The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Bernie Kopell

Some TV series are so profoundly unique that they make a permanent impression no matter how little of them you’ve seen. Such is the case for me and “Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp,” an early ’70s spy spoof which featured live monkeys playing the parts of the secret agents and their nemeses. It’s an utterly ridiculous show, one which may not cause your kids to blink an eye (sadly, they won’t care that it’s real chimps rather than CGI or animatronic creatures, they just know that it could’ve been accomplished that way, so they won’t care), but if you grew up in the ’70s and remember seeing the show, then you’ll be thrilled to learn that it’s finally getting a proper DVD release. Better yet, there’s a charitable element involved in picking up a copy…but rather than tell you about it myself, I’ll let one of the gentlemen who gave voice to some of the monkeys do the job, since TV legend Bernie Kopell – you’ll know his face from “The Love Boat” and “Get Smart,” among other shows – was kind enough to do a bit of press for the series.

Bullz-Eye: So who would’ve thought that you’d be doing press for “Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp” in 2012?

Bernie Kopell: [Laughs.] You never know. Lancelot Link…this is one of those things that happens where it starts with James Bond, then they go to “The Man with UNCLE,“ then the satire of “Get Smart,” where I was very happily playing nasty, contemptuous  Siegfried. And then the writers – Mike Marmer and Stan Burns – and I were sitting around, saying, “Well, what are we going to do now?” And Mike said, “Let’s do it with monkeys!” And they got these brilliant…choreographers, I would call them, to get the chimpanzees to behave as if they were human. And also to move their mouths. Some preferred peanut butter to go up and down with the jaw, some preferred gum, some liked a little piece of banana. And they didn’t mind the costumes. They liked the attention. And so we got them to move their mouths up and down and be the good guys and the bad guys. So it was more fun that you can even imagine.

BE: When it came time to do the voice of Baron von Butcher, did they specifically say, “Can you kind of put a spin on Siegfried?”

BK: Oh, absolutely.

BE: When the cast recorded the voices for the show, did you do them independently or together?

BK: We did it together. First they had the chimpanzees do their choreography and mouth movements and get that from various angles, and then Joan Gerber, Dayton Allen, who worked with Steve Allen years ago, and myself did all the voices. So you have good chimpanzees and bad chimpanzees, and the biggest problem was just not laughing our silly faces off. [Laughs.] Because it was just so much fun to do!

You know, what I’m excited about in particular is that there is a woman by the name of Martine Collette, and she runs Wildlife Waystation, and believe it or not, the chimpanzee that played Lancelot Link is still alive and enjoying his later life, or his retired years, in this facility that she has made for animals. For example, say someone has said, “Hey, here’s a great idea: let’s get a miniature bear!” And just for the safe side, without thinking, they cruelly pull out the bear’s teeth and claws so that the bear doesn’t destroy anything or hurt anybody. Then they realize that they made a mistake and it’s way too much trouble, and they give the bear up. This happens with all kinds of animals. And Martine being the saintly person that she is, she accepts these animals, and her organization, Wildlife Waystation, gets no support from anybody. It’s all volunteers and donations. And here’s the good news: 10% of the profits of “Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp”  – which is now out on DVD, re-mastered, through Film Chest – go to Martine Collette and her terrific work with the animals that nobody cares about anymore. I’m very excited about that. I’ve known her for…oh, years and years and years. She’s been doing this for 36 years, and she’s just an amazing human being. She’s the Mother Teresa of animals.

BE: I wanted to ask you about a few other things you’ve done in your career. Of course, you just mentioned Siegfried. How did you find your way into the cast of “Get Smart”?

BK: Well, there’s a marvelous man, and I spoke at his memorial, but Leonard Stern came to see me at a little play I was doing, exercising my abilities with accents by playing a Russian immigrant who was going through Buffalo in a freezing winter selling the misnamed Fruit Fluters. It’s a thing that you sort of screw into a potato, and it comes out in rhythm. It was just a very lovely, heartwarming story, particularly exciting for immigrants. So many people have come to our country from other countries, or are sons or daughters of people who’ve done that. Leonard Stern was part of the triumvirate of talented associates that also included David Susskind and Dan Melnick, and he comes back, a very distinguished looking fellow, and he smiles and says, “We’re gonna work together.” And I thought this was just some Hollywood B.S., which you hear a lot of when you come out here. [Laughs.] But son of a gun, don’t you know it, within three years he had created my Siegfried character. I may have been 24 at the time, but I had more fun than anything just coming in and getting made up with a Heidelberg dueling scar and a mustache covering my youthful puss, and…it was just great fun.

Don Adams – “Missed it by that much!” – was as welcoming as you would hope a star of a show to be. And Barbara Feldon…I still see Barbara. I was doing a play in New York about a year and a half ago, and Barbara and I go out and we reminisce. She’s a brilliant, brilliant woman. She played Agent 99, and she invested well, and…she’s totally unique among actresses. I said, “Wouldn’t you like to do another series?” And she said, “Oh, no, you’d have to sit around so much.” I said, “Yeah, but, sweetheart, you’re getting paid!” [Laughs.] And she said, “Oh, I know you’re getting paid. But I like New York, I like to do my poems, I like to have little miniature concerts in my home…” She’s a completely independent human being…which you will not find at all among actresses out here. Because if you say, “Would you like,” before you can even finish getting the words out, they’re saying, “Yes! Yes, I’ll do it!” [Laughs.]

It was heaven, though. And at the same time, I was doing the Marlo Thomas show (“That Girl”). Sometimes I’d do both of them in the same week. It was my schizophrenic period. [Laughs.] But “Get Smart” remains in my mind as being just a happy, happy, happy experience. And Mel Brooks. Can you imagine working with Mel Brooks? He’d just come back from Italy with his wife, and I just asked him, “Mel, what was the greatest architectural achievement you saw in Italy?” And without missing a beat, he said, “Carlo Ponti’s elevator shoes that permit him to kiss Sophia Loren on the lips.” [Laughs.] And Mel Brooks, in his mid-80s, is having the greatest success of his life, with “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein.” The guy just has no quit in him. No quit. Sadly, Mel and Carl Reiner, who did “The 2,000 Year Old Man,” have both lost their wives, and they get together every night and have a meal, and they look at television, and…they probably fall asleep while they’re watching television. [Laughs.]

BE: I was able to talk to Mel when he did the HBO special with Dick Cavett, and it was just so amazing how he was so full of boundless enthusiasm the entire time we talked. I was just thinking, “I can’t believe this guy is in his 80s!”

BK: He’s full of beans, that one. [Laughs.] You know, now I’m lucky enough to have two wonderful kids – I’m going to be 79 on June 21st, but I’ve got a 14-year-old kid and a nine-year-old kid – but at the time I was doing “Get Smart,” I had no children, and Mel was just asking everybody, “Ya got any kids?” I said, “No, sadly, I don’t.” He said, “Read the manual! Read the manual!” [Laughs.] So I read the manual. And now I’ve got two kids. It really worked to read that manual…

BE: Just as a sidebar, a friend of mine actually has a daughter who’s in the theater program with your oldest.

BK: Oh, really? Right here in California…?

BE: Yeah, they’re doing…I think it’s “Guys and Dolls”?

BK: [Astonished.] Exactly! Wow, all the way across the country and you know about that! Yeah, it’s “Guys and Dolls,” and…I think they begin on Thursday, and they’re learning how to talk like tough gamblers. Which is kind of a chore for a 14-year-old kid. [Laughs.] Imitating Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson and all of that. But it’s fun, and, you know, if they make a career out of it, fine, if not, they still get out in front of people and lose their terror, which I remember having in spades when I first started. I got onstage, and I said, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to breathe, let alone speak!” And eventually, if you keep at it, the terror diminishes, you get out there, and you do your thing.

BE: Looking through your IMDb listing, I was curious what you recall from working on “The Jack Benny Show.”

BK: Oh, Jack Benny was just…so many stars have an ego, and they have a feeling of “I get the attention around here, not you.” Jack Benny had no star ego, and he had the wisdom to know that whoever gets the laugh, they’re on your show, and it benefits the show. It makes the show better. And in the case of comedy, it makes it funnier. So he was just so sweet to me. I was very nervous. I’d gone over my part thousands of times, and at one point he said, “How come you know your part so well, you son of a bitch?” [Laughs.] So I said, “Well, Mr. Benny, I didn’t want to mess up working with you.” And he just waved that away, as though that was an unnecessary compliment, and he gave me this piece of advice: “Don’t talk ‘til they finish laughing.”

BE: Well, I know you’ve got to go, but I just wanted to ask a quick “Love Boat” question. Who were some of your favorite guest stars that you worked with?

BK: Oh, my goodness. Well, right off the bat, I think of Juliet Prowse, with the most gorgeous legs and body that anybody ever dreamt of. We had scenes in bed together. [Laughs.] And I know that she had gone with Sinatra, and I was thinking, “I…I just don’t know if I’ll be able to speak…I hope my hairpiece doesn’t fall off…I’m just so nervous.” So just before this scene, maybe to loosen me up, she said, “You know, Charles Boyer had a scene like this, with a lovely leading lady in bed, and just before the scene, he said, ‘You know, sweetheart, if possibly I get – how do you say – aroused during the scene, forgive me, please.’ And then he said, ‘If possibly I don’t get aroused, forgive me please.” [Laughs.] So a little sense of humor lightened the moment and we went through with the scene, and I lived through it, and I still have a great internalized crush on Juliet Prowse. Who we lost a few years ago to pancreatic cancer. Damn, damn, damn. That’s just…one of these things that we have to pray that we or the people we love don’t get. But we celebrate her life, and we go on.

Plus, let’s not forget that Lancelot Link is still alive! [Laughs.] He’s still alive, and he’s thriving in the Wildlife Waystation. So get that series. It benefits Martine Collette’s endeavor, and it’s just very, very fun. Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp. Your kids will laugh themselves silly, and you will, too. There, I think I got my message across, didn’t I? [Laughs.]