiography of sorts that covers the highs and lows of a life lived as a talent agent, writer, actor, director and producer.
In a recent interview at his home, Colodny spoke about his life and the gestation of the book. Born in Brooklyn in 1925, Colodny attended public schools in Newark, N.J., and on Coney Island before entering Brooklyn College. His higher education was interrupted by World War II, which he spent serving in the Navy as a seaman on board a Landing Craft Infantry, a barge-like craft used to ferry soldiers and equipment from ship to shore.
This period of his life is captured in an early chapter of the book, "In the Navy -- 1943." The tone and structure of this chapter is typical of most chapters: Colodny gives enough information to set up the reader for an anecdote that almost inevitably ends with some sort of punch line. In this case, we find Colodny, his craft sunk, scrambling to stay alive on a beachhead on the island of Samar.
In the ensuing insanity that has Colodny frantically digging a foxhole in the sand, he runs into someone who knew him at Brooklyn College. In the book, Colodny milks the irony of the situation for all its worth, then serves up an unexpected ending capped by a final sentence that could have been written by Woody Allen or Neil Simon, both of whom Colodny knew in their early days. Asked about the structure of many of the chapters, Colodny said, "My life has been a series of punch lines."
After the war, Colodny went back to Brooklyn College to get his degree, "and from there" he said, "I bummed around the country doing all sorts of jobs." The 21-year-old "worked in South Bend, Ind., Indian Lake, Mich., Omaha, Neb., and Denver, Col." After doing some graduate work at the University of Missouri and the University of Illinois, Colodny went back to New York where he began his association with show business, first landing a job as an emcee at a strip joint in the Bronx called Ziggy's Playpen.
His gig at Ziggy's lasted all of one evening -- the only people who appreciated his jokes were the strippers. Cured of the desire to be a stand-up comic, Colodny transformed himself into a comedy writer -- selling seven jokes to Henny Youngman (described in a brief chapter that, of course, ends with a zinger, this time compliments of Youngman) before doing piece work writing sketches for such early television shows as "Hellzapoppin" and "The Jerry Lester Show." Colodny's autobiography could just as easily have been titled "Serendipity," for it details a never-ending series of fortuitous, unplanned meetings and unlikely occurrences that make-up the rickety ladder he climbed to attain success in show business.
One chapter deals with him feeling under-represented by his agent. He goes to the William Morris agency to protest, only to be hired by the company. Another chapter has him "strolling down Broadway" when he bumps into someone who helps him land a role in Mae West's Broadway show, "Diamond Lil." Colodny wrangles his way back into the Morris agency, where he just happens to become associated with a young group of comedy writers that included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart and a young man named Woody Allen. None of this was planned, it all just happened.
How did Colodny get to become an associate producer on "The Today Show," NBC's morning money-maker that starred Dave Garroway? Well, it just happened, as did the infamous monkey episode that was televised nationally. Colodny wisely chooses to open his book with this story, because it is a killer. In it, Garroway is musing on the phrase, "More fun than a barrel of monkeys." He decides he wants to find out what fun might be hidden in said barrel, so he orders Colodny to find monkeys and have them delivered to the show's set. Colodny finds monkeys and has them delivered. The barrels are opened and ... all hell proceeds to break loose.
Colodny's rollercoaster career eventually leads him to California, where he alternately thrives and starves, along the way meeting or working with the likes of Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny (Colodny won an Emmy for writing, producing and directing a Benny TV special), the Beatles, Lana Turner (a blind date, no less), Gene Barry, Hugh Hefner, Joan Rivers, Cary Grant ... and, oh yes, Fred Gwynne, star of "The Munsters," which Colodny created.
Here's how Colodny tells the story. He got a job as a rewrite man at Universal, which led him to eventually being named head of production for all of Universal TV's pilots, the one-shot shows that were used to decide what the studio's new fall TV line-up would contain.
"What happened was," Colodny said, "Mr. Wasserman, who was head of the studio, called me in and said, `Listen, Lester, we have these monster pictures. Why don't you go over and screen them and see if you can make a series out of them.'
"Well, I went over and saw maybe three of them and I got hysterical, so I created `The Munsters.' I called Fred Gwynne; he didn't want to do anything; he didn't want to come to California. I said, `Lemme read you the script' and he said `No' and I said, `Lemme read you the first page." I read him the first page. He said, `Read me another page,' so I read him another page. `Read me another.' I read and he said, `I'm not promising you anything.'
"The studio told me they were giving me $25,000 to product the pilot. I said, $25,000? You can't rent anything for $25,000, but I got Gwynne to play the lead and I found sets that were already up and we shot two scenes. Gwynne comes out in costume and tells everyone about the show ... and then he went back to New York."
The creation of "The Munsters" led to fame and glory for Colodny. Yes? No. The studio handed the show over to two "more seasoned" producers. "I was very aggravated," Colodny said. "I was just furious. We got into a tremendous fight and they let me go."
Such is life in show business, aggravating and frustrating, but Colodny wouldn't have it any other way. Does he have any regrets? Maybe just one.
"The truth of the matter is," Colodny said, "I once wanted to be an actor, a musical-comedy actor. One day a friend of mine at the Morris agency where I was working told me that they were casting for the London company of `Guys and Dolls.' He told me to go down and audition."
So down to the theater Colodny went, using the nom de theatre of Leo Cinder. "I sang and I danced," he said, "and suddenly a voice from out in the back said, `Mr. Cinder, would you come to the edge of the stage?' It was Abe Burrows. He said, `Don't I know you?' I didn't know what to say. He said -- and this is true now -- he said, `You're not a member of the Mob, are you?' I told him I had a legitimate job, so he said, `You can play Harry the Horse and understudy for all the other parts in London.' I was so thrilled and I went home and told my first wife and she said, `You're gonna be a substitute actor?' I didn't take the job."
But he took a lot of other jobs, and most of them are touched upon in his book, although many of the names of people he worked with, especially those mentioned in the later chapters, have been changed so, as Colodny explained, people's "feelings wouldn't be hurt." Colodny admits he changed other things as well.
"In a sense, my book is a novel because ... well, listen, I'm eighty-five years old. I exaggerated a little bit. I had to color the stories, yes?"
He leaned back and spread out his arms. "You know, life's been good. I live in Westport. I have a few bucks left. I direct plays at the Westport Community Theater, the Ridgefield Barn, Curtain Call and up in New Canaan." As his hands fell into his lap, he nodded and smiled.
"Someone recently asked me why I wrote the book," Colodny said. "My life has been a series of incredible, unbelievable episodes. I asked myself, was that you? Was that Lester who did all of these things? And you know, not too many people know who I am; they don't know my name. My book is about a plain, ordinary guy, a fellow from Brooklyn who did all of these things and never got the publicity for them. I was always the fellow behind the scenes.
"Maybe enough people will read the book and when I'm out they'll say, `Look, there goes Les Colodny.' "