Bernie Kopell: Siegfried confesses ‘I’ve been very lucky’

Don Adams as Maxwell Smart and Bernie Kopell as KAOS agent Siegfried in the hit TV series Get Smart.

Bernie Kopell – the malleable character actor who brought KAOS villain Siegfried to life, then mended hurts of the heart with sage advice as the doctor on The Love Boat – has enjoyed a career on film and the stage for over sixty years. But this run might never have happened, were it not for a Hollywood invite from a misguided college friend, and a chance audition which placed him in the path of two immortal television writers. Kopell will be in Baltimore this weekend (September 15-17) to sign autographs and greet fans at the 2016 Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention. The convention takes place at the Hunt Valley Wyndham Hotel in Hunt Valley, Maryland. We spoke with Kopell from his California home and found both the actor – and the shoe-phone reception – to be in great shape.

BPE: Thank you for speaking with us today. I would have phoned you earlier but we’ve been having some trouble here with the Cone of Silence.

BK: (Laughter)

BPE: Looking at some of the recent tennis pictures on your bio, I see you’re, what: 61 or 62 years old?

BK: I’m 83 years old. That’s the hazard of remaining alive.

Fit as a fiddle ~ Bernie Kopell.
Fit as a fiddle ~ Bernie Kopell.

I’ve got to start by saying I’m looking forward to coming to Baltimore, because I went to boot camp in Bainbridge, Maryland. I thought I was going to get drafted into the Army, but a big, Black sergeant had two stamps in hand. He kept stamping guys, Army, Army, Army, but way late in the process, he picked up the other stamp and said, “Kopell – you’re in the Navy.” It came as a shock, but a very pleasant one, because I got to sail all around the world. Holy mackerel!

A real piece of luck for me was that I was a yeoman striker, which had to do with paper and things. One day, a lieutenant said, “Whose up for the library?” There was dead silence. It was incredible. It was like the other guys were afraid of books. Finally, he repeated the question and I said, “I’m up for it!” and so I got to be a librarian at the Naval Operations Base and at the Naval Air Station. I got to read more books than I’d gotten to read at NYU, so it was just a glorious thing for me.

BPE: Along with your land-based assignments, you were also a ship’s librarian?

BK: Yes, aboard my beautiful ship, which is now a permanent museum in San Pedro: The USS Iowa. THE IOWA. Aboard the Iowa, they still have the bathtub which was installed for President Roosevelt. He wanted to travel to Yalta to meet Churchill and Stalin. Because of his infirmity, they installed a bathtub for him, and you can still see it today.

If you’re a history buff, you know the ship was tremendously instrumental in bringing the war to an end. Every projectile is fired from a sixteen-inch gun. The shells are as heavy as a Volkswagon. They’d anchor off the coast of Japanese-held islands and just bomb the hell out of enemy emplacements. Of course, I was in during peacetime. I went in in ‘55 and was stationed aboard the ship in 1956, so I got to see all of these marvelous places from the deck of the Iowa.

BPE: Your talk of being on the Iowa during peacetime reminds me of the Bob Newhart routine, where he talks about being stationed on a submarine called the USS Codfish during the mid 1950’s – hence all of the ships they sank on their mission stand for a record of peacetime tonnage destroyed.

BK: (Laughing) Oh, ho… I’ve never heard that routine. Newhart is just a surprise genius. He didn’t start out to be comedian. I believe he was an accountant. I’ve worked with him a couple of times, and he’s a delightful guy. None of that star baloney about him.

BPE: So you were here in Maryland, then sailed around the world with the Navy. How does one go from the Iowa to Hollywood? I mean, it’s not like there’s a Schwab’s Pharmacy on a battleship.

James Drury as The Virginian. (Wikimedia)
James Drury as The Virginian. (Wikimedia)

BK: It was not a direct shot. I had gone to NYU, where I had a very formal Shakespeare/Shaw/classical kind of training. Jim Drury – the kid who was The Virginian – we were students together. All of the students – boys and girls included – took one look at Jim and said, “Hollywood!” He only stayed at NYU for about a season or so. He went to Hollywood and got work immediately, because of his looks, his voice, his talent – all of that. I came out of the Navy, and I didn’t know what in the hell I was selling. It was unlikely I would be cast in Shakespeare or any of the classics. My first six months out were an absolute wash. Then Jim called me and said, “Bernie, you’ve got to come out to California. I have an agent for you!”

I thought, Oh my God – an agent. That’s a powerful thing. So I zoomed out to California, and I go to see his agent. The agent gives me a very unpleasant look, and says, ‘Did Jim tell you I was going to be your agent? How can I be your agent? You’re not handsome enough to be a leading man, you’re not ugly enough to be a heavy. How can I sell you? Do you even know what you are selling? I said, “No, no…” and he said, “Jim had no right to send you here.”

It was so depressing. I guess Jim was doing one of those wishful thinking things. So I drove a taxi for a while. It was kind of grim. I even tried to sell Kirby vacuum cleaners. That didn’t work out too well.

The one thing I’d say to any would-be actor or actress is you only find out what you’re selling once you get out of school. School is wonderful. You get your techniques, etc. But you don’t know what you’re selling til you graduate. Then you find out.

There was this one extraordinary day where it finally happened for me.

Bernie Kopell modeled his early Latino characters after Bill Dana.
Bill Dana (L) with Danny Thomas. (Wikimedia)

I had this agent who was slow and by slow I mean, he would send me up for parts that had already been cast. But one day, he sent me up to CBS Television City. I met this nice lady, and I remember this was a life changing experience. Her name was Marilyn Budgen. She said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. The part you’re here for has already been cast.” I was almost expecting that, because as I said, the agent was such a dud. So, I’m on my way out and she stops me and says, “As long as you’re here, would you like to read for Pablo?”

I start thinking to myself, “This is some kind of a diabolical joke. Me – a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn reading for the part of Pablo.” But I got so annoyed at the whole situation that I said, “Yes, I’ll read for the part of Pablo.”

Jack Paar had a Latin piano player on his show and Bill Dana was doing his José Jiménez character, so I thought I’d do something like that, though I didn’t know if I even could.

I go in there and I nail it. I nail it! I get cast in something called The Brighter Day; a daytime soap. So now, I’m established as a Latino guy.

BPE: I saw the Latino parts in your bio and wondered how in the world that could have happened.

BK: That’s it. So my first five years, on the Danny Kaye Show, on the Jack Benny Show, later, on Doris Day’s show and on My Favorite Martian; a Latino, a Latino, a Latino. Of course now, because of the changing times, you can’t do that anymore. But actors do whatever is available to them. So that was a great beginning. Eventually, I branched out to do other accents, with Steve Allen. By the way, I loved working with Steve Allen. He was truly a Renaissance man. I did 30 shows with Steve. Sometimes he would laugh in the middle of his own sketch. Afterward, I would say, “Steve, that was not particularly funny.” He said, “You should hear the show going on inside my head.”

Steve Allen press photo from 1977.
Steve Allen in a press photo from 1977.

Steve was just marvelous. When he wasn’t on stage, being comedically ingenious, he’d be talking into a hand held recorder and writing books. Then he’d send the tape to a transcriber. Steve would play the xylophone; he’d play the piano. When I came in for my first audition, they had me work with two Marines – Mike Marmer and Stan Burns.

Mike was the construction man, and Stan would walk around and sorta spritz dialogue; some usable, some not. In my audition with these guys, I had this schtick of a sissy Latino airline pilot. I had also once worked with Maury Schwartz, the great Yiddish tragedian, so I made up something based on him. Before I was even finished, they were writing for me. When I got to do Siegfried on Get Smart, these two brilliant writers created my first lines. On Get Smart, I had no contract at any time, but on the basis of that first show, which these two guys wrote, I kept doing that character for five years.

BPE: Since you brought up the transition from doing Latinos to the German, Siegfried, let me ask: Did you always play around with voice characterizations or was this something you developed over the years?

BK: This is what I’m stressing to young actors about marketability once you get out of school. I had no idea I could do these things. A German accent is so accessible. People will always do that because its considered fair game. An Austrian accent, which is slightly different, is also fair game. Most everyone who has done these, however, has learned from someone who is British, so Siegfried was a German with just a touch of that upper crust English accent. That’s opposed to what Sid Caesar was doing, which was basically a lower class German guy. But that is the role people are passionate about. We did the last episode of Get Smart in 1970, but when I go to New Zealand or Australia, they want Siegfried. It’s amazing; it’s still funny.

BPE: It’s an iconic role.

BK: Yes it was. Now, Love Boat was a paid vacation. We got to be in 98 countries.

BPE: Getting back to Get Smart, let me ask if you have any special memories of working on the show.

BK: Well, let me go back first to when I worked with Danny Kaye.

Danny Kaye
“When Danny Kaye was on stage, it had to be all about him.”

In our Brooklyn home, Danny Kaye was god with a small “g”. When my parents were on their honeymoon in the Catskills in 1932, they stayed at a Borsht-Belt hotel called the White Row Lake Inn. Danny was what was known as a tummler. Hotel owners would hire these guys at no pay – just room and board – and it was his job to keep the hotel guests happy and entertained. He would clown around and do anything to make people laugh. My parents remembered this skinny kid. Then he lands on Broadway and “stole” a show from Gertrude Lawrence, which catapults him to Hollywood and films like The Kid From Brooklyn, Hans Christian Anderson, The Court Jester, and White Christmas with Bing Crosby. My parents were just out of their mind about the success of this young kid they had seen on their honeymoon. In fact, when I was a kid, I used to pantomime his records. So, when I got to work with him in 1963, I had a combination of awe and intimidation. He turned out to be not such a pleasant guy.

I got a big laugh in the very first sketch that we did, and as soon as that happened, I felt these nails digging into my forearm. I turned and Danny had a look on his face which said, “You set me up; I get the laughs.” It was shocking to see this and as I said, not a comfortable experience. After that, I was always trepidatious about the star of a show. I know this is a long way to get to your question, but when I was cast for the role on Get Smart, I wondered, “How will Don Adams act toward me?” “Will he be responsive, etc.?”

Don was an absolute prince to me.

I was always concerned. Was I being too pushy as Siegfried? Should I go a little easier? So I brought it up to him and he said, “NO. You’re setting me up.” That was wonderful of him and it made me comfortable. I loved Don. He was also a Marine. The bullets didn’t kill him, but the cigarettes did. We socialized til the very end, but it was the cigarettes that killed him. I’m still great friends with Barbara (Feldon). Just a brilliant woman. I see her all the time, and I delight in her company.

BPE: While Get Smart was running, you also had recurring roles on The Doris Day Show, That Girl, and Bewitched. When did you have time to sleep?

BK: I slept while I was acting. I just closed my eyes for a moment and that’s all I needed. No, seriously, there was plenty of time to sleep. Now, about Doris Day.

Doris Day in 1957
Doris Day in a publicity photo circa 1957. (Wikimedia)

About ten years ago, Doris lost her only child – her son, Terry Melcher. I hadn’t spoken with Doris in a number of years. The last thing I’d done with her was  play her old uncle, character man that I am. The scenes were very sentimental; very loving. So, my phone rings and I pick it up, and a feminine voice says, “Uncle August?” I thought, “Oh my god, it’s Doris Day”. We talked for over an hour, and we speak every few months, now. She’s a wonderful, wonderful lady, and she really loves dogs. On her set, there may have been 15 dogs, but they knew not to bark when the camera was rolling.

Actresses, in particular, were just awed by Doris’s aura. No one in the world has ever accomplished what she has accomplished. She was, and is, a star singer, then she makes the transition to being a major star in Hollywood films and television. She acted with Clark Gable, Jimmy Cagney, Jimmy Stewart, Rock Hudson, Frank Sinatra. All of these major, major people. In one of our conversations, I asked her, “How did you do this? Did you go to acting school?” and she said, “Oh, no. It was just fun.” She just had this innate talent, and it came out of her because it was there.

BPE: How did you end up on the Love Boat? I mean, the TV show, not the Iowa.

BK: There was begging, pleading, and endless supplications. No, seriously. Aaron Spelling made three pilots, which only he could do, based on his phenomenal record with Vegas, The Mod Squad, and on and on. In the first pilot, Dick Van Patten played the part of the ship’s doctor, but he was under contract to ABC, so they pulled him out and made him the father in Eight Is Enough. Amazing! But I still had to test with my friend Ted Lange, who played the bartender. Think of it – one bartender on ship with a thousand people. The guy was busy.

BPE: Think of the tips, though.

BK: Think of the careless drinking! Anyway, there was a fortuitous coming together. I was seeing this doctor, because I was thinking too much and had no sports, and basically he said, “Get off of your ass and move.” He got me into jogging and skipping rope. The result of that was I got into pretty decent shape, and I’ve stayed that way. So I was ready for the requirements of playing the doctor, and when I tested, I nailed it. But how did I ultimately get cast?

Bernie Kopell and the rest of the cast of The Love Boat.
The cast of The Love Boat.

There is something in the business that we call pillow talk. Aaron Spelling’s wife Candy liked my test. She thought I’d be good in that role. It was just one of those lucky things. It doesn’t always happen that way, but in this case, it did, and it was fortuitous because it really changed my whole lifestyle. The show went on for ten years and I made a steady living. There were three subsequent two hour specials, so the show in effect lasted for thirteen years. Thirteen years of this privileged life.

BPE: Do people still ask you for medical advice?

BK: Yes, they do. One fellow came up to me and said, “Mr. Kopell, I have a murmur.” I said, “TALK LOUDER!” So, I helped him immeasurably. The bottom line is, in thirteen years on the Love Boat, I never lost a patient.

BPE: Even if you had, Gavin MacLeod doesn’t strike us as the kind of captain who would make someone walk the plank.

BK: No, he’s not. I first ran into Gavin when I did an episode of McHale’s Navy. He’d just done Operation Petticoat with Cary Grant, and his assumption was McHale’s Navy was really gonna be great for him. He was incorrect in that. He was overweight, and the show went to Tim Conway. He was so humiliated, he just opened up to me and said, “Bernie, they’re using me (in exterior scenes) with all my extra weight to block out the black tower where all the Universal Studio offices are.” He was so depressed, and then he got lucky. He got the Mary Tyler Moore Show, which was very prestigious. And then in the third pilot of Love Boat, he was cast as Captain Stubing. It was a great part for him. We were the old farts on the set, and we’d get together for our 7:15am call and say, “Look! Free coffee! We got a job!! YIPPEE!!!” They say in this business that happiness is tomorrow’s call sheet with your name on it.

BPE: I was going to ask you a two-fold question. You may have already answered it in part with your comments about Danny Kaye, but I wonder who stands out in your mind as either the best or worst co-star you’ve had to work with?

BK: I am so awed by the people I’ve met and got to sit down to meals with. Academy Award winners, you name it. Ray Milland. Greer Garson. The one I was just nuts about was Eva Marie Saint.

Eva Marie Saint
Eva Marie Saint in a screenshot from North by Northwest.

We were in Greece, filming the Love Boat, and during a break I was studying the script for a play I was about to do back in the US. I’m sitting on a rock, going over my lines, and I hear this voice say, “Bernie, what are you doing?” It was Eva Marie Saint. I said, “Well, I’m studying for this play…” and she asked, “Would you like me to cue you?” I said, “I can’t ask you to do that” but she replied, “I do it for all of my friends.” And she cued me. The spirit of generosity and sweetness.

Shirley Jones – another sweetheart – was sitting with me running lines for a scene we were doing at a café in Greece. We were surrounded by about 50 Greek extras. Overhead, they had squid drying on a line. Shirley started laughing and couldn’t stop. When I asked her why, she replied, “Just look around us. We are here in Greece, in a beautiful café, surrounded by all of these wonderful people, and we’re being paid.” She started crying, she was laughing so hard, and her mascara began to smear. I found myself yelling, “Make-up, make-up”. We really had a marvelous time. Some people just have a sweetness. That’s Shirley Jones.

BPE: Does anyone else come to mind?

BK: Well, as I said about Danny Kaye, when he was on stage, it had to be all about him. Conversely, Jack Benny – who I absolutely adored – had none of the star BS about him. Jack had the wisdom to know that whoever gets the laugh on The Jack Benny Show makes the whole show better.

Whoever gets the laugh.

Bernie Kopell on The Jack Benny Show.
Bernie Kopell (C) as a luckless marksman on The Jack Benny Show.

I did this talent show sketch with him that was very, very funny. In the act, I play a marksman whose brother is supposedly the fastest man in the world. The brother stands in front of a target and moves every time I shoot at him. With each succeeding shot, Jack puts his three fingers to his cheek and says, “Amazing”, and then, “Incredible” – right down to last shot where I accidentally kill my brother. With that shot, Jack walks over to the body, looks down, then looks into the camera and says, “Well, I guess they just weren’t ready for the big time.”

Afterward, he asked me how I did the part so well, and I told him, I just didn’t want to mess up while working with him. He just waved the compliment off, he was that kind of a man. And he surrounded himself with great talent. Eddie Anderson, who played Rochester, Dennis Day, Don Wilson. All talented guys. And he was the straight man for all of these people. It was a different kind of generosity. God forbid anybody should get a laugh but Danny Kaye.

BPE: It’s interesting that you use the term straight man for Jack Benny. Groucho Marx once said, and I agree, that the best straight man of all was Bud Abbott…

BK: Absolutely.

BPE: But Jack Benny played the straight man beautifully in an entirely different way.

BK: Well, all great comedians are unique in their own way. Danny Kaye was unique in a virtuoso kind of way. Now, doing Bewitched, the producer Bill Asher had the same approach that Frank, oh, what’s his name, the guy that did Jimmy Stewart…

The late Frank Gorshin drew praise for his portrayal of comedian George Burns.
The late Frank Gorshin drew praise for his portrayal of comedian George Burns.

BPE: Frank Gorshin?

BK: No, the Jimmy Stewart film.

BPE: Oh, Frank Capra.

BK: Yes, Capra, thank you. Although, I did work with Frank Gorshin. A very humble man and another brilliant actor. The last part he played was George Burns on Broadway. He got beaucoup reviews; just a very humble guy.

BPE: Gorshin played Burns at the Hippodrome Theatre here in Baltimore shortly before he died.

BK: He smoked! How much research do they need to do to convince people not to smoke?

Which reminds me of Sammy Davis, Jr.

I’d done some work with Sinatra and Sammy Davis, and one day Barbara Sinatra called me and said, “We’d like to use your hotel in Palm Springs for a telethon”. Of course, it wasn’t my hotel. I was the front man for the advertising. But Barbara had asked me on the recommend of Lloyd Bridges, who was otherwise occupied, to help co-emcee the event. So, Frank and Sammy Davis and Bob Hope were the stars. Thank God, Frank Sinatra liked me! I mean, I read Kitty Kelly’s book. But he was wonderful to me.

But while we were rehearsing, Sammy Davis was there and he was smoking, smoking, smoking.

I had a campaign on TV for a product called CigArest. A few months after the telethon, I ran into Sammy, and he said, “Hey Bern, have you got a light?” I said, “Come on…” and he said, “I know, I know how you feel about smoking, but look, man, I smoke every day and every night, and my voice has never sounded better.” Within three months, he was dead from lung cancer. People have got to learn. My motto is, whatever pleasure you get out of smoking, is it worth your life?

Elizabeth Montgomery circa 1959. (Wikimedia)
Elizabeth Montgomery circa 1959. (Wikimedia)

That was my experience with the inordinately talented Sammy Davis, Jr. But I’m leaving out Elizabeth Montgomery.

She was a bit of a seductress, in her own delightful way. She was bewitching, and absolutely delicious. I know we’re going on here, and you’ve probably got enough for a book, but I’m reminded of what Carl Reiner said. “Write what happens to you in life.”

This is a wonderful thing. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been allowed to do what I’ve done these last sixty years. It’s a privilege business.

BPE: Before we close, I did want to ask about your appearance here in Baltimore for the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention this coming weekend. The show runs for three days, Thursday – Saturday. Will you be here for all three days?

BK: Yes, but I am leaving early on Saturday, to get back to California so that I can attend the Emmy Awards the following day. It’s not that I’ve been nominated for anything. I just want to hear the people say, “Holy cow! The son-of-a-gun is still alive! How the hell did that happen!”

BPE: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us today. We’re looking forward to meeting you in person. One last question, if I may, and this would be something of a personal favor. Could you introduce me to Barbara Feldon?

BK: Ha! You’re on your own there, Jack.