Ernie Kovacs

updated 05/04/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/04/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When he was the fractious little boy of a Hungarian-American saloon keeper, his mother embarrassingly dressed him in Lord Fauntleroy suits. "It was,'' he said, "like walking around with a sign that said KICK ME." When he grew up, Ernie Kovacs still attracted attention, but the words on the sign, in the hipster parlance of his time, had changed to DIG ME. He checked in at 6'2" and 200 lbs., with a massive pompadour of brown hair, caterpillar eyebrows, a push-broom moustache and a cigar he could have used to hit fungoes.

Two maxims guided Kovacs's life and career: NOTHING IN MODERATION and ON THE CONTRARY. A compulsive gambler, he once phoned a friend with the challenge: "Gotta deck of cards?...$500 says the first card you cut from the middle is red." That was also the color of his bank balance at the end of most all-night poker sessions. He flew to pre-Castro Cuba to bring back those stogies ($13,000 per year). On TV he spent thousands on special effects lasting 10 seconds. He demanded an impossible amount from himself, and even more from his bosses and his staff, who were equally worn out with laughter and long hours. "Your other life had to be from 2 to 3 in the afternoon," said an NBC production assistant, " 'cause the rest of your life was with him."

Previously a radio funnyman, Ernie started out in TV on a small Philadelphia station, unceremoniously plunked into the morning slot at a salary of $125 a week. Within weeks a loyal audience materialized. They called themselves the EEFMS—the Early Eyeball Fraternal and Marching Society, the first stirrings of a cult that was soon to reach Broadway and Hollywood.

After producing hilarity on a shoestring, he was offered a whole shoe case by national TV. Freshly separated from his wife, dancer Bette Wilcox, Ernie and his two daughters moved to the Big Apple in the early 1950s. In those days, sitcoms were heavy on plot, and quiz shows filled the air with shrieks of greed. Kovacs experimented with silent comedy. Under his direction, the ballet Swan Lake was performed by gorillas in tutus. When a gorgeous bather stepped wetly from her tub, she was followed by a long parade of admirers emerging from the water single file. A perfume model started her pitch and received a custard pie in the face. A Volkswagen salesman leaned on a hood and the car plunged through the showroom floor. The legs of the Mona Lisa dangled below the picture frame, while a dog licked her bare feet—La Gioconda's mysterious smile explained at last.

He gave the gorillas a permanent slot as the Nairobi Trio, three musical simians who conked each other with metronomic precision. Jack Lemmon once capered anonymously under one of the rubber ape masks; so did another fan named Frank Sinatra. Meantime Ernie disappeared into a whole cast of screwballs. He was Percy Dovetonsils, the lisping laureate of prime time; Matzoh Hepplewhite, a drunken magician who performed the world's most fatal sword trick with an unwilling volunteer; Whom Dunnit, a panel show emcee who shot contestants when they offered the wrong answer; Eugene, a surrealist who could sketch a lamp and then switch it on.

Kovacs's favorite partner was Edie Adams, a pretty blond singer who became his second wife in 1954. But he had only one real collaborator: the camera. Working with (and against) it, he walked on ceilings, poured milk horizontally and made actors evaporate in mid-scene.

By the late '50s Kovacs was bicoastal. He starred in a handful of indifferent films and continued his pursuit of the extravagant gesture—including an asphalt turntable in his driveway to spare friends the inconvenience of U-turns. Few of them were aware of how little money remained after the gambling debts were paid. Even fewer knew about the miseries of a bizarre battle for his two daughters. Bette had spirited the girls to Florida. It took Ernie nearly three years, uncountable cash and a series of detectives to track them down. Even that didn't ruin his large capacity for fun. "He was not a brooding comic," remembers Edie. "He'd wake up on a manic high. He'd say, 'This is the greatest breakfast, the best eggs! This is the most terrific coffee I've ever had!' Once he threw a paper bag at me—'Here!'—and rattling around inside was a string of pearls. For our first date, he didn't have a car. So he took his entire life's savings and bought a car. He said, 'Well, I didn't want you to have to take a cab.' He taught me to eat caviar by the spoonful. He was a pleasure and a joy to live with."

By the spring of 1961 Hollywood also had fallen in love with him. Kovacs smiled back, rolled high, lost big and acted as if there were one tomorrow. By the night of Jan. 13, 1962, there was none. He left a Westwood party and started to drive home through the rain. His Chevrolet Corvair skidded on the wet pavement and plowed into a utility pole. He was 42.

Twenty-seven years after his death, he continues to influence performers who were hardly big enough to twist the dials in the '50s. Chevy Chase has acknowledged a debt. Billy Crystal is a fanatic Erniephile. Laugh-In tumbled from his voluminous overcoat, as did many of Monty Python's blackout sketches. David Letterman's defenestrated watermelons and Jell-O swims are Kovacsian. It is fitting that Buster Keaton was his last co-star. But somehow all this fails to compensate for the extinguished wit and spirit. Every season it becomes more clear that Ernie Kovacs was the Chaplin of television, and that if genius is imitable, it is irreplaceable.

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