1934 - 2007
Frank Gorshin is probably best-known as the actor who played ‘The Riddler’ in the TV series Batman. However, his showbiz career spans many years, and many genres. On stage he was a master-impersonator, with subjects such as Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, and Jack Nicholson. It was said that, so good was he at assuming the identity of his subject, that people could tell who he was impersonating before he uttered even one word.
Frank Gorshin was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on 5th April, 1934. From the start of his working life, he was involved in show business, taking a job as an usher at the Sheridan Square Theatre. It was at this time that he discovered that he had a talent for doing impersonations of some of his favourite film stars. Indeed, such was his talent that, at the age of 17, he took part in and won a local talent contest. His prize was a week-long booking at Jackie Heller’s Carousel night club. Two days before he was due to appear at Jackie Heller’s, Gorshin’s 15-year old brother was knocked down by a car and killed. Gorshin’s father insisted that he continue with the engagement, and it was this that proved to be the springboard for the launch of his showbiz career. Following on from this early success; Gorshin joined a drama school (the Carnegie-Mellon Tech). He also did some stage work.
His calling as an entertainer was even evident during his time in the army, when he served in the Special Services (as an entertainer). Just after leaving the army, in 1955, Maurice Bergman, a friend who had served with him introduced him to a man who was to become Gorshin’s Hollywood agent. Almost immediately, his agent landed him a job in the Paramount film “The Proud and the Profane”. Gorshin must have impressed, as he quickly got roles in several television dramas.
Gorshin was visiting his family in 1957, when he received a phone call from his agent, who told him that he had to return to California to do a screen test for the film “Run Silent, Run Deep”, with Clark Gable. He left Pittsburgh at once, driving virtually non-stop for 39 hours. Unfortunately, he became so exhausted that he fell asleep at the wheel, and as a result was involved in a crash, suffering a fractured skull. He lay unconscious in hospital for 4 days. The part for which he was to do the screen test went to an actor named Don Rickles, whose career was significantly improved as a result. To add insult to injury, Gorshin found that one of the Los Angeles papers had mistakenly reported that he had died in the crash!
However, it did not take Gorshin long to get his career back on track, with a part in “The Bells are Ringing” (with Judy Holliday and Dean Martin). Next came a part as a short-sighted bass player in “Where the Boys Are”, followed by a co-starring part in “Ring of Fire” (with David Janssen).
In 1958, Gorshin ‘returned to his roots’, appearing in a Hollywood night spot (The Purple Onion). This led to 5 appearances on the Steve Allen Show, which in turn produced 12 invitations to guest on the Ed Sullivan Show. On one edition of the Ed Sullivan Show, Gorshin shared the billing with The Beatles. In his dressing room before the show, Gorshin looked out of the window and, on seeing the large number of fans waiting outside the studio, quipped that he was surprised that so many young people had come to see him!
A recurring part as a shore patrol sailor in “Hennessy” (with Jackie Cooper) was next.
Gorshin’s Las Vegas debut was at The Flamingo, where he opened for Bobby Darin.
Then came the offer that was to change his life – the part of The Riddler in the 1960s TV series Batman, for which he was to receive an Emmy nomination. In an interview about the role, Gorshin said, “I could feel the impact overnight.” He had suddenly become a major celebrity, and the man who was well known for his impressions of the stars had become one of the stars being impersonated by youngsters all over the country. He now commanded headliner status at Vegas venues like the MGM Grand, The International, the Aladdin and the Sahara. As well as Vegas, Gorshin’s headline potential even stretched as far as the Empire Room, Waldorf Astoria, in New York (the first impressionist to achieve such acclaim). The success of Batman also brought Gorshin international fame, and his act was now being seen at venues around the world, as well as many television programmes, ranging from variety to drama. One such programme was ABC’s The KopyKats.
Broadway beckoned next, Gorshin starring in “Jimmy”, which was based on the life of James J. Walker, Mayor of New York. He received rave reviews. He also toured with theatre companies, in many shows, such as “Peter Pan” and “Guys and Dolls”. When he appeared in one such show – “What Makes Sammy Run?” – in Los Angeles he gained recognition as an outstanding stage performer in the Burns Mantle Yearbook.
In 1978, he reprised the role of The Riddler in Legends of the Superheroes (NBC). The same year saw him starring in Stories from the Bible (also NBC), in the role of Ocran. In 1979 came two more starring roles, in Death Car on the Freeway (CBS) and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (again playing a villain). He was in the top 10 ‘Best Dressed Men’, as named by the Custom International Bachelor Women’s Society, for both of these years.
Goliath Awaits (NBC) came along the following year, as well as Treasure Island and Princess Ida (both BBC). In that year, Gorshin became Honorary Chairman, Entertainment Division, American Heart Association.
A further Emmy nomination came for his performance in an episode of Star Trek (“Let This Be Your Final Battle”).
More recently, Gorshin had film roles in “12 Monkeys”, “Twilight of the Ice Nymphs” and “Meteor Man”.
His most recent Broadway appearance was playing George Burns in “Say Goodnight Gracie”. The play was nominated for a Tony in 2003 (Best Play). Gorshin himself received a nomination for a Drama Desk Award, and actually won the Outer Critics Circle Award for the part. To take the part of George Burns, Gorshin used no prosthetics, and minimal make-up. When asked about his characterisation of Burns, Gorshin made the following comments: ‘I don’t know how to explain it. It just comes. I wish I could say, “This is step A, B and C”, but I can’t do that. I do it, you know. The ironic thing is I’ve done impressions all my life – I never did George Burns.’
Gorshin’s final performance was in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
He died on 17th May, 2005, aged 72, after losing his fight against lung cancer, emphysema and pneumonia. His wife of 48 years, Christina, was at his bedside at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Centre when he died.
One of Gorshin’s most valued possessions was this review from Hollywood Reporter:
‘Frank Gorshin is so talented; he has to be one of the greatest entertainers today. He is an actor – a fine actor. He is a singer – a fine singer. He is a comic – a splendid comic’.
Perhaps a fitting epitaph.
Questions Site Information Contact
Return to Top of Page