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Eddie Lawrence

This article is about the actor and monologist. For the Christian minister, see Eddie Lawrence (minister).

Eddie Lawrence (born March 2, 1919) is an American monologist, television personality, comedy writer, lyricist, director, actor and singer best remembered for his comic character "The Old Philosopher".

Early career

A native of Brooklyn, Lawrence Eisler began performing during the Depression. While still in his early twenties, he gained a minor reputation as an original comic/raconteur who performed bizarre elocution of whimsical free verse in little clubs in the New York area as well as on the "borscht belt" circuit in the Catskills.

His first confirmed radio appearance was on Major Bowes' Amateur Hour in 1943, where he did World War II-themed comic impressions of Charles Boyer, Ronald Colman, Roland Young and Clem McCarthy. A preserved audio transcript of this performance was one of the selections included 16 years later on the 1959 LP Original Amateur Hour 25th Anniversary Album (UA UXL 2). On the recording, Major Bowes is heard inviting "Larry" to come out of the audience and tell us all he knows.

By the early 1950s, now rechristened Eddie Lawrence, he continued to appear in lesser clubs, honing his comic timing, while taking bit parts in the numerous live television productions then prevalent in New York. His first Broadway role was in the revival of The Threepenny Opera which opened at the Theater de Lys on September 301955. As a member of the opening night cast, he sang the role of one of Macheath's henchmen, Crook-Finger Jack. Also in the production was the original "Jenny", Lotte Lenya, as well as Beatrice Arthur and John Astin. The show ran until December 171961, for a total of 2611 performances, but Eddie Lawrence stayed with it less than a year while working on the monologue that was to make his name.

The Old Philosopher

In September 1956, a single entitled "The Old Philosopher" rose to the Billboard Top 40 chart, a rare distinction for a comedy record by a little-known performer. It turned out to be a one-hit wonder for Eddie Lawrence, but nonetheless paved the way for his long comedy career. In a four-minute routine, a crotchety, ridiculous-sounding character recounts a litany of nonsensical calamities. Speaking in a comically downtrodden, empathetic voice, he begins, "Hey there friend, you say that..." followed by a list of idiotic disasters, ending with, "Is that what's troubling you, friend?" At that point, music of a military, patriotic or marching nature loudly plays and the fellow declaims in full voice, "Lift your head up high and take a walk in the sun with that dignity and stick-to-it-iveness that you'll show the world, you'll show them where to get off, you'll never give up, never give up, never give up that ship!" Those sentiments are followed by a recitation of another round of silly disasters and foolish optimism and then still another round.

The success of the single made Eddie Lawrence a minor celebrity and helped the sales of his two previously-released LPs. The first one, The Garden of Eddie Lawrence (Signature SM 1003) did not make much of an impact on its original release in early 1955. It contained three comic interviews with personalities introduced as "Kiddie Star", "Wolfgang Birdwatcher" and "Fleming of the Yard", a set of brief blackout gags, a long, whimsically strange routine about plucking chickens, and three monologues delivered by as-yet-unnnamed, Old Philosopher-like character. The second LP, released in mid-1956, finally gave him the name of the title—The Old Philosopher (Coral 57103). It was the first of Lawrence's five LPs for Coral Records and proved so successful that the company realized the profitability of the issuance of the title routine as a single ("The New Philosopher", another track from the LP was on the flip side). Years later, "The Old Philosopher" routine would be included on the compilation record 25 Years of Recorded Comedy (Warner Bros. Records 3BX 3131)

With this achievement under his belt, Eddie Lawrence was already busy writing the routines for a follow-up album, while rehearsing for his next Broadway show. Bells Are Ringing, a new musical by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green opened at the Shubert Theatre on November 291956 with Judy Holliday in the lead and Eddie Lawrence in the supporting cast as Sandor. The show ran for 924 performances, until March 71959, and he remained with it for most of its run. His performance is part of the original cast album (Columbia OL 5170)

The second Coral LP, The Side-Splitting Personality of Eddie Lawrence (Coral CRL 57371) came out in 1957. It contained only one "Old Philosopher" track, but the other routines were the usual bizarre mix that pleased his fans. Especially deft were the parodies of The Untouchables ("The Unbreakables") and Casablanca ("Play the Music, Sol"), with an inspired impression of Peter Lorre. At least two of the tracks, "Panhandling on Madison Avenue" and "Foreign Movies" were apparently recorded in front of a live audience.

On March 51958 he made a rare TV acting appearance in an episode of Sergeant Bilko playing a typically eccentric art dealer.

There were two "Old Philosopher" tracks on The Kingdom of Eddie Lawrence (Coral 57203), his next LP, which came out just before Christmas. Taking note of the season, one of the other tracks, "That Holiday Spirit" was a bizarre routine with a character who may appear to be a cross between "The Old Philosopher" and Ebenezer Scrooge, denouncing Christmas and various other holidays, including Halloween, while an irritated, Wally Cox-like, voice is heard piping up occasionally with "...will you shut up?". The album cover depicts Eddie Lawrence sitting on a throne, dressed like Julius Caesar, looking sideways with an exasperatedly worried expression on his face.

1959 saw the release of Eddie the Old Philosopher (Coral 57155) which contained four "Old Philosopher" routines as well as "Memories of Louise" in which a sentimental Eddie remembers his boyhood love, "Who could predict then that from a little fibber you'd grow into a dangerous paranoid liar...ah, the way you used to stick your finger in my eye...". Another well-remembered routine, "Television Highlights" was a series of parodies which sent up popular TV commercials of the era.

Cartoon series at Famous Studios

In 1960 he began a six-year association with Paramount's cartoon subsidiary Famous Studios, providing the voices for thirteen animated shorts produced between 1960 and 1966, starting with Scouting for Trouble. He also wrote the stories for most of them, including a seven-film series about two humanoid characters named Swifty and Shorty whom he used in recreating a number of his routines, such as Panhandling on Madison Avenue and Fix That Clock (both 1964). Unfortunately, neither Eddie Lawrence nor another creative talent at the studio, Ralph Bakshi could stave off the demise of the theatrical cartoon, as Famous Studios closed its doors in 1967. Eddie Lawrence's final gift to the animation world was the Swifty and Shorty cartoon Les Boys released in January 1966. All of the cartoons, except one, clocked in at 7 minutes. The extended-length title was one of the earliest, Abner the Baseball, a 16-minute special seen in November 1961, based upon a tale which was among the tracks on The Kingdom of Eddie Lawrence LP. It is a first-person account by an anthropomorphized baseball describing the experience of being hit out of Briggs Stadium by Mickey Mantle in a September 10, 1960 home run against the Detroit Tigers. Bizarre whimsy, as usual, was the order of the day.

It was also in evidence in 1963's 7 Characters in Search of Eddie Lawrence (Coral 57411), his fifth and final Coral LP. It had three new "Old Philosopher" routines, including "The Lawyer's Philosopher", "Hey there, Mouthpiece. You say you represent a man for jaywalking and they hang him? ...Is that what's marrin' your day, Darrow? Well, lift your head up high and sway that jury in a high baritone voice... Remember—if crime didn't pay, you'd be out of work!"

Children's TV Host

Baby boomers who lived within reach of New York City's TV stations had the opportunity to see Eddie Lawrence Monday through Friday afternoons for a 13-month period from September 1963 to October 1964 on independent station WPIX-TV, Channel 11. The management of WPIX realized that Lawrence's monologues were very popular with adolescents who were the core audience for The Three Stooges two-reelers, which at the time were shown nationwide by TV stations who considered them children's programming. Long-time WPIX children's favorite "Officer" Joe Bolton relinquished his Three Stooges post in favor of hosting Dick Tracy cartoons and Eddie Lawrence was invited to step in. His daily recitations of Old Philosopher monologues and other comedy routines, most of which were only tested on the show and never committed to record, built him a faithful and dedicated audience and made him a cult figure.

Broadway: Kelly and Sherry!

This stint, however, came to a premature end because of another Broadway show. Lawrence had written the book and lyrics for a musical entitled Kelly. Moose Charlap was the composer, Herbert Ross the director and choreographer, and David Susskind and Joseph E. Levine the producers. With such high-powered names at the helm, there was high expectation of success and Eddie Lawrence, its author, was expected to assure it by attending all the rehearsals. The first preview was set for February 1, 1965 and opening night for February 6. At the end of October 1964, he hosted his final Three Stooges show, said goodbye to his loyal viewers, and left, trailing a banner across the TV screen, emblazoned with the word KELLY.

Kelly became a controversial musical when producers Susskind and Levine began to demand extensive changes during rehearsals and out-of-town tryouts. While they originally signed onto Lawrence's and Charlap's edgy concept for this darkly comic musical about corruption in old New York, they soon panicked about it not being commercial enough, despite some good reviews on the road. They hired new writers over the authors' objections. By the time Kelly's February 6 opening night at the Broadhurst Theatre also turned out to be its closing night, it was an entirely different show. Eddie Lawrence and Moose Charlap brought a lawsuit against the producers for violations of the Dramatists Guild's protections of writers. The case was settled out of court.

One lasting legacy from Kelly has been the song "I'll Never Go There Any More", recorded by many artists over the years. Stephen Sondheim cited it in a 2000 New York Times article as one of the songs "I wish I had written". Eddie was not an actor in Kelly and there was no original cast album, but he was popular enough at the time to warrant a recording of comic material and songs from the show, all performed by himself and Charlap (Original Cast Records OC 8025). A new studio recording of the complete score (Original Cast Records ASIN:B00000DGNP) was issued on CD in 1998, featuring Eddie along with Brian D'Arcy James, Sally Mayes, Sandy Stewart (Moose Charlap's widow), George S. Irving, John Schuck, Marge Redmond and Jane Connell.

A few months after the Kelly disappointment, one last LP appeared, Is That What's Bothering You Bunkie (Epic LN 24159). Taking its title from The Old Philosopher's catchphrase, Bunkie contained five new Old Philosopher monologues and six other routines.

Eddie Lawrence continued to perform in clubs and in 1967 joined the cast of yet another Broadway musical, Sherry!, based on The Man Who Came to Dinner. Clive Revill played Sheridan Whiteside and Eddie was cast in "the Harpo Marx part", his sidekick Banjo. Sherry! opened at the Alvin Theatre on March 281967 and closed on May 27, having played 72 performances plus 14 previews. No cast album was recorded and the score and orchestrations were lost. All that remained were the book and lyrics written by James Lipton who gained celebrity twenty-seven years later, in 1994, as the creator and host of the long-running actor-interview series Inside the Actors Studio. The music was eventually found in 1999, and a 2004 studio cast album was recorded with stars including Nathan Lane, Carol Burnett, Bernadette Peters and Tommy Tune.

Eddie Lawrence in the movies

Eddie Lawrence's film appearances were, at best, an afterthought to his other activities. Between 1968 and 1978 he had small roles in five features, starting with William Friedkin's 1968 recreation of 1920 New York City, The Night They Raided Minsky's. In this Norman Lear-produced-on-location tribute to the early days of burlesque, twelfth-billed Eddie played Scratch, a baggy-pants comic, whose brief scenes were sporadically interspersed throughout the film. Three years later, Eddie had a couple of fleeting moments as a Bowery derelict in visionary director Ernest Pintoff's little-seen noir-like oddity Who Killed Mary What's 'Er Name?, filmed on the streets of New York in 1971.

On February 221971, Eddie appeared as a guest on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show (which, until May 1972, was based in New York), performing a five-minute Old Philosopher routine at the end of which Carson was laughing loudly and repeating some of its lines.

In 1974, Eddie was the announcer for a television advertisement of the Pussy Cats album by John Lennon and Harry Nilsson, which also included Ringo Starr and Keith Moon contributing.

Eddie Lawrence's remaining three films were Blade (1973), The Wild Party (1975) and Somebody Killed Her Husband (1978). Blade reunited him with director Ernest Pintoff, an auteur whose original New York City-based films were considered to have little commercial appeal. The film follows a tough cop named Tommy Blade (John Marley) as he searches for a sadistic serial killer. Eddie has a memorable, though brief scene as a movie producer questioned by Blade. Party was Eddie's only performing venture in California. In this MerchantIvory production which fictionalized the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, Eddie played (and resembled) a Louis B. Mayer-like producer attending the titular event thrown by Jolly Grimm, the Fatty character, played by James Coco. The film was praised for its period feel, but received otherwise mixed notices and was badly cut by the distributor. Finally, Her Husband, filmed in New York by Twilight Zone frequent director Lamont Johnson, with a screenplay by The Defenders creator Reginald Rose, had Eddie in a semi-comical bit as a neighbor of the titular "her" (Farrah Fawcett-Majors). Despite the creative talents involved, this initial starring vehicle for the most-publicized of Charlie's Angels got generally bad reviews, engendering its widely-repeated derisive nickname, "Somebody Killed Her Career".

Later years

Fourteen years after Sherry!, Eddie Lawrence had one final encounter with Broadway. At the age of 62, he was the writer and, for the first and only time, director of a Broadway show. The comedy Animals consisted of three one-act plays, The Beautiful Mariposa, Louie and the Elephant and Sort of an Adventure. The first of nine previews at the Princess Theatre was on April 141981. Like Kelly, Animals closed on its opening night, April 22. There was no cast album.

Thirteen years later and thirty years after Bunkie, his 1964 Epic release, the 75-year-old Eddie Lawrence had his first new album. 1994's The Jazzy Old Philosopher (Red Dragon JK 57756) showed that the veteran monologist had not lost his unique touch. The CD consisted of 58 minutes of the traditional and the new, with names such as Mick Jagger, Axl Rose, Boy George and Sinéad O'Connor dropped into the routines, "You say your grandpa's in the hospital again because he tried to make a citizen's arrest of Mick Jagger? Is that what's got you down in the dumps, homeboy?"

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