It’s funny. Here I was scheduled to meet with cultural icon Orson Bean minutes post a Sunday afternoon performance of his solo show, Safe at Home: An Evening with Orson Bean, at the Pacific Resident Theatre and the one thought that crammed my brain was, “Apart from my list of questions, what was the one thing worth asking this man?”
Known as the entertainment industry’s consummate raconteur, the former Beantown Depression Era kid honed his magician skills (hilariously performed at intervals during the show), quips, and comic timing early on to eventually become one of TV’s most famed personalities. His journey has been extraordinary, given his childhood beginnings, a truly heartbreaking affair. Yet, whatever you want to attribute to Bean’s rise, it can certainly be said, this rolling stone gathered no moss on the way.
Days worth of researched photos, YouTube videos, press and tv appearances, and even instructionals on how to tell the perfect joke, swarmed in my brain. What else would a man, who has probably given more interviews, epic one-liners, and a recently published autobiography want to say? And yet Orson laughs reminding me that when he was in his prime, “You weren’t even born yet!”
Tracey: Listening to the whole thread of your story is so outrageous – the sadness and pain of your childhood, the tragic relationships with both your parents – and then you suddenly tell a joke! You’ve been constantly overcoming your own life through humor. And it suddenly dawned on me, omg! your life literally and metaphorically is about timing and magic!
Orson: Yeah and it’s also about the fact that I don’t ever want for one minute to feel sorry for myself. The earliest thing I can remember saying (and I say it in the show) is, “Someday we’ll break out there and be happy.” Even when I was a little kid I thought, “I will be.“ I was determined. I tried a lot of things that worked for a while and I made a lot of mistakes. But what I finally learned is, if you really want to be happy you get happy.
Tracey: Are you happy now?
Orson: I am.
Tracey: So, happiness… that‘s what you want to leave to people with?
Orson: Gratitude. I think that gratitude is one of the most important things that you can strive for. We all have so much. The stuff that we don’t even think about. Just this morning, I was taking a hot shower thinking, “Wow this feels good,” and it flashed in my mind how many people there are in this world today who would give anything for a hot shower. A hot shower! We take it for granted. A nice place to live, for instance. And I was looking at the CNN coverage of the snowstorm and the electrical outages, you know, and I think, there are people that don’t have any heat. But there are people in the world that never have any heat. There’s more displaced people today than since World War II. All over for all different reasons, it’s a mess. I don’t know what God thinks about it. Or, maybe it’s part of a plan. But honestly, I don’t know how many people would give anything for a night’s sleep in a comfortable bed.
Tracey: You sort of tell short stories in the form of jokes. And this piece seems like little bits that were put together. What’s it like getting on stage and telling a really long story?
Orson: It took me a long time doing the show, six weeks, to know if I had anything or not. I wrote an autobiographical book that covers almost everything that’s in it. Then I came up with the idea of doing a two-parter with my wife and I interviewed her about her childhood, her dad leaving and all of that stuff. I originally wrote a piece where I played her father and she played my mother, I played her high school principal when she was kicked out of school and she played- and back and forth like that. When I got it all done I thought it was wonderful. She didn’t. So I just resurrected the part about me and expanded on it. The very first time I tried it was for the writers’ group of this theater. I asked them if they would listen to it. After about a half hour they said, “You really got something.“
Tracey: A lot of the material is pretty heavy. What was the development process like for you personally?
Orson: I did it again in the Venice canals in a big yard and people liked it. Then I asked this director, Guillermo Cienfuegos, who had directed Henry V, if he would take it on. He read the book after he read the script and wanted to put stuff in it that was really uncomfortable for me. I had glossed over things like my mother killing herself. I had written a fictional piece about a cop that’s there who tells me it’s happened, and he said, “No. You got to really deal with it… how you really found out about it.“ For a long time it was really awkward. I didn’t enjoy doing the piece. I didn’t sleep well bringing up all the memories again. But in the last couple weeks of the original six week run, I started enjoying it. Once we re-opened, doing the show was easier.
Tracey: Are you going to take the show anywhere else?
Orson: I have no plans for it. I really think it’s whatever God has in mind for it. You know I’m not religious. I just really tell myself in the long run, what does it matter if this goes on anymore. I mean I would like it to continue. But if it doesn’t, what matters is, “On your deathbed are you surrounded by people who care about you?” I sometimes read an article about some old movie star dying and I think you know they were the toast of the town. They had their picture on the front page of a magazine. What does it mean when they’re laying there.
Tracey: But you were the toast of the town and you have had your picture all over magazines, in print, tv, online. You’ve been everywhere!
Orson: And it was fun. I ain’t knocking it. I ain’t knocking it! I like it when people recognize me on the street. I haven’t done anything for a long time and suddenly I got a call to do a part in The Modern Family. I didn’t know why they called me. They didn’t ask me to audition or anything. They just gave me the part. And the guy said to me in the rehearsals…he says…”I like joke number two the best“. And I realized what he meant. I have jokes that I created and put out there. Have you seen any of my jokes? My grandson asked me one day, “Let me record your jokes, Grandpa.“ This guy had probably seen my jokes and said this guy can play the old guy.
Tracey: That’s hilarious. What a resume. I just want to ask you quickly, what was it like for you in Being John Malkovich because I was looking at that movie again, just before I came here and watching you was hysterical.
Orson: I read the script and I said to my wife, “I don’t know how they’re going to make this?” I didn’t get a chance to read for it and apparently they read every geezer in the business who couldn’t pass the part to their satisfaction.
Tracey: Can I say that?
Orson: Belief in coincidences or circumstances. There are so many things. Like if that door had not been unlocked when I was in Philly and that guy wasn’t there… or when I ran out of money and only had enough to take the bus back to Boston and give up on show business… or when the phone rang in this cheap hotel I was at on Walnut Street and a guy says, “My name’s Tommy Tattler. I heard you went on at the so and so club and I heard you were pretty good. Come on and do a stint at this club I’m at tonight.“ I could have been on the bus back to Boston.
Tracey: And that comes back to my thinking about timing and that your life is magical.
Orson: It is.
Tracey: It‘s been astounding. I mean we were all going “ah“. What all those moments that suddenly catapulted you might have felt like.
Orson: Really most of it was a wash. If I had stopped to think what I was doing… it’s like the bumblebee doesn’t know he can’t fly. You don’t go to New York without an agent. You know you don’t walk into this club and expect them to hire you. I didn’t know. And because I didn’t know, I did it.
I saw a piece of graffiti once that said, “Everyone is in the best seat“. I suddenly thought, I see what that means. It means you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be, to have whatever experiences you need to have. And I just make it a conscious decision when I wake up to say I am the luckiest son of a bitch on the face of God’s green earth. I got a woman who loves me. I have eight of my nine grandchildren living within a two minute walk of me. If I’d known, I would have invested in Oreos. I’d be rich. [laughs]
I mean, I’m pretty lucky.