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January 30, 2011



"On his uppers"


Wonderful article and very revealing about what made Nat Hiken's programs such standouts in the bland world of broadcast television in the 50s/60s... Thanks for a terrific post... (P.S. I met Maurice Gosfield when I was a kid and got his autograph... He was inarticulate to the point of silence and, even then, I could see that he was pretty drunk--it was early afternoon, too!)

Jonathan King

Absolutely vital piece of scholarship, for which many thanks. A number of simple declarative statements in this text leap out at the reader, so fabulously detailed is the reporting: If I had to choose a single example it would be, a propos the end of the Allen & Rossi team: "Marty Allen dissolved the partnership, claiming that he wanted to focus on serious acting roles."


Fascinating to read about these guys - even as a kid watching Bilko and Car 54, it was obvious they came from a different world. Now I have a clearer idea of just how different it was.


For all those who want more Joe E., the first season of Car 54 will be appearing on DVD April 12 transferred from the 35 mm masters. Throw away your bootleg copies. Extra will be a 30 minute conversation with Hank Garrett and Charlotte Rae that does cover these Joe E. stories and more.

Michael Powers

What an entertaining article! I thought the footage of the old lady in the Volkswagen's reaction to Ross and his hammering of the vehicle with that club in the execrable (I remember it) "It's About Time" to be one of the funniest things I've ever seen, and was evidently a metaphor for Ross's whole life during that idiotically repressed era. It's easy to see the weird charisma that Hiken picked up on, though, even (or perhaps especially) in the Teaserama sequences. Put a weird hat on Ross and give him some dialogue and it's hard to take your eyes off him (although I doubt that would hold up if he happened to be onscreen at the same time as Bettie Page). It's intriguing to imagine how much longer "Car 54" (and Hiken) might have survived had Hiken followed his plan to drop Al Lewis into the lead. Lewis was downright physically unappealing and non-telegenic in a way that would seem to relegate him to supporting roles, though, unlike Ross, who had comedy lead written all over that expressive mug.

Michael Powers

I happened to originally watch the "It's About Time" scene a moment ago, the one with the old lady and her Volkswagen, with the sound turned off, in case you were puzzled by my reaction. It's somehow a lot funnier with the sound off.

And Kliph, there are no conceivable words for that Dave Starr album cover, your facial expression says it all. How in the world you found it might make an article in itself.


Great read - thanks for the post.

I'm curious about this line:

"Joe thought it was a gag and said, '[Fuck] you!' and hung up the phone."

What was in the brackets that was more unprintable?


Montagne's original transcript reads "F you" - the brackets used here are for sake of clarity and to fix the clunky look.

Howard Schwartz

Great article but I have one quibble. Doberman's character on Bilko was rarely obnoxious only clueless. Much of the humor came from Bilko's worldly con man coming face to face with Doberman's naive unthinking persona. For examples the Doberman's sister episode where he can't get her a date till Bilko gets involved, and the one where Doberman gets conned out of $500 by con men and Bilko gets it back for him. The Phil Silvers show was one of the best written shows of all time.

Larry Vigus

I helped cast commercials in the 1970's and we had Joe E. Ross in to read several times. He could, I remember well, print his name if not actually write it. SAG requires all actors sign in at commercial auditions and they provide a form with lines about as wide as high school notebook paper. I saw Mr. Ross hold the pencil like a knife in a stabbing motion, and print his name taking up three lines to do so. He didn't fill in any of the other blanks on the form, so the idea that he might not have been able to read makes perfect sense.

At these interviews Joe found it impossible to say any line without beginning with his signature phrase: "Ooh! Ooh!" pronounced as though it rhymed with "Pooh! Pooh!" Once at a callback he said the commercial copy line which was something like "That's a good hot dog!" as "Ooh! Ooh! That's a good hot dog!" The director said, "That's fine. Can you do one just the way it's written?"

Joe seemed to think for a minute and before I could even start the camera and say 'action' he blurted out: "Ooh! Ooh! That's a REALLY good hot dog!" Another try produced "Ooh! Ooh! Now, that's a good hot dog! Ooh! Ooh! Really."

The director gave a pained smile and said, "That's fine. Thanks for coming in Mr. Ross."

I think he enjoyed being called Mr. Ross and the chance to get out of the house almost as much as he would've enjoyed getting the job.

Michael Powers

I thought the studio chose the perfect replacement for Joe E. Ross for the 1994 movie version of "Car 54" in rock singer David Johansen. (That whole movie was a product placement for Nathan's Hot Dogs if I remember correctly and I watched it on a DVD with someone who went straight out the next day for a Nathan's hot dog! To make matters even worse, during the catchy song "In the Shadow of the BQE," we happened to be actually sitting about a tenth of a mile from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway at that moment.) Eerily, Johansen resembles or at least evokes Ross in some peculiar way without analytically looking like him in any particular feature. Another example of exquisitely perfect casting for a similar such movie was the choice of the late Jim Varney, a criminally underrated actor, as Jed Clampett in the otherwise unfortunate widescreen rendition of "The Beverly Hillbillies" the previous year.

The business in the previous post about Ross being illiterate is absolutely fascinating. Someone at that audition should have simply told him to stop saying "Ooh! Ooh!" instead of mysteriously dancing around it. He must have known he was doing it since he'd been watching himself on film for decades but evidently no one had done him the favor of pointing out that it was a stumbling block in some contexts. Gangster actor/dancer George Raft, a living icon during his peak of popularity, is also widely believed to have been more or less illiterate while being one of the most successful actors of the 1930s. I have a mental block against memorizing the multiplication table, which is irritating enough, but how Raft managed to stay near the top of the movie business as long as he did with people reading his scripts to him is an intriguing question. I guess the illiteracy at least partly explains why Ross had trouble learning scripts, especially given the legendarily mad pace of playing the lead in a television series.

Jonathan Caws-Elwitt

I recall Gosfield showing up as the focal point of a fairly extended sequence in a Zippy the Pinhead story.

Jordan R. Young

Great article. I can't recall ever seeing such scholarship (footnotes, sources, etc.) on the Internet, but I for one appreciate it.

Donna Lethal

"I saw Mr. Ross hold the pencil like a knife in a stabbing motion", - perfect casting for a cop.

Fabulous article. I can hear that voice now.


I'd rather read about Joe E. Ross than Brad Pitt or George Clooney. Anyone can say anything they want -- and should if it's true -- but there should also be some compliments about the end product. It worked. Car 54 was a classic and Ross was damn funny on it. All that ooh oohing worked and is still funny. I'd like to see It's About Time again too.


Recently caught Joe E.'s film debut as a zany nightclub comic in the great 1950 lynch mob noir Try and Get Me!

Brilliant scene, as Joe does a series of audience participation gags with a blotto, conscience-stricken kidnapper/murder accessory played by Frank Lovejoy. Gives a fair impression of what his act might have been like.

Jim Moore

Joe E. Ross may have been a crude, slovenly individual in his personal life, but as another poster mentioned, he was damned funny on Car 54, and in my opinion, just as funny (if not funnier) on It's About Time. He didn't have to do anything but scrunch up his face and say ooh! ooh! to make me laugh. When I want a good belly laugh, all I have to do is pop one of my It's About Time DVDs in, and as soon as I see Joe E's craggy face, I'm there. RIP Mr. Ross..

Maureen Fay

Car 54 was so funny! I remember it as a kid. Sad to read that Joe E. Ross was such a loser. My image of him has been shattered.


Ross may truly have been the boorish, vulgarian as he has been described, but I forgive him forever for the laughs he has brought me...Hiken's laugh track method makes his shows Bilko and Car 54 that much funnier...Ross was a handful, but well worth it to those who will view this show forever more

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