Monkeying around with Bernie Kopell
by Keith Valcourt
Quick, name your favorite classic TV show. Is it “Get Smart,” or maybe “That Girl?” Or is it the classic kids program “Lancelot Link Secret Chimp”? Probably it’s “The Love Boat.” What do all these shows have in common? Versatile comic actor Bernie Kopell. The man who played KAOS agent “Siegfried” and The Love Boat’s “Doc” has been on our TV screens for five plus decades.
Rocker’s West Coast Bureau Chief Keith Valcourt caught up with the TV icon at a lovely country club in Tarzana, CA. Over breakfast they discussed his illustrious career, watching porn with Dan Rowan of “Laugh In” and the recently released DVD set of “Lancelot Link Secret Chimp.”
Rocker: How did you break into show business?
Bernie: When I started I just wanted it so badly. I jumped into the pool without seeing if there was water in it! I would meet agents and they would all say the same thing, “What am I gonna do with you? You’re not handsome enough to be a leading man, and you’re not ugly enough to be a heavy. They didn’t know and I didn’t know. I had an agent, who was very slow. He would send me out to audition for parts that had already been cast. He said, “You’re not virtually unknown, you’re totally unknown.” I was depressed.
Then one day I was at CBS Television City for an audition. The casting lady said, “While you’re here why don’t you read for the part of Pablo.” Pablo? I started getting pissed. In the room were several Latino actors named Juan and Jesus. I was frustrated but I said, “Okay I’ll read for Pablo.” I was angry and there was a freedom that came with anger. I went in and I nailed it. I didn’t know until that moment I had an ability to do accents. So for the next 3 months I’m playing Pablo. This was my entrée into the business. That began my first five years as a Latino actor and my thing of accents. Nowadays it’s politically incorrect, and Latinos want to play Latinos and they make noise about it. But back then actors would do anything available to them.
How did you get involved with “Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp?”
The show was a take on “James Bond” and “Man From Uncle.” I got involved because of Leonard Stern my great mentor and pal from Talent Associates. He created “Get Smart.” Before I was on the show he saw me in this marvelous 150-seat arena theater. Some people would call it a theatrical birthplace, others would call it a shit hole. Leonard came backstage, very tall and distinguished, and he said, “We’re gonna work together.” Within a few years he created my Siegfried character for second year of “Get Smart.”
Also, I had worked with the writers Mike Marmer and Stan Burns on “Get Smart,” while doing thirty shows on the “Secret” Steve Allen show for Westinghouse. I call it Secret Steve Allen Show because three people may have seen it. I got very close to these guys. When “Get Smart” ended I was sitting around with Mike and Stan and I said, “What are we gonna do now?” Mike, probably being sarcastic said, “Let’s do it with penguins.” That evolved into Monkeys. I said, “Come on, you’re drinking too much!” Eventually they got chimpanzees. That was back in 1970. A long time ago.
How did they get the monkeys to look like they were speaking?
Some of it was peanut butter, or chewing gum. On some of them it was a little piece of banana.
What were the voice-over sessions like?
We would be watching the footage. It was just like dubbing a film. It took a certain amount of timing.
Lots of improv?
We basically stuck to the lines but had to fit our dialog into the flapping of the chimps’ mouths. There was one scene where my chimpanzee was going on and on and at the end of it he yawned. So I had to fill it. I said, (in Baron voice) “You must understand this is the most important part of your employment with us. You will go and infiltrate the enemy. Make it the most important part of your life. Yawn.” Made it seem like he was bored with his own speech.
Is the Chimp who played “Lancelot Link” still alive?
He is! That’s the kicker! He is residing in his retirement in the Wildlife Waystation in little Tujunga Canyon run by Martine Colette. She is the Mother Theresa of our time. She makes the point that we must share our planet with animals.
The list of how people abuse animals goes on forever. People take wild animals as pets. They say, “Let’s get a miniature bear as a pet.” Then they think, “Well, he could be dangerous so let’s pull out his teeth out and remove his claws.” Then they get bored with the bear, and dump it without the ability to survive. Martine takes these animals in for the rest of their lives with no funding or help from the government. There is a rumor that some people are giving her a lot of heartburn because they want to take and develop her property, so she’s up against it and has been for a long time. A portion of the sales from the DVDS (ten percent) will go towards helping her. She has lions, tigers, bears,… even coyotes. She has that kind of a heart where she can’t turn any animal away. Martine’s story has to come out. There are very few people out there like her.
Who was the inspiration for your character “Baron Von Butcher?”
Siegfried, the character I played on “Get Smart.”
You did “Lancelot Link” after “Get Smart” both characters are bad guys with foreign accents did you worry about typecasting?
Never. Never, because I playing a nice Jewish boy on the Marlo Thomas Show (“That Girl”) at the same time, in the same week. That was my schitzo period.
Because you played “Doc” on “The Love Boat” did people ask for medical advice?
Only Schmucks. (Laughs) I’ve never really understood the license that Doc had. He was allowed to come on to every woman, married or not, he met. Remember the comedian Dick Shawn (who voiced the Snow Miser from Year Without A Santa Claus – ed)? He was on the show and watching a scene that I was doing with Rebecca Holden. Lots of kissing. I came off set and Dick said, “I just found out what “Love Boat” is. It’s a porno flick done by Disney! (Laughs) That reminds me of the time I was playing tennis with Dan Rowan, from Rowan & Martin (hosts of “Laugh In”) years ago at his luxurious court. We went into his house and he said, “Bernie you just sit here a while and watch TV. I got to take a shower.” He turned on the TV and it was a video tape of “Deep Throat.” I said, “What the hell? This is television!”
Was Doc the ultimate ladies man? How many co stars did he..
Zetz? I stopped at a hundred thousand. That was my limit.
When I got the role of Doc I was not in the greatest shape. I’m still not. But I started going to see a counselor. He was a star boxer, star water polo player and skier in Austria before Hitler came along. He trained me to play Doc. He said, “Mr Koppell if you get a skip rope and do three minutes skipping and two minutes resting you’ll be all better.” At one point I could skip rope as well as a boxer. That got me into psychical condition enough to wear the short pants and not be too ashamed. So I could chase the ladies.
Who was your favorite female co-star on “Love Boat?”
My favorite, favorite actress, that I had such a crush on was Juliet Prowse. Legs. Sweetness. Soft lips. We had a scene in bed. “Oh My god!” I’m thinking, “I hope my hairpiece doesn’t fall off, and that I can remember what I have to say!” I was so intimidated and excited at the same time. She had been around the block a few times, and she’d gone with Sinatra. That was part of my intimidation. Plus you had fifty guys around with the lights and the sounds… Juliet said to me, “You know Charles Boyer had a scene like this, and he said to his beautiful leading lady “If perhaps, how you say, I should become aroused during this scene, please forgive me. And if I possibly I don’t get aroused. Forgive me please.” That put me at ease.
Because you played Doc, did women hit on you in real life?
Some women don’t want to make the first move, but because I played Doc it liberated them from that. For whatever reason, the character was very appealing to the ladies. The bedside manner. I was at a party and a woman came up to me, she had had a few glasses of wine, she sails across the room and she said, “Mr. Kopell I just want you to know that every time I masturbate I fantasize about you. Have a good evening.” And she disappeared into the night.
Of all the characters you played what was your favorite?
Siegfried from “Get Smart” was my favorite. My absolute favorite. But “Love Boat” changed my life. I had a balance in life. I paid my dues by selling vacuum cleaners driving a taxi early on in my life. I wasn’t very good at either. The interesting thing about driving the taxi was the stars I picked up. I once picked up Louis Armstrong,… I found the older people in show business were the worst tippers, and when I dropped Armstrong off I said, “I can’t tell you what a pleasure it’s been to have you in my cab.” He reached in his pocket and gave me a fifteen cent tip. Cheap motherfucker!
How does it feel to be a TV icon?
Oh my god! I just wanna keep going. And now I’m especially motivated by my two sons Adam and Joshua.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing my book now. It’s interesting going through my career evolutions. I also just did this play called “Viagra Falls” about two old farts, a hooker and a blue pill. Fucking-A I’m telling ya! We did it in Calgary, Toronto, New York, Orlando and Sarasota Florida. I’m also doing these autograph shows in Australia and in Pennsylvania and in Chicago. It’s fun and it’s cash. Which is not a bad thing at all. The fans are so nice. They come up to me and say, “You haven’t changed at all.” I’m doing whatever I can do. I love what I’m doing. My attitude is gratitude.
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