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REMEMBERING CHUCK McCANN

No one made me laugh harder than Chuck McCann, on two memorable occasions. I was 13 when my friend Bobby London got us into a live broadcast of Chuck’s daily kiddie show, then on WNEW in Manhattan after a long run at WPIX. With no peanut gallery of kids on hand, Chuck played to his crew and kept them chuckling non-stop. Bobby and I remained unobtrusive in the darkened studio and tried to stifle our laughter as Chuck portrayed hawk-nosed Dick Tracy and the largest Little Orphan Annie you ever saw. He was flat-out hilarious, and while we were already fans he won our hearts forever that afternoon.

Then I was allowed to attend my first grown-up Sons of the Desert banquet at the Lambs Club. What a night it was! At the podium, Chuck did one of the most brilliant pantomime routines I’ve ever seen: an impression of the ever-youthful Bob Cummings taking a lunch break in his dressing room and pulling himself apart piece by piece—first the toupee, then the corset, then the teeth, etc. He convulsed the audience and gave me another indelible memory. (Chuck was one of the founders of this Laurel and Hardy group and spent many years imitating Oliver Hardy, to perfection….once on Garry Moore’s morning TV show opposite a young, skinny Dick Van Dyke, and in later years opposite the talented comedy writer-performer Jim MacGeorge.)

Chuck and Jim MacGeorge play Stan & Ollie at the dedication of the Music Box steps in Los Angeles in 1994

I never could have dreamed that twenty years later I would move to Los Angeles and become friendly with Chuck and his wife Betty. He worked in television, feature films (notably as Alan Arkin’s mute brother in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter) and on stage, touring with his old friend Tim Conway. But Chuck never got the recognition he enjoyed for so many years as a children’s show star in New York.

He was a talented performer with a broader range than even some of his fans may have realized. And he could still be devastatingly funny. Following the earthquake of 1994 he performed a pantomime for Alice and me of a gambler in Las Vegas continuing to play poker right through the violent shaking. It was a beautifully conceived “bit” that showed he hadn’t lost one iota of his comedic chops.

Chuck McCann at the podium for a Sons of the Desert banquet in the 1960s

That’s how I’ll always remember Chuck: a big personality who suffered slings and arrows in his long career but always came through when it mattered. Television occasionally gave him good opportunities, even in a long-running series of commercials for Right Guard, but never showcased his talent as it should have. I feel sorry for anyone who didn’t have the good fortune of seeing him perform off the cuff: that was Chuck McCann at his best…and I’ll never forget how hard he made me laugh.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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