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.)
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.
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.